Interview with Ben Adams, Personal Chef
Ben Adams is a vegan chef with over ten years experience in the food industry. He started working in restaurants as a teenager in Alexandria, Virginia, eventually completing his culinary training at the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Co. After school, he moved back to Virginia and started working at Sticky Fingers, a vegan bakery and deli in Washington, D.C. After four years as head baker, he moved to Brooklyn, NY to open his own personal chef business.
Ben’s extensive travel -- to the Netherlands, Southern France, Italy, Egypt and Korea --has informed his work, which has been featured on the Food Network and ABC’s “Nightline.” The Washington Post, Washington Times, VegNews and Modern Baking have also highlighted Ben’s culinary handiwork. I met Ben in Johnstown, Penn. at Vegetarian Summerfest 2007—the North American Vegetarian Society’s all-vegan event.
FoA: Let’s start at the beginning: What led you to becoming a vegan personal chef?
Ben: The cooking school I attended, the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado specializes in training personal chefs. I had originally gone a different direction after graduating, spending four great years at Sticky Fingers, most of that time as head baker; I was lucky enough to be given the freedom to experiment and create by the owners. [ New York] was the perfect opportunity to branch out with my own personal chef service. For me, the appeal is in cooking for clients’ individual tastes and making a wide variety of dishes. I’m also excited to use my broad experience with plant-based foods to work with people who have various dietary concerns or allergies. I really enjoy being able to help out people who think that their diets are so restrictive that they can’t enjoy food.
FoA: Are most of your clients actually vegan? And how does your service work?
Ben: I only prepare vegan food, but the majority of people I’ve worked with are not vegan. In some cases, my clients have food allergies or sensitivities; sometimes they’re just interested in eating healthier foods. I think after one session, the folks who aren’t vegan put it out of their mind and just enjoy the food for what it is. That’s ultimately my goal.
My service is customized to the needs of each client. I always start with a client consultation meeting to establish likes and dislikes, allergies, and an overall sense of what they need from a personal chef. I then use that information to create dishes tailored to their tastes and requirements.
I usually schedule one or two cooking sessions for each client per week, during which I come to the clients’ homes and make a variety of dishes for them that will be stored in the fridge or freezer for them to use as they please. I encourage my clients to offer feedback on what I’ve made so I can sharpen the profile for future sessions.
FoA: Typically, what kinds of foods are you asked to prepare? Is there a particular emphasis?
Ben: Whole beans and grains are the backbone of my approach, which clients seem to enjoy. I also try to incorporate lots of fresh vegetables and make simply prepared vegetable dishes. Mediterranean cuisines really lend themselves to this approach, which is fortunate since they seem to be quite popular with my clients.
I’ve also recently started making lunches for kids. I think a lot of parents are fed up with the unhealthy options at the school cafeteria, but often don’t have time to make lunch every day. I love cooking for kids – I think their palates are often much broader than we give them credit for, and they’re brutally honest about their reaction to the food. Adults will sometimes sugar-coat their impressions, but kids don’t hold back.
FoA: What do you find most rewarding in this line of work?
Ben: What I love about being a personal chef is the freedom to create. Every session is a new opportunity to work within someone’s palate and to understand what is important to each person.
FoA: As activists, one of our greatest challenges is creating more vegans. Do you see your work as a form of activism?
Ben Adams: I’ve been vegan now for fourteen years, and one thing I’ve always felt is that veganism is primarily about personal activism. It’s a question of what choices an individual can make to impact the world around them. As such, I’ve always tried to be an example rather than a proselytizer.
I definitely come from the “one meal at a time” school of converting people to plant-based diets. Every vegan has to choose to be vegan at every meal, and the more meals that someone has that are free of animal products, the closer they are to that end.
As I mentioned, the majority of my clients to date have been non-vegans, and I think setting an example for them about how versatile cooking can be when working with plant-based foods and within their personal specifications is the most important way for me to be an activist. When they see that vegan food can be prepared in their homes, meet their dietary needs, and be delicious at the same time, it’s much more likely that they’ll seek out more of it.
FoA: What are your favorite foods to prepare?
Ben Adams: I have a long-running love affair with grains. I find them to be so versatile, easily manipulated, and willing to take on other flavors. I think sweet brown rice, millet, and quinoa are my favorites. Of course, with grains always come beans. The two work in combination so well, and I certainly embrace the entire pantheon of beany goodness. I will admit that my favorites are cannellini beans and chickpeas.
Being in New York, and particularly the part of Brooklyn I live in, I find myself making marinara sauce more regularly. It feels like there are so many Italian markets and an amazing selection of imported tomatoes and olive oils that I just have to make stuff like that. Plus, there’s something about squishing those whole peeled tomatoes that never gets old for me.
I think more than anything, though, I love working with fresh herbs and greens – the washing, the chopping, that grassy new smell all around – it’s just great.
FoA: Do you emphasize locally or regionally grown foods? Do you find that your clients are interested in the environmental impact of food?
Ben Adams: Here in New York, we have access to a lot of local and regional foods, both from farmers’ markets and traditional grocery stores. For me, it’s important to find produce that is in season, locally available and can get from seed to me in the most environmentally sound way.
I think that anyone who seeks out a personal chef is clearly interested in being closer to the food they eat. To know where their food comes from and how it was prepared is important to many of my clients.
FoA: How do you appeal to consumers who claim to love the taste and texture of certain animal products? Do you work with mock meats and vegan cheeses, or do you avoid emulating these?
Ben: It is my opinion that the number one mistake in vegetarian foods is the reliance on “look-alike” products. I understand why they’re on the market and enjoy them myself from time to time, but I don’t cook with mock meat unless specifically requested by a client.
I believe strongly in whole foods; that is, foods that have been transformed in some way but still contain all of their nutritional characteristics. I try to avoid using foods that contain extracted protein; mainly because the advantage of plant-based proteins is that they are already low in fat and high in fiber in their natural, pre-extraction state. I’ll take a whole bean dish over a mock meat dish any day.
I think the “meat and two vegetables” concept is one that will take a long time to get away from. Even in the finest vegetarian restaurants, you still see dishes with this basic composition. For me, I find the best approach to challenge this mindset is to find ways to use plant-based whole foods to create something in a recognizable form. For example, bean and grain based burgers and savory loaves, creamy or “cheesy” sauces using flours and nuts, always including the whole source.
FoA: There seems to be a trend in the vegan community towards very low-fat, whole-food diets. Have you found this to be true? Does cooking low-fat present any particular challenges?
Ben: I would include myself in the whole-foods trend, although I tend to be more likely to use fats. I would agree that many people seem to want lower fat, high-fiber foods, which is great. Low-fat cooking is not nearly as challenging as no-fat cooking, which I find to be virtually impossible as an overall dietary approach. I think the trick to low fat cooking, or cooking for people who are concerned about fats, is to use whole fats, like nuts and avocados. The fiber-fat balance is important, and the more harmonious that balance, the better the results for the client.
FoA: Do you also prepare raw foods cuisine for your customers?
Ben: I do, although in limited form. Since raw foods often require two or three day processes to arrive at the end result, they’re not always easy to incorporate into client meal plans. I do feel strongly that raw foods are important, and I try to include them in any way I can.
FoA: Do you have any tips for people who want to learn to cook more healthfully?Ben: I may sound like a broken record, but use whole foods! Stay away from extracts and isolates, eat more vegetables (fresh or frozen), and eat your beans and grains.
Quinoa is delicious and cooks super fast. Don’t be afraid of it – any time you would make rice to go with dinner, make quinoa. It’s faster and a nice change of pace.
Soy is a wonderful thing and should be a part of any diet, but it should be eaten in moderation. Find your protein in other ways, and when you do eat soy, eat tofu, tempeh, and edamame. Processed soy protein products are not necessarily good for you just because they’re better than the animal alternative.
FoA: What is the future of plant-based cuisine?
Ben: I think society is moving closer and closer to widespread acceptance of plant-based diets. It’s clear that more and more people are eating animal-free meals on a regular basis, and the community that eschews animal products is growing. The work of many animal advocacy groups, like FoA, is clearly very influential in exposing the horrors of animal foods production. With films and books like “Fast Food Nation” and “Super Size Me” creeping into the mainstream media, I think a growing number of people could be headed for the kinds of realizations that many of us have already come to.
As a cautionary note, though, I think it’s vital to analyze the industry that’s grown up around plant-based foods. We must be careful not to become reliant on the agribusiness companies that produce soy, corn, and wheat for the bulk of our diet. We can’t enable large companies to take advantage of our consumer dollars and we need to make smart choices and support organics, small farmers, and small retailers. The real heart of this movement is at the individual, grassroots level, and we have to set the example ourselves.