Damon Brasch of Green New American Vegetarian Restaurant wants to "pull back the weirdness"of veganism, cooking up comfort food sans meat, dairy and other animal byproducts.
Brasch credits a vegetarian roommate and the book Diet for a New America for his switch from meat-eater to veggie-lover 20 years ago.
"He said we couldn't cook meat in the apartment, and I thought he was ridiculous," Brasch says. "I was completely oblivious. He gave me Diet for a New America, and that opened up a whole other world I had never been educated about."
A couple more books, and Brasch was sold on cutting meat out of his diet. Going totally vegan, though, was a little more difficult.
"I had a bit of a love affair with cheese," Brasch confesses. But when his wife decided to go vegan and have their kids go vegan two years ago, Brasch purged his house of cheese, jumped on the bandwagon, and hasn't looked back.
Now he's on a mission to turn even the most skeptical meat-eaters into believers too.
"We don't want everyone to feel like they have to go vegan," Brasch says. "We just want you to realize there's alternatives out there: You don't have to have meat and potatoes seven days a week."
And while Kermit may have said, "It's not easy being green," Brasch sings a different tune, "Vegan cooking is easy."
Today, Brasch tells us his secrets to making vegan food both tasty and accessible, his Dairy Queen fix that lead to the to-die-for Tsoynamis, and his kitchen fistfight.
What's your secret to creating vegan dishes that are familiar? Almost any ingredient can be substituted whether it's in cooking or in baking. It just depends how creative you want to get. I just approach cooking from a flavor standpoint. I would season a piece of tofu - or vegetables - the same way I would season a piece of steak. It comes out of trial and error. I kind of read cookbooks the way regular people read novels, so I pick and choose what looks good and what seems like it will go together and just try it.
Do you stick to reading vegan cookbooks? No, not at all. In fact, I try not to. I love all kinds of cookbooks from the celebrity chefs to restaurant cookbooks. My friend just went to Goodwill and picked me up this amazing set of TimeLife cookbooks from the '70s with these amazing pictures in them. I mean, talk about meat; there might be one volume that is "From the Garden" or something. But it's TimeLife, so they have all these great photos: full goats on spits and gruesome stuff like that. I'm a realist. That stuff exists and you can either accept it and try to learn from it or be repulsed by it. I love all kinds of cookbooks. They're so informative, like little history books.
Favorite source of protein? Vegetables, for sure. Tofu is great; Tofu is soybean, so it's still a vegetable, I think. But I think that everything in moderation. People who are worried about the aspects of eating too much soy, I think there could be some truth to that, in the same way that if you only ate carrots, there's going to be something wrong with you. You would have some kind of deficiency or some kind of a problem, just like if you only ate chicken. It's all about diversity.
Best recipe experiment? I have a lot of those. Some of the best recipes I've come up with have either been mistakes or dreams. The dreams ones are weird, because I'll wake up and I'll know the ingredients list. I'll go to store and buy the ingredients. And I can taste it in the dream, and when I make it, it tastes like the dream. I don't know what that is, if it's a higher power working through me or whatever, but I always enjoys those. I feel like I pay more attention to those when they come to me. I cook a lot in my dreams. It's been very weird.
What have you dreamed up? Lately I've been baking a lot in my dreams, so I get a lot of that kind of stuff. We have a salad dressing on our jerk tofu salad that came to me just in a dream. It has close to 20 ingredients. That one was weird. I almost felt like a mad scientist: A little of this, a little of that, and a little of this. But somehow it all came together.
What's the flavor combination you couldn't live without? Sherry vinegar, some good olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Or the coffee coco loco tsoynami.
Where did you get the idea for the tsyonamis? When my wife was pregnant, we were vegetarians at the time, both she and I indulged in Dairy Queen way too often - waaaay too often. My whole life I'd been a fan of Dairy Queen. Growing up, it was always the Sunday treat. It was part of our lives. We wanted to try and recreate that for the vegan community and for ourselves.
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Most embarrassing kitchen moment? I once got into a fistfight in the kitchen. It was really my instigating that made it happen. It was with a dishwasher friend of mine, and we just got into it and ended up coming to blows. A kitchen is a hot environment, both literally and figuratively, so it's understandable for those eruptions to happen. We were mad at each other the entire shift, and we ended up shaking hands and having a beer after. I felt really bad, but I was very, very young and kind of a punk kid. He kind of had it coming, but that's not the way to resolve things.
What would you like to see more of on the Valley food scene? Food trucks. No, just kidding. I would like to see more people going out to dinner. Restaurants are having a very tough time right now. I understand that money's short, but part of eating out and having a restaurant experience is what makes a city. And we all have a responsibility to perpetuate that. Maybe cut back someplace else and go out to your favorite restaurant and spend a little bit of money and have a good experience to take your mind off your worries for a while. That's what a good restaurant should do, give you an experience where you're not thinking about the bad stuff; it should transport you.
Anything you'd like to see less of? I would like to see less of meat-eating reviewers reviewing vegetarian restaurants from a meat eater's point of view. You can't come in here, have a piece of mock steak and be let down when it doesn't taste like a piece of filet mignon.
Favorite meal? I love Ethiopian food. My favorite restaurant in town is Café Lalibela.