Opinion: Levelling up one's vegan cooking skills under the tutelage of Lauren Toyota

An Edmonton chef on cooking through a cookbook cover to cover alongside his wife

Image of Lauren Toyota’s ragu Bolognese excerpted from the Hot For Food All Day cookbook with permission from Penguin Random House Canada

Another year, another cookbook...and the same ol' pandemic. This war of attrition of boredom and complacency grinds on. Tensions are high and spirits are low. On the heels of celebrating everyday milestones with our previous cookbook, we needed something to keep our creative and flavour flame burning. Lauren Toyota's Hot For Food All Day was the perfect spark to reignite our passion for cooking at home. It also pushed us into a world of plant-based cooking with vegan overtones.

Cards on the table; we are not vegans; my wife and I try to eat plant-based at home. We understand that there are differences between being plant-based and being a vegan, the biggest note of this is an absolute zero tolerance for cruelty. This will not be an article of investigation but an ode to what Lauren Toyota taught us about how to level up our cooking at home and the lessons about balance along the way.


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Something happens when a chef starts cooking vegan/plant-based; a balance takes form. I eat and cook plant-based at home, but will fire six trays of pork belly the next day at work. Six gallons of milk will be used for a week's worth of lattes in our cafe. At home we will froth oat milk for a Nespresso latte, while we use the rest of it, mixed with tofu, nutritional yeast and kala namak to create a “literal” eggless omelette. We discovered new ways to incorporate tofu and learned about the magic of soy curls which, if you don’t know, look like pale cheese puffs, and behave like tofu. Fantastic protein replacements.

I have learned more from Lauren Toyota’s cooking style and recipe book than from any other chef or cookbook in the last decade.

Cheese spread without dairy, no problem. Craveable mac and cheese, got that covered. Doughnuts, cakes, cookies, ice cream...I mean, look at all the things I can make now. Need something that tastes like chicken but isn’t, breaded tofu, or marinated soy curls to the rescue. What’s for breakfast? Let me call in an airstrike of tater tots and an incredible adobo sauce.


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These habits at home start to spill over into work as well. While I try very hard to keep the recipes we cook at home, at home, sometimes the techniques trickle over; a guest needs a vegan tourtiere, watch this; oat milk, plus canola oil, of course. Sentences like “what do you have that’s vegan?” Instead of answering with something like “maybe a mushroom?” It now becomes, “I’m so excited you asked, what would you like?”

Roasted chicken, steak, fish, I have cooked over and over again, and while the argument can be made that I, a mortal, have not perfected each protein, the procedure is the same: Season, add heat, wait, rest, eat. Lauren’s recipes are thoughtful, new and exciting. Countless times after we both have taken our respective photos and start in on the dishes with our forks, I look at Lourdes with a shocked look and make a sound that pairs well with my pleasant surprise.

These feelings and teachings came to a head over the summer, our business set out to partner with farmers and suppliers to host an outdoor dinner. The centre of all of this was a whole pig roasted over coals. Myself and the pig entered into a 10-hour-long staring contest while I waited for it to cook. I have cooked a lot of pigs like this and have a great respect for the care, love and energy that goes into raising animals. However, for the first time in my career, there was a twinge of guilt that struck me. The day before I was cooking vegan salami for a pizza-inspired mac and cheese and the following day, I would be turning tofu into ricotta for a kabocha squash stuffed shell pasta.


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Lauren’s approach to food was exactly what we needed for this leg of the pandemic. Building in shortcuts and substitutions makes her recipes easy to approach, especially if you’re down an ingredient or let something cook too long or short. It was encouraging to know that while the world felt like it was crumbling all around us, we still had a delicious way to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Veganism and plant based cooking are going to save us, not in the way you might think. As supply chains buckle and prices of ingredients and proteins skyrocket, cooking plant-based can open your mind to creative new strategies. Ways to use up leftovers, what to do with that squash on your counter, how to make ravioli with wonton paper, these tricks and hacks can save households from eating the same thing over and over again, while keeping their grocery cost low. Of course with balance in mind, there is also a way to do vegan food fancy and expensive. Like anything, it all comes down to what you want to eat and how much time you have.

I know that we—more so I—are not the ideal candidates to go through a vegan cookbook. But more people, especially chefs, should. There is room in that community for so much creativity and it will make you a better cook. I was very proud to have spent these last ten months with Hot for Food All Day. It was an eye-opening experience and I hope that this reaches out to cooks and chefs who don’t understand how the world is changing. The world is allowing us to have culinary options. The creative thinking of vegans and the plant-based community can help us expand our choices. Lauren Toyota taught me this, and how to level up not only vegan meals, but how to level up as a human being. For that, I am grateful.


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As for what’s next, we are going to enter into a one-for-one phase and step into some protein cooking. Lourdes wants to explore some other books like Half Baked Harvest. I will be going into David Chang and Priya Krishna’s Cooking at Home. I normally wouldn’t want to do an American author(s), but I'm a huge fan of his and this is taking there stigma out of a lot of cooking at home techniques, plus it focuses on two cuisines I’m not familiar with: Indian and Korean.