I am super, super, super excited to welcome chef AJ to talk to us all about the vegan diet chef AJ. Welcome, and thank you so much for being here with us. Well, thank you for having me. It's a topic that I'm very inspired by. Perfect. Well, that is what I hope to do. Inspire people. So I'd really love to start at the beginning.
Ask you, why vegan? What got you into vegan?
Well, when I was 17 years old, I was a freshman at the university of Pennsylvania and I was studying to be a veterinarian and I always joke instead I became a vegetarian because we were required to work for a veterinarian as part of the program. And I was assigned to a, a veterinarian who was doing protein lens, regeneration experiments in the amphibian.
And on the very first day of the job, he hands me a tank of live salamanders. And he asked me to decapitate all of them. Now I'm a person that just was very squeamish. Anyway, I could never go fishing or put the worm on the hook. I never liked blood. I have to look the other way when getting even a simple blood test and I didn't wanna do it, but I was worried that my future would.
At stake. And so I did decapitate one salamander, and I just puked my guts out. I just was horrified at what I did. And I went to the student health center because I was just, I was actually vomiting. It was such a traumatic experience for me. And in that moment I became an instant ethical vegan. And what happened to your career as a veterinarian?
well, I never became a veterinarian , which is probably good because, you know, really, I love animals, but I really, I, I don't think I have in me to, you know, be doing things like surgery and, and it never was really good at math anyway. So, you know, it was fine, but I, I did go to an Ivy league school, university of Pennsylvania and.
I I changed majors. So yeah, I mean, but it, you know, it was a pivotal moment in my life because I had no idea at the age of 17 on September 1st, 1977, that you know, I would become a, a, you know, an ethical vegan who's now in the vegan hall of fame, let alone, you know, a chefs. So, you know, I, I think things happen for a reason.
And sometimes when things happen, they can be really horrible, traumatic things. When you look back on your life, you're like, wow. But if that hadn't happened, this wouldn't have happened. So I think you have to always try to find a gift in everything that happens. So true. I love that message. I love that message.
So going back to your journey, you became a vegan. But did you start being chef AJ or what, what happened to you? No, I, you know, I honestly didn't become chef AJ until I went to culinary school and that was not until I was 43 years old. That would've been in about 2003 when I graduated culinary school. So I earned the title of chef.
However, you know, I had been cooking a very long time. I always enjoyed cooking because it's baking, especially I actually became a pastry chef for five years at a Los Angeles restaurant, a vegan pastry chef. I always like the creativity involved with cooking. And I also like eating too. So when people say they hate cooking, I'm thinking, well, then you must hate eating because cooking is like, I mean, it's so fundamental.
In my opinion, I grew up with people that cooked, you know, my grandmother, my, my aunts, my mother, everybody cooked food, you know, and from scratch and every day, so. So, you know, this idea now that Americans eat over, you know, 92% of their calories from animal products and processed food, it's like, gosh, they're really missing out on a lot because, you know, making food yourself from scratch from whole foods, there's nothing like it.
It's, it's actually therapeutic. It's delicious. But I remember when I was seven years old, I got an easy bake oven for Hanukkah, and I thought it was incredible. The science of baking, like when you're seven, you don't really understand that science is involved. And all I remember is taking the little packet, mixing it with water, putting it in the oven and it was a light bulb.
And like I, 10 minutes I had a cake and it's funny because I actually did become a pastry chef. So yeah, I I've always, you know, enjoyed the process of cooking, but I didn't formally go to culinary school until it. After I had a diagnosis of precancerous polyps. And so what happened, and even though I had been a vegan for 26 years, I was not in the best of health.
I was, I was obese. I was about, let's see more than 60 pounds than I weigh now. I didn't really have any health markers, like high cholesterol or high A1C. I didn't have diabetes or high blood pressure, high triglycerides. I think my vegan diet saved me for that, but I did have obesity. And I did not eat a very healthy vegan diet is what a lot of people call Ave Arian.
I had Coke Slurpees for breakfast, not, not just a regular Coke, Slurpee, mind you, but with eight extra pumps of sugary vanilla syrup, I would know. Oh, wow. I know crazy. I mean, what 40 year old woman is like dependent on seven 11 for their daily fix. And I always made sure that I worked and. In walking distance to a seven 11, because when you're that addicted to caffeine and sugar, sometimes you can't drive.
So I would have Dr. Pepper, big gulps for lunch. And it's funny because I remember I haven't had any sugar since July 6th, 2003, but I remember when I did have my big gulps I'm not even sure if they had. Free refills back then, this was almost 20 years ago, but I had a 48 ounce big goal because I believe back then I'd have to verify this by, by Googling it or asking somebody in seven 11 is because I think that was the biggest size that they had.
But now I believe if you go to seven 11, you could get like something like a 256 ounce. Like, you know, soda, which, which I think is like insane. But anyway, I had a very unhealthy vegan diet because, you know, just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's healthy. Potato chip are vegan, French fries or vegan. Hey, even Oreos and cotton candy or vegan sugar is vegan.
I think we can summarize it. Yeah. Mo most sugar is vegan. I think a lot of vegans don't realize that some sugar actually in the refining process, they use I animal bones to char. So not all sugar is vegan. Honey is not vegan, but you're right. Ostensibly sugar, you know, if it is vegan, but just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's healthy.
So I, when I woke up on January 1st, 2003, I was close to my 43rd birthday. I was bleeding profusely and I went to my doctor. I had an HMO at the time, so I couldn't get a full blown colonoscopy at that time, but they did a sigmoidoscopy and they said, My colon was riddled with these. I think they were called EMS polyps, but they said that if we don't remove them, they will turn to cancer because my family had a strong history of colon cancer.
That's what my grandmother died of. My mom died of complications through that process. My uncle had 80% of Ms. Colon removed, but they couldn't remove the polyps during the normal procedure. Like they normally do with these C. Because the doctor said I had a dirty colon. In other words, from not eating fiber for 43 years being the only vegetarian that didn't eat any fruits and vegetables, unless you'd call Skittles as a fruit I had a very messed up colon.
I mean, I, I was, I never, you know, went to the bathroom. I mean, you know, they say normal is what's normal for you. Well, that's not true because you know, pooping once a week is not normal. Let me tell you that. So I wasn't eating any really fiber in my diet and. I did not wanna have actual surgery surgery, which is what they said was the next step.
And so that's when I went to the optimum health Institute that was July 6th, 2003, the last day I had any sugar, cuz I remember going to seven 11 on the way cuz they can, if they catch you with contraband, they kick you out. So I remember I asked the taxi driver to take me to seven 11 after he picked me up at the airport and I quickly drank my Coke slurry and Dr pepper.
And it was the last time I had either of those. I'm proud to say and. I went to this place where I learned that what you eat has a profound effect, not just on how you look and how you feel, but what diseases you actually acquire in life and what diseases you ultimately can reverse. And they talked about how disease can only exist when you have a state of inflammation in the body.
And everything while was eating, even though it was vegan, you know, sugar and caffeine and flour and oil and all this processed food was inflammatory. And they explained that eating fruits and vegetables, which the everybody should know is, is really the answer to eating an anti-inflammatory diet. And plus that's where you get all the fiber.
And so I, I started doing that. I cut out processed foods completely. All the sugar, oil, flour, alcohol, salt. I'd never really drank alcohol caffeine though, for sure. Very, I think it's a, I think it's a drug and I don't think it's good for really most people. And you know, within six months I completely healed these polyps.
I went back and they had they did the procedure again and now my colon was clear, clean pink and vascular, like a newborn baby. And the doctor actually accused me of having had surgery somewhere else. . Course I didn't. And that's when I really L learned that this concept food as medicine, food is medicine.
And it was because of that, that I went to culinary school, not because I was trying to be some chef, but because the way they taught us to eat at Optum health was so austere and draconian. And it was basically just raw fruits and vegetables with no seasoning. And I could do it for a little bit to heal, but I didn't see myself being able to do it the rest of my life.
And so that's when I decided to go to culinary. Fabulous.
I love that story. It's amazing. And what I'm hearing you saying is fruits and vegetables, which is like, that's what I'm always saying. Do the veggie dads eat fruit and vegetables. It's so easy. Just eat more fruit and vegetables. So my question is how do you make fruits and vegetables?
Interesting. Like so many people, like I work with people and. A lot of people are like, how do I cook fruit and vegetables? And I just say, well, just cook it. It's super easy, but I'd love to hear your take on, you know, how you make fruit and vegetables tasting. Yeah. Well, well, I wanna back the camera up a bit before I answer that, because there's a bit, bit of a problem here with people understanding that.
The reason fruits and vegetables don't taste good to people that are addicted to processed food. So true. Yeah. Yes, because we have to, we have to go back first because yes, as a chef, I can totally tell you how to make them tasty. That's not a problem. I've written almost, I think five books now over 500 recipes and I can make fruits and vegetables.
I can make food taste very tasty. But if when you it's your sting, because at first you said interesting, and then you said tasty. And I, I, it was, I was a speech major in college, and so I listened to words very carefully. Mm-hmm so tasty is not a problem, but interesting is a problem because I think about a saying that was said by Andrew SPD fit Taylor.
He's a man in Australia. Who ate nothing but potatoes for an entire year, reversed all of his diseases, including food addiction and obesity and lost 120 pounds. And he's known for a saying, make your food boring, make your life interesting. I do not think that, I mean, not that you, you can do what you want, but if you are somebody that's struggling with weight or with food addiction, I don't think making your food interesting is a very good idea.
It because I don't think we should be relying on food for entertainment. I think we should relying on food for nourishment. And so people use food to medicate to celebrate. And so this concept of making it interesting to me means, well, then we're still stuck in this process of food addiction, but as far as making it tasty, no problem.
But here's the problem. One of the things I teach and I've been teaching for many years now, is this concept of caloric density. That's what my second book, the secrets to ultimate weight loss is all about. And I talk about how food varies in caloric density, by the way, caloric density. Isn't about learning to, to count calories or weigh and measure your food on a plate or memorize that there's a certain amount of calories in a half a cup of rice.
Certain amount of calories in a cup of blueberries, caloric density is about understanding that foods have a certain amount of calories per pound, or if you're, I guess it's per lit or if you're in another country and that the caloric density of food ranges from about 100 calories per pound on the low end, which is non-starchy vegetables.
Fruits are about two to 300 calories per pound to 4,000 calories per pound for processed and refined oil. What a lot of people don't realize is that we have a neurotransmitter that's produced in the brain. Whenever we have a pleasurable experience, this is called dopamine. And whenever we engage in pleasurable experiences like food and sex, dopamine is released.
And so all eating, whatever we eat stimulates an appropriate amount of dopamine in the brain, but the more calorically concentrated the calories, the more dopamine is released. And so what happens is people become addicted to this artificial stimulation of dopamine in the brain by eating foods of such a high caloric density that nature never intended.
You know, someone once said to me, whenever there's a problem, look to nature. There is no oil in nature. You cannot find oil. Anywhere in nature, you can find fat in nature in the form of nuts and seeds and avocado, which have a much lower chloric density. And by the way, those whole plant foods were actually seasonal for our ancestors because we actually evolved at a chloric density.
Of about 700 calories per pound, but now Americans are eating such a high fat, high sugar processed diet foods of such a high caloric density that they can no longer get pleasure from whole foods like fruits and vegetables and, you know, grains and beans, because these are of a more appropriate chloric density that we evolve at.
So before I can tell you how to make food tasty, I think it's important for me to help you understand. Why you don't like these foods as it is, you know, people always say to me, well, you know, chef AJ, if I ate like you, I don't know if I live longer, it would just seem like it because of course, everybody knows that chocolate tastes better than kale.
And so I say it doesn't. Yeah, well, you know, but most people do. And so when I'm giving this lecture, I said, is there anybody here that will bet me a hundred dollars? That that is true. And nobody ever will take that bet because the truth is. We develop taste preferences for what we habitually eat and what we eat today, we will crave tomorrow, whether it's healthy or unhealthy.
Now chocolate is about 2,500 calories per pound. And people aren't really eating chocolate in the way it's found in nature. I mean, some people might eat a Kalib, but we're eating it in a way where it's mixed with a lot of sugar, usually full fat dairy, more addictive chemicals like that, for example, and what people aren't understanding is that they say they like a food better because of its high caloric D.
Because they get more dopamine. It really has very little to do with taste. And the reason we know this is because they actually did experiments with, with people that were self-professed chocoholics. They brought them into the research lab. And by the way, this had nothing to do with weight or food addiction.
But what, because chocolate always tops the list is like the most crave food by both men and women follows closely by pizza and think about it. Pizza has all the addictive foods in it. It's got the sugar. And the tomato sauce it's got the flour and the crust and the oil in the crust. And it's got usually the meat on top and the.
So the people that were chocoholics, they gave them a buffet of, I, I think every kind of chocolate imaginable, including whatever they said their favorite was, but before they unleashed them on the buffet, they injected them with a drug called Naloxone. A Naloxone is a drug that's used in the emergency room.
If somebody were to have a, what could be a fatal heroin overdose, it blocks the blood brain barrier. So that hopefully the patient doesn't die well when they injected the chocoholics with Naloxone. They walked up to the buffet. They looked for their favorite type of chocolate. They picked up what their favorite was.
They took one bite and they put it back. They no longer had any interest in eating the chocolate. So was it no longer tasty? Was it no longer interesting or was something happening in the brain? And so this is. The part that I really try to impress upon people that are, that are struggling to eat healthy, that it's not because the food doesn't taste good.
It is because you are so addicted to these high fat, high calorie foods that artificially stimulate dopamine in the brain. That until you refrain from eating them, you're never going to get pleasure out of the foods that nature intended. Yes. I totally agree with you 100%. And I think another thing I see is that people start off very scared of this journey.
There's this big fear of, oh my goodness. I'm going to give up all these delicious foods, but actually as you progress along this journey, you quickly realize that. The the, the vegetarian foods, the vegetables, they are amazingly tasty. Well, they, they can be, but you know, not at first, like, I mean, you know, after drinking Coke, Slurpees for breakfast for 43 years, I mean, I didn't like say, oh my God, brussel sprouts are delicious.
It took some time it's called neuro adaptation. But now, I mean, Brussels sprouts are delicious and I don't mean just plain boiled Brussels sprouts, which to me are actually okay. Tasting. I mean, I, I, you know, with people that really hate vegetables, what I do, I, well, first of all, I tell them, eat the vegetable.
You hate the least, you know, because like same thing with exercise. I really don't like to exercise. So I do the, but I have, I mean, I don't have to, but it's recommended that I do because it helps me with stress and anxiety. So I pick the extra size. I hate the least it's a spin bike and I can watch my Netflix show while I'm on it.
So. It's not so bad, but with vegetables, I always tell people there's gotta be something that you, at least don't hate. Maybe it's a cherry tomato or a cucumber, which technically your fruit that's fine to start. But one of the things you can really do to make vegetables really actually both interesting and tasty and delicious.
It's the cooking method and a cooking method that really helps people that hate vegetables. Love vegetables is called an air fryer. Oh, really? To any, yeah. Oh my goodness. Yes. You don't need to add any oil or salt to it, but what they do is they take the water out and they make them almost crisp, not, not crisp, like deep fried crisp, but they, they just.
They make things like brussel sprouts, delicious. So putting them in an air fryer, I mean, they, they taste like candy to me. And then if you really want, you can glaze them. And by glaze them, I take something called balsamic vinegar, usually a good quality reduced thick brand rather than a very High acidity watery brand.
And I can glaze them with many different flavors of the balsamic vinegars I used, or a combination of balsamic, vinegar, and mustard. And it, I mean, it's what my grandma would call a taste thrill. It's that good? Wow. That's it. I'm gonna get myself an air fry. I've heard of them, but I've never bought them before I live in Spain.
And so we have. Beautiful vegetables here. And I normally throw them in the oven cuz I'm lazy. And that's just the easiest thing for me to do. Yeah. Well, you know, in the oven is good too because roasting, I mean, first of all, I didn't always have an air fry and I still was able to make this recipe simply by roasting them at the, in the oven, which you can do on either like a piece of parchment paper or something called a CPA or non-stick silicone mat.
So I, for years I made it without an air fryer. So roasting vegetables. It caramelizes them and brings out their sweetness. And, you know, you know, I have, I have a saying, because I, you know, when, when I do like cooking demos is that everything starts with an onion. And it's true because if you take an onion and you caramelize it, which you can easily do, you don't need a oil.
You can do it wa by water saute or with vegetable broth. But when you start with an onion and then an onion and garlic, and have like a foundation of layers of flavor, Even vegetables that you may not love like greens, cuz it's hard to get people often to eat the, the bitter or the cruciferous vegetables at first.
But you start with this foundation of onion, garlic, or maybe onion, garlic and mushroom. If you like it, you can pretty much make any vegetable taste delicious. Fabulous. So I have some questions for you. And I know that, you know, vegetarian cooking, vegan cooking does present some challenges when you are changing.
So one thing I think is interesting is that umami tastes that you get typically from meat, but you can get it from vegetables. Yeah. So how can you incorporate that into your cooking? So, so there are, there are certain things and I to, no, I totally know what you mean by mommy. And one of the things actually is mushrooms, mushrooms, a variety of mushrooms.
They not only have a meaty texture for people missing that texture, but they have that rich umami flavor. I'm not a really huge fan of mushrooms, but what I can do is you can get mushroom powder, which are dehydrated mushrooms, and you can add that to the recipes or the broth miso, which is ferment. Paste, which could be made from soybeans or beans.
They have different kinds of Mesos, even brown rice miso also has that umami taste and, you know, things like soy sauce has the umami taste. And there's a product that a lot of people that are vegan used called nutritional yeast, it's different than brewers yeast. And that also has that, that umami richness that people are looking for, which, which, you know, meat does have, as you mention.
So another thing I see people talking about is something called, I can't remember what it's called. Exactly, but smokes or smokey flavor. Well there could be something called liquid smoke, which people add to things like split P soup or beans. There's also smoke Paka. I, oh my God. You know, if I had to pick I'd hate to have to pick one spice, but probably my favorite spice of all spices is smoke paprika.
It's well, I say I live in Spain. We use it all the time. It's and people don't understand that when you call for smoke pepper, beer and a recipe, it is so different than regular. It tastes different. It smells different. It's usually a darker color that does really make a lot of difference in recipes. Okay.
And how do you make vegan pastry? You've been a vegan pastry chef. What's tell me the secret of that. You know, it's, it's really well, you know, and peop you know, I think that. That vegan desserts are the easiest way to get people in the door. Because if people like meat, they like meat. For whatever reason, they like meat and the same thing with cheese, because well, cheese is addictive obviously with the casomorphins, but the thing about dessert, people like dessert, cuz it's luscious.
It's rich, it's delicious. It's not the egg and it's not the dairy that is making it that way. They are completely. They're not necessary in desserts. I mean, and, and what's really amazing is I'd love to contact this chef who developed aquafaba well, he didn't develop aquafaba was always in the can of chickpeas, but the chefs that started using it to make meringues and stuff, you don't, you really don't need eggs anymore to make.
Any kind of vegan dessert and you don't need dairy because now we have, you know, Nico's Creamery. She makes every kind of cheese and butter. So vegan dessert to me is just dessert because when, when people eat fake meat, they may be fooled or they may not. But when people eat a cheesecake, I make a chocolate peanut butter cheesecake.
And I, if I serve it to regular people, they're not like going well, where's the cheese, where's the egg. They, they, that's not what people eat dessert for. They don't, they don't eat dessert because they crave or need animal products. You know what I'm saying? Yeah. So I think it's a lot easier to sell and it's very easy to do also fruit.
Which is the basis of many desserts, whether vegan or not is already vegan sugar for the most part is vegan flour. For the most part is vegan. I personally don't use oil, but guess what? It's vegan. So it's a, it's just such a great way to make food for people that like are vegan curious, because I, I, it worked at a restaurant that wasn't even vegan because my interview was just to make a bunch of desserts.
So they didn't really care, you know, as long as they were delicious and they sold and they did. Perfect. Thank you so much. Thank you so much. I know you are on a really tight schedule, so I'm going to finish now and say thank you so much. And before we go, please tell people where they can find you more of you and your resources.
Oh, thank you. And you know, I, I have, I have more time just so you know, I'm not on that kind of a schedule I have at least. 10 more minutes if you choose , but they can find me at my website, which is my name, chef AJ, chef aj.com. If they'd like to sign up to be on my mailing list, we'll send them some delicious recipes, but also I do a YouTube show every day.
Chef AJ’s website: https://www.chefaj.com
Chef AJ’s Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDHK7RywWc4z8J5K3MKkvRw
I haven't missed a day in over two years now. Oh, that's amazing. No, yeah, I know. Thank you. The show is a live show actually. Even though it's a YouTube show. I also stream it to Facebook and Twitter, but it airs live daily at 11:00 AM. Pacific time. I've done over a thousand shows now, and every day I have an interesting guest.
It's often a doctor. It's often a chef doing the demo. And if you can always watch any of the replays, but if you watch live, you actually get to interact with the live viewing audience and ask the guest's question. It's called chef AJ live. If you just go to YouTube chef AJ every single day at 11:00 AM Pacific, you will see me there.
Fabulous. That's amazing. And I will definitely check it out. Okay. My last question for you is how do you make plans then? So yesterday I, so I'm not entirely vegan. I have four children and that's where I find it difficult to to reduce the eggs and the cheese and things like that because I'm cooking for, what can we say?
Picky children. They eat lots of vegetables. But they still like, you know, bits of meat and, and animal products. But so yesterday I decided I was gonna make a lovely onion tart. And, but then I realized I didn't have any eggs. So I, I ended up making it with like lots of onions, like a French onion tart.
And I ended up putting in just a jar of canal beans, but I thought I'm sure that this isn't TA it was a bit runny, you know, I'm sure there are other ways now I would've put cheer seeds in it, but my kids don't like cheer seeds. So I couldn't do that. Well, what, what was, what were you trying to replace with the can beans?
I was just trying to give it a little bit of like form a bit more. Well, I, my, my instinct tells me the first thing would be tofu. Oh, okay. That's what I would probably do with tofu, you know? And as far as dairy and your kids, they, you know, I, they may not know I have, I don't, you know, I know you said you live in Spain, so I don't know what's available, but have you ever heard of Myoko Shiner and her product line?
Because her butter, which is vegan was voted better. Tasting then real butter. And she makes that whole line of vegan cheeses that are award-winning and can fool sometimes even the pickiest eater. No. Yeah. Well, in Spain, we are very limited on what we can get actually. So we are quite excited that we can get non-dairy milks now.
So now I can buy a decent Oak milk and a decent soil milk, which doesn't contain sugar because previously I've looked at them and gone, oh my goodness, they've put these amazing Oak milks. But they add sugar to them or they add fructose to them. So we are getting better. We are getting more exciting products, but we are still, we still don't have as many products as you do in the states.
Well, maybe one day you will hopefully fabulous chef AJ. Thank you so much for your time. Well, thank you so much.