Part II: Roberto Martin
When Roberto Martin began working for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, he was not a vegan chef. He quickly discovered that the flavors that worked in his best non-vegan dishes – the dishes he loved and that were adored by his many celebrity clients — worked in vegan dishes as well. He learned how to make delicious, easy substitutions of animal-based products with plant-based protein to create perfect, familiar and comforting food that also happens to be easy-to-make, healthy and vegan!
In VEGAN COOKING FOR CARNIVORES, Roberto shares over 125 satisfying, meat-free recipes, such as Banana and Oatmeal Pancakes, Whole Wheat Waffles with Maple-Berry Syrup, Chick’n Pot Pie, Mac’N Cheese, Fajita Quesadillas, Avocado Reuben, Red Beans and Rice, Chocolate Cheesecake, Mexican Wedding Cookies and Chocolate Chip Magic Bars. The recipes are easy for the home cook to make with ingredients available at any supermarket. With Roberto’s goal in mind of encouraging Americans to eat at least one vegan meal per week, the cookbook will appeal to both die-hard carnivores and vegans alike.
Roberto Martin attended the Culinary Institute of America, became a private chef, and honed his knowledge of nutrition and health customizing meals to meet the dietary needs of his celebrity clients. Now, Roberto cooks exclusively vegan meals for the DeGeneres household, and appears frequently on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. I’m so excited about what’s going on these days with this explosion in vegan cuisine we’re hearing about the vegan diet all over the place and so many wonderful people are coming on over to the vegan side and for myself doing this for over 25 years it has been so wonderful to see all of this happening. And we only benefit the more people that do it the more availability vegan products are around in stores and restaurants and I find everything just becomes more and more delicious but some people may think that this vegan thing is fad and it’s not a fad, in fact, people who refuse animal products for ethical reasons all animal products, meat and diary, everything, have are referred to pythagoreans. The thing started over 2000 years ago, pythagoreanism, it’s kind of a mouthful but people have been doing it for a really long time. It wasn’t until 1944 that the word vegan was coined I think it’s easier to say and easier to spell and it helps us move into the 20th century with this concept. People have been doing it for a long time. What people have not doing for a long time is eating the quantities of meat and dairy and refined foods we’ve been doing in the last 50 years. So I think in some ways we’re kind of getting back to where we belong and today I’ve got someone to talk to who’s really helping making that happen with some wonderful delicious recipes. I want to welcome Roberto Martin who is the author of a new cookbook Vegan Cooking For Carnivores. He has been working for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia Di Rossi. He was not a vegan chef to begin with, he quickly discovered that the flavors worked in his best non-vegan dishes, the dishes that were loved or adored by many of his celebrity clients, worked in vegan dishes as well. He learned how to make delicious easy substitutions of animal based products with plant based protein to make perfect, familiar and contorting foods that also happens to be easy to make, healthy, and vegan. Roberto Martin attended the Culinary Institute of America, became a private chef, and honed his knowledge of nutrition and health, customizing meals to meet the dietary needs of his celebrity clients. Now he cooks exclusively vegan meals for DeGeneres households and appears frequently on the Ellen DeGeneres show. Welcome to It’s All About Food.
Roberto Martin: Hi, how you doing, you Pythagorean?
Caryn Hartglass: You know we had to come up with a new word because it’s impossible to spell and say.
Roberto Martin: Yeah, it sounds like a mathematical theory.
Caryn Hartglass: but the point is people have been thinking about this and doing this a long time and I was reading that even the lacto-ovo vegetarian concept which is more popular today than the vegan diet, that wasn’t the “norm” thousands of years ago either. People that decided not to eat animal foods didn’t eat any.
Roberto Martin: It makes a lot of sense. Sometimes I get like this, “Hey, can you just do vegetarian instead?” and I’m like man, dairy is one of the worst things. I’d rather somebody like just you know eat fish once in a while than like eat milk and dairy. The way we get it to our table these days too.
Caryn Hartglass: The first thing I want to talk about is what Portia wrote in the foreword, because I’ve been thinking about this concept: “Instead of making vegan food, he made food vegan.” This is really and important distinction. When we think about like these people that say to you can you make it vegetarian not vegan, it’s sort of some sort of perception that vegan isn’t fun, it isn’t delicious and all you need to do is take classic dishes and weed out a few of the bad ingredients, put in some good ones and voila!
Roberto Martin: First just hearing that just makes me smile, such a sweet thing you know to say. But it is my approach and it seems like it works for everyone. People are so, they cling to being carnivores because they have these memories, these childhood and holidays and all these things, and I get that, it’s just you know I appreciate it myself, the food, you know so I get that. But what I want to do is not abandon those flavor combinations and those memories, just sort of reinvent them.
Caryn Hartglass: I think it’s fun actually, whenever i hear about something that somebody misses or something they want to make and they can’t imagine it being vegan, I love taking on that challenge. Oh I can make that, I can do it!
Roberto Martin: That’s the way I feel too. I’ll admit that if this opportunity came to me earlier in my career I would have had the same enthusiasm or the same excitement about it but I’ve been doing it for about 10 years, I’ve been a personal cook for about 10 years and it came at just the right time when I felt like maybe spinning my wheels a little bit and you know when I took this interview I didn’t even necessarily want this job, I don’t have a passion for vegan food but once I accept the challenge I completely reinvented my creativity and my desire, trying everything and I think that that could happen for the average American as well.
Caryn Hartglass: Now is there a reason why they were looking for a chef and not specifically a vegan chef? Ellen and Portia?
Roberto Martin: No the concept hadn’t necessarily clicked for them, but they were open to anyone who could fulfill the position. They had encountered on some interviews like, well this person’s a vegan chef but also a life coach or also a yogi or something like that and they’re like yeah, I just want some food, you know? They’re vegan because they love animals and stuff but they get that on their own, they don’t need, you know, everything else. If they want to do yoga they can have an instructor come not or do it themselves. They just wanted a chef. So that’s what my approach is and I think that that other approach has turned off the average carnivore.
Caryn Hartglass: Eating vegan food as compared to making food vegan.
Roberto Martin: Yeah because what happens is vegans taste something and they like it because they’ve been vegan for a long time and what I see in my mind is, I’m competing, I’m trying to feed a guy who just had Carl’s Jr. yesterday. That’s what I always keep in my mind, like is this food going to be satisfying for him or her if [that’s all that it says for me].
Caryn Hartglass: I was in the south of France for four years and I was a vegan and I ate vegan and what was interesting was, all of the chefs I think, when I would go to a restaurant and tell them what I did eat and what I didn’t eat, were kind of amused and then enjoyed the idea of taking on the challenge. The only problem I ever had was in Paris and Leon but everywhere else they really enjoyed the opportunity to do something different and they often did some lovely, lovely things.
Roberto Martin: Sometimes that’s the case, I think that for the most part, that’s not quite the case yet in restaurants and I think that when you are vegan and, I identify myself as 95% vegan, and anytime I think when you go to a regular restaurant that’s not a particularly vegan restaurant, the odds of you getting some butter or some chicken stock or something in your meal are really high. You need to either just accept that or not eat out. I don’t think that’s fair, I don’t think it’s right but that’ just something you need to sort of put in the back of your mind.
Caryn Hartglass: Any time you eat in a restaurant it’s a leap of faith.
Roberto Martin: Well that’s true, exactly right.
Caryn Hartglass: No matter how many regulations they put in place, you don’t know what’s going on back there.
Roberto Martin: You never really do.
Caryn Hartglass: You grew up with 14 other siblings?
Roberto Martin: Yeah, it’s crazy.
Caryn Hartglass: And every mealtime was like a catered event. That’s incredible, that’s a lot of food.
Roberto Martin: Yeah it’s funny when I went to culinary school, a lot of my colleagues were, they come from this family restaurant background and I don’t but I had similar stories and memories which was really funny because every day we had a service, you know. My mom started cooking at 12 noon with these big pots and my dad being real big disciplinarian, none of the kids were allowed to go over into other people’s homes but we have an open door policy. My brothers and sisters could bring anyone to our house. So for like a good five or six years with my brothers in football and my sisters were cheerleaders, they would just bring all kinds of people over so every night it was always 20, 25 people for dinner. There was this big, loud excitement and it was also kind of like a restaurant. It was silent for awhile, like three to four and then it would get louder and louder and louder and then it would die down again and then there would be a clean up and it was like, not I until worked in a restaurant did I realize: you’ve been doing this for awhile.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely, yeah. You got your culinary training, using all kinds of animal foods and is this like frustrating at all for you? My partner who became vegan six years ago comes from a culinary background and in the beginning he would say that he learned how to do all of these different things that he doesn’t use anymore but now he’s getting kind of clever and thinking about how he can apply them to the gazillion fruits and vegetables that are out there.
Roberto Martin: I don’t know that the best approach would be to not use animal products because it’s so rich in tradition and theory. I think that that’s what made me a better vegan chef was knowing the flavor combinations and the textures and the [desires] that people are looking for.
Caryn Hartglass: You’ve worked with Tal Ronnen and we love Tal Ronnen and he is just a creative genius and a no ego, lovely, lovely person. I’m glad to see that you worked with him. He also has a gorgeous cookbook.
Roberto Martin: Yes, the Conscientious Chef, the Conscious Chef rather and he is one of the coolest, coolest guys too.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah he’s just good and I don’t want to make broad generalizations but when you’re in this business of creating food, that is relatively cruelty free, I think it attracts a certain kind of person and whether you were that kind of person or not to begin with it just opens the door to who you are and your place in the world and makes you a nicer person.
Roberto Martin: I really couldn’t agree more.
Caryn Hartglass: You sound like a nice guy.
Roberto Martin: Thank you. As I compliment myself. Could you imagine some snobby, arrogant, vegan chef? It doesn’t work.
Caryn Hartglass: I don’t know any, we’re all about love.
Roberto Martin: Exactly it just doesn’t work and it’s a really pretty thing, it really is. Something that happened to me, I’ll tell my little story here because it was weird. I started working for Ellen and Portia late in January and the year before I was at a restaurant with my wife and there was foie gras on the menu. And it was like, you know, I don’t think I am going to cook foie gras anymore. It was like I don’t need that, you know, we don’t need that. Then like a month later I felt a different way about veal and I think what it did was it opened up a tiny little door in me and it opened up like a tiny little window that said you’re still a good chef even if you don’t work with these types of meat, you know. It’s okay to make decisions based on your conscience rather than decadence.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s more than okay!
Roberto Martin: Yeah, exactly and then when I took this job, that’s when everything just like the worm turned for me, as they say.
Caryn Hartglass: And your family, are they being this way too?
Roberto Martin: Mostly, mostly. My son definitely.
Caryn Hartglass: He’s adorable and he looks like he’s a great ravioli maker.
Roberto Martin: Yes they are and he’s quick to tell everybody, oh I’m dairy free, you know because he can identify everything else, but he tries to make sure there’s no cheese on his [food or his soup].
Caryn Hartglass: The thing that’s made vegan food or should I say food that can be made vegan so much easier and varied and delicious is that we now have access to a staple of prepared products. That we didn’t have 20, 30 years ago. So you can get your transition meat, I don’t even want to call it transition meat anymore but Gardein is out there which is a brilliant gluten based food that can be used in recipes instead of meat. We have vegan mayonnaise, we have vegan butters. There’s this long list of condiments and things that are now vegan that make everything so much easier and you use a lot of them in your cookbook.
Roberto Martin: I do. Especially since my book is really aimed at people who are trying to go vegan for the first time. I think that what they need is food that looks fairly similar to what they were eating before and thanks to things like Gardein and Field Roast they can make that possible. So it would be almost impossible to make this book without putting Gardein in it because it’s such a killer product and it’s available coast to coast.
Caryn Hartglass: It’s a living product not a killer product.
Roberto Martin: You’re right! Exactly, not a killer product. That’s the other great thing is that I see Gardein at Target and that’s so awesome because I want to make sure that no matter where you live in the country, you have access to products that I suggest in the book.
Caryn Hartglass: I think I’ve got a number of things I want to say here. One thing I like to do is put delicious food in front of people, they don’t have to know it’s vegan, most people know that I’m like this nutty, crazy, passionate vegan anyway so they know that they wouldn’t get anything else from me. But if I’m in this group of strangers or whatever and I prepare something and put it in front of them I don’t want them to know that it’s vegan and they don’t have to know. They just have to know that it’s good and it looks good. I think today people are eating so many prepared foods or ready to eat foods even in restaurants and certainly in fast food where the food isn’t even food. It’s so highly processed and so highly manufactured and denatured and then other synthetic things are kind of added to it that when you give them something that’s made from whole fresh minimally processed foods, they can’t help but taste the difference. It’s crazy good.
Roberto Martin: Yeah I think that’s when nature takes over on us. If it looks like food we’re supposed to eat it tends to be more attractive. What you said is exactly how I approach it, it’s just making good food regardless of whether it’s vegan or not it’s just making good food and people react positively to it and if they inquire more and find out it is vegan, then they’re like, oh my God this is great. I had vegan food before I didn’t like it, this I like. Then it opens that little door for them the next time that they have the option they might, yeah, I’ll try that. It just sort of puts the right foot forward.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you have any cookbooks that were inspirations to you either vegan or not vegan?
Roberto Martin: Well I didn’t want to like if you’re writing a script, start watching particular movies, because you know you’re just going to end up copying them and that was my fear like I don’t want to… But I do have one of my teachers, one of my guys that I love.
Caryn Hartglass: Who is that?
Roberto Martin: Nobu. Speaking of that, I’ve done some fabulous sashimi meals, well you can’t really call them sashimi meals, vegan sashimi meals I guess for Ellen and Portia with sliced avocado and marinated tofu and all these wonderful things with the colors and the flavors and the appearance that you get from sushi but that’s just a side note. I love Anthony Bordain and I love [Paul Rodin’s] book. Well the China Study, anytime I needed some sort of fact or some sort of…
Caryn Hartglass: That’s loaded with information.
Roberto Martin: And Jonathan Safran Foer’s book.
Caryn Hartglass: Love that book. Eating Animals, yeah I recommend that book to so many people just because it’s so genuine and he goes back and forth with his own personal struggle with deciding to not eat animals and people need to read that and maybe they’ll come to the same conclusion he did or maybe they won’t but I just appreciated how real it was.
Roberto Martin: The guy is like super smart.
Caryn Hartglass: Super smart, yeah.
Roberto Martin: And he writes this book that is just so wonderfully approachable. He takes you on his own little journey with him throughout that book.
Caryn Hartglass: For me, one of the cookbooks that inspired me, and this was like centuries ago, was the Joy of Cooking and I had the paperback version, one of the original editions and everything was in like super tiny print but it had every recipe known to man in this book, or so I thought, and this was before vegan cookbooks existed and I was making food vegan from these recipes and I don’t know what happened to that book I think it’s just dissolved into dust by use. But now we have so many cookbooks and it’s really, really wonderful thing. You use rice paper a lot, love it.
Roberto Martin: I’ve always loved the product.
Caryn Hartglass: And I really appreciate that you have the pictures to show step by step. I was making some rolls yesterday before I looked in here and I don’t do it that often and I forget so it takes like 10 rolls before I get the hang of how to fold them.
Roberto Martin: Thank you! The pictures are really important to me because just with words you can’t really convey, am I doing this right? I think I am but I’m not really sure. So the pictures just make things click and I really encourage people to do that because it’s a lot of fun and especially if you have some kids that want to help. My son loves it because it feels like gummy bears or goofy things. Like you said, the first three might look atrocious but once you get in the groove you start rolling them just perfect.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah they just roll and you can put so many wonderful things in them. I like them because they’re not fried and they’re fresh and they just taste great but speaking of fried, the one recipe that I haven’t seen anything like anywhere and I’ve read almost every vegan cookbook there is, is the fried chicken.
Roberto Martin: Yeah, thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s genius!
Roberto Martin: Thank you so much! What happened was that Oprah was coming for dinner and she had mentioned to Ellen she would go vegan but she just didn’t want to give up fried chicken so Ellen said, “you need to make fried chicken.” I’m like ok, great. And frying up the Gardein came to mind and that was simple but for me, fried chicken was always about skin and then there’s this South Park that’s so funny because this little fat kid goes in there and he eats all the skin and just leaves and it makes you laugh because it’s the best part. So I wanted to put some kind of skin on this chicken so it would really have this flavor and texture combination that she’s used to, and I’ve been making these spring rolls for them all the time and so it was just sort of a natural thing that clicked. I’m so stoked with that. What also happened incidentally, it wasn’t on purpose, but what happened is the spring roll wrappers lock in all the juice inside the meat and it’s so juicy.
Caryn Hartglass: I haven’t made it but I will.
Roberto Martin: The reaction that I’m getting online and from all my Facebook friends from the [other book] is like, this has been crazy good and what I like about the fried chicken and the chicken pot pie and the beans and rice is that you don’t even have to tell your family that you’re doing a meatless day or whatever. You just make it, they like it, it goes into the rotation, and now they’re eating less meat.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, you don’t have to tell them. All of this food is so good. Oprah hasn’t gone vegan so I guess she…
Roberto Martin: She hasn’t. She loved the food and everything.
Caryn Hartglass: She had Tal Ronnen working for her for awhile, she had all the opportunities, you know.
Roberto Martin: Yeah that’s not going to happen.
Caryn Hartglass: But I’ll tell you we are so glad that Ellen has taken this on and become vegan because it’s so important, we learn so much from celebrities on television and in the movies. We learn so much from them and many of us want to be like them and so why shouldn’t someone who is a spokesperson for all of us, take the right path, do the right thing. Help people get healthy. Help make this world a better place, do things that are good for the environment. I love her for that.
Roberto Martin: I love her for so many reasons, but you’re absolutely right. I mean if you look at her career and what she stands for, she’s not very passionate about any other cause or anything else. She doesn’t stand at the pulpit. She doesn’t even stand at the pulpit about gay rights. She chose to lead by example. When it comes to animals, I love animals and being vegan, that is her passion. Then Portia of course.
Caryn Hartglass: Well I think when someone has the means and the opportunity to do the best that they can, why shouldn’t they? I don’t understand why they wouldn’t? And so Ellen and Portia have the opportunity to have a wonderful chef and you make them wonderful meals and it sounds like they made some of their own food too which is great. We don’t need to have our own personal chefs to make this food and you make that point many times in the book, which recipes are easy and they are.
Roberto Martin: Thank you. The one thing that I think that I have as an advantage as opposed to like a restaurant chef is that I kind of feel, well of course I have a 7 year-old, but I do feel like I’m a little more in tune with the average household that has these challenges of getting kids from school to karate or baseball or whatever they do and then busting out dinner. I took that into heart when writing the book because if people need it they need it now, they need easy. I’m competing with all those ready made ads for you that people have on their go to list. I made these recipes do-able. The fried chicken is a little bit more effort, that may be like a Friday or Saturday night dinner. The red beans and rice you can make so fast.
Caryn Hartglass: Regular fried chicken isn’t quick either unless you do the shake and bake variety.
Roberto Martin: But it’s still not all that bad.
Caryn Hartglass: You have to bread it and that’s time consuming.
Roberto Martin: Exactly, but what I’m looking at is, are they being some kind of frozen thing and putting it in the oven and you’re done which is what I think a lot of people reach for. I’m also a student of people’s shopping carts because I’m in the supermarket all the time and I just stare at what people are buying and I’m like, oh sweetie, no.
Caryn Hartglass: You want to take care of yourself and family, what is that in there?
Roberto Martin: I just want to grab people by the hand and say, give me 20 minutes we’re going to help you out.
Caryn Hartglass: You’re going to need to team up with Tal and Gardein and package this fried chicken thing.
Roberto Martin: You know you’re not the first person to say that right?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah
Roberto Martin: I’m having a conversation with Yves Potvin right now. He’s the owner of Gardein and he’s a super sweet man and we’re looking to do that for people so they can pop that healthy food in the oven and feed their families.
Caryn Hartglass: Well Roberto thank you so much for talking to me today and take a moment to be on It’s All About Food and how do you pronounce your last name? Is it [Martin or Martin]?
Roberto Martin: Well it really is Martin but it spells the same way and I don’t want to get into that.
Caryn Hartglass: I like to say names they way they’re supposed to be said. Roberto Martin.
Roberto Martin: Take care, thank you so very much.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you so much and have a very delicious week everyone, I’m Cary Hartglass you’ve been listening to It’s About Food and please check out my website responsibleeatingandliving.com you get more delicious recipes there and definitely pick up this book Vegan Cooking For Carnivores its beautiful recipes are satisfying and perfect. Have a great day.
Transcribed by Mei 4/4/2013