Gaz Oakley chats to Elena Orde about the release of his third recipe book, Plants Only Kitchen, and teases his next exciting project.
Image: Peter O'Sullivan
Tell me a bit about your vegan journey
From the age of 15, I was a chef working in professional kitchens. At that point I wasn’t vegan, and I never expected to be. My aim in life was to become a Michelin starred chef – but that industry is very tough, you need to work very long hours and it got to me. I needed to take a break from it.
It was during that break that I started taking exercise more seriously. I started going to the gym every night and I wanted to play rugby again. I started eating a 5000-calorie diet which was full of meat and dairy, because I was looking to put on weight.
That high calorie, high animal protein diet led me to veganism. I wasn’t feeling good at all, and I went to the doctors with stomach pain. They told me that it was tied in with my diet. I researched veganism and since then the vegan lifestyle has been the only one for me.
I experienced that reconnection with the animals, and it became all about them. I stopped thinking about meat as a product and started thinking of it as a being. I made that connection again.
And how did your new diet play into your cooking?
It started off as – what the hell am I going to eat now? I went into the kitchen and started experimenting. The first vegan meal I made was a simple salad with homemade falafels – something very simple – but it was the tastiest and most vibrant thing I had eaten in ages.
I rediscovered my passion for cooking – it’s so exciting to try new things! I realised that I wasn’t missing anything. I could recreate every flavour using plant-based ingredients. I started cooking for my friends and they encouraged me to post pictures of my food online.
Five years ago there weren’t a lot of chef-created vegan recipes about online so I decided to fill that gap. I posted pictures of my food along with the recipes, and people from all around the world started following. They would comment with things like – I can’t believe that’s vegan, it looks so meaty, it looks so cheesy. That’s when I started the YouTube channel, so I could show people step-by-step instructions on how to get those results, and how you can make more or less anything vegan.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I try and do things that haven’t been done before – hence Avant Garde Vegan, the name I go by online. I like to be adventurous, but to also use those traditional French techniques I learned in professional kitchens.
What influences have you had for this book?
My first two books were quite complex. The first – Vegan 100 – included all the recipes I was most proud of that I has created so far. Then I created a Christmas book.
This new book – Plants Only Kitchen – is more accessible. It’s the kind of thing I could give to my friends for them to use. The recipes are a bit more stripped back and simple, but not losing any of that flair that I use in my cooking. There is also an emphasis on protein-packed meals, because I’m still into exercise and making sure my meals are balanced.
How do you find the process of creating a book?
I find it very stressful. I wish I didn’t, but I care a lot about what everyone thinks. I will overthink things and worry that I’m not making something for everyone. I like all bases to be covered – gluten-free, raw, quick, protein-packed, one pot meals – it’s challenging. I create recipes all day every day – it’s all I think about. So it’s hard to narrow down the lists.
In terms of my favourite part, I’m one of the few cookbook authors who cooks the dishes for the book’s photography. Most authors hand it over to a food stylist, but I cook and style every picture – I put a huge amount of passion into that. And there’s a food photo for every recipe in this book, which is something I wanted to make sure of.
Image: Simon Smith, BBQ Meatloaf
Currently we’re in lockdown here in the UK, which can be really difficult. What’s your favourite thing to cook when you’re feeling stressed?
I struggle with my mental health quite often, and these times are difficult for people in the same boat as me. It’s hard being stuck indoors – we’re safe here but it’s hard. What’s really helped me is exercising and eating healthily. I have spent a lot of time in the kitchen and that is therapeutic, but eating healthily has been good for making sure I’m feeling well.
One recipe from Plants Only Kitchen I would recommend for this is the Barbeque Meatloaf made with beans and pulses. It’s so flavoursome – you caramelize a barbeque sauce around it. It’s unreal. It can be cut up and kept in the fridge to eat whenever you want, or served up as a centerpiece.
What’s next for Avant Garde Vegan?
When I started my YouTube channel, I said that when I reached 1 million subscribers I would announce where my restaurant would open. But I didn’t expect to reach that milestone so soon – or to reach it during a pandemic.
Things for restaurants are obviously complicated right now, so I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. But I do have the most amazing plan and I’m so excited to announce it – I’m just waiting for things to settle down.
I’ll give you a teaser though – my plan will enable my worldwide audience to be able to taste my food closer to home than they might think.
Check out Gaz’s Barbeque Meatloaf from Plants Only Kitchen here.
Plants Only Kitchen by Gaz Oakley (Quadrille, available in Hardback and eBook) Photography: Simon Smith
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