I’ve always had a big imagination. Over the course of my youth, this led to me having many passions and hobbies in life. When I was a kid, I used to love watching television shows about science (hello Zoom and The Magic School bus) and would try to recreate science experiments at home. I was also an only child, so the world was my imagination’s oyster– I would concoct vivid scenarios in my head due to a lack of mental stimulation that most kids might have found in the presence of siblings. I would read entire Goosebumps, Fear Street and Babysitters Club books in one day, then act out scenes from the books with imaginary people. Because of this immersion, I also grew to love writing, drawing and just being creative in general. But one hobby I never took to in my youth— or in my adult life for that matter, was cooking. However, thinking back on it, I’m not sure why that was the case— as a child, I loved watching cooking programs; I’d fall asleep to shows like Iron Chef (the original Japanese version) and Essence of Emeril. I always found watching cooking to be therapeutic in a way. But I never learned to cook myself. I loved my mom’s cooking but she never really taught me how to cook the meals she made and I never felt as interested in learning to cook as I did in watching others cook. But all of that changed about a year ago. It was a culmination of things that led to both a necessity and a desire to learn how to cook for myself.
The most epic event to occur was me moving out on my own — I had to start adulting very quickly. This of course included learning how to keep myself properly satiated so I didn’t, you know— die.
But I should probably clarify that I wasn’t a complete novice in the kitchen. I knew how to make the most basic foods for survival, that would allow me to not have to live off ramen in a cup and frozen microwaveable meals. I could make rice and pasta. I knew how to operate a can opener so that opened up a whole world of legumes and veggies to me. I even made veggie lasagna once in awhile— funny enough, even before going vegan I preferred making veggie lasagna to meat lasagna. But in my opinion, I was no cook. If someone asked me to make dinner on the fly, I would have considered that to be a curveball in my daily routine for sure, and more likely than not, we’d be having pasta and meat sauce— my go-to on the fly meal.
But the universe continued to unfold my life in an eventful path of twists and turns— well maybe I shouldn’t blame the universe entirely, because I came to many of the decisions that led me to where I currently am on my own; but I believe that everything happens for a reason, oftentimes with light (or very heavy!) influence from the universe as well.
Just a few months after my big move, I became vegan. So not only did I now have to learn how to cook, but in true “Tiffany style“, I had just made this task even harder for myself by now having to learn how to prepare foods I’d never seen or heard of in my life, while also ensuring that I was eating the right things so that I didn’t fall prey to what I thought was my “lingering” iron-deficiency anemia, or any other health ailments I thought I could now suffer from after having cut out meat and “good dairy” like yogurt and some cheeses.
I read up on and started fumbling around with the top vegan proteins. But how was I going to make tofu not taste like lifeless, chewy pieces of gunk? And I didn’t even know how to pronounce seitan let alone use it as a protein in a meal. What should I start eating more of? Less of? If you read my post about the staple foods I keep in the kitchen as a new vegan, I explain a little about traversing the line of becoming an unhealthy vegan versus a healthy vegan. Being that the former was a large possibility if I started my new vegan life living solely off pasta, rice and Gardein frozen meat substitutes, I quickly had to become well-versed on how to cook not only for flavor but for actual nourishment.
And that learning process is still ongoing. But I’ve also started learning other things about myself. One is that I can actually cook! As I said earlier, I never considered myself a chef. Even when I decided I would make a vegan Instagram account and document the meals I made, I still never thought I’d be up to the caliber of deserving the title of “chef”. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I put such emphasis on my food being plated beautifully. It’s true, I do eat with my eyes and I do believe that beautiful food is a feast in itself; but I also believe that for me, plating food in an aesthetically pleasing way will hide some of the fact that I don’t have top-notch cooking skills or use elaborate cooking techniques.
This is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it is somewhat in my nature to partake in what I consider to be a healthy amount of self-loathing in whatever I take on— although not entirely by choice but I feel doing so has kept me humble for the most part. If you follow my Instagram page, you can pretty much see the chronology of my chef development. A lot of my meals are based in the simple foods I’ve always been familiar with— pasta and rice— I use a lot of canned goods also, like different varieties of beans. But now, I see these foods in a whole new light. I realized that those basic foods are the foundation of many different styles of cuisine and that it was possible for me to make beautiful and nutritious meals using them without considering them to be too basic or not fancy enough. I also began to realize that jazzing up foods from a can was not something to be considered sacrilegious in the world of cooking. On the contrary, all foods, whether from a can or from the earth could be used to make great food. But that still wasn’t enough. Like most things I take on, there was some polarity involved. I have a tendency to start a hobby or project and not fully see it through to completion, or at least not finish it in a timely fashion. Either that, or the exact opposite will happen, and I’ll put my absolute all into it, accepting nothing less than perfection. I pretty much knew early on I would never not be vegan once I made the switch, and therefore all of my blogging endeavors involving vegan food would likely fall into the latter category. That meant that once I started putting dishes together, I immediately felt a lot of pressure to make sure everything looked beautiful even if there were only a minimal amount of components to it. It also had to be obvious that there was at least some element of effort put into each dish, no matter how simple it was. After all, I was taking pictures of this food and posting them on a public platform for the world to judge!
So that was the beginning of my role as a vegan chef. But I still didn’t consider myself a chef just yet— at that point, I was simply a new vegan sharing pictures of the food I ate on my evolving journey, while acting as a pseudo-chef. But remember, I also work in a restaurant. Being surrounded by chefs making food and plating things all pretty, and conducting R&D (research and development) on new dishes was really inspiring for me as I delved deeper into what was now becoming a passion for food and being in the kitchen. And so, naturally, my journey evolved into creating new things— I slowly began putting more focus on innovation with the dishes I was making, while purposefully keeping those elements of simplicity and ease to them, never forgetting my roots of not knowing how to cook and being lost at the beginning of my own vegan journey. I wanted my recipes to be accessible to new vegans so that they didn’t become discouraged on their own journeys. It was crazy because the very things I had been embarrassed about— that is, using super simple ingredients and techniques, became the very basis of the message and platform that I was now trying to promote as a vegan. There was so much self-discovery involved in this process because I now realized that the reason I didn’t start out with this premise was because of my own shortcomings such as an irrational quest for perfection and perhaps even a slight desire, and maybe need, to be accepted by others in the vegan community through my seemingly complex dishes. But I didn’t realize that so many people in the vegan Instagram community very much so appreciated the simplicity I was trying to avoid — in fact, this premise of simple, cheap and easy meals already largely exists within the vegan Instagram community because the community is largely made up of average people on a vegan journey who are also not chefs and who are also making food with simple ingredients, everyday.
Thinking about my evolution has been interesting. As I exposed myself to more vegan bloggers on Instagram, I saw amazing folks who actually made it a point to state that their food was “ugly” — as though they were trying to shun the idea that they’re food and Instagram accounts would only be acceptable if they made Pinterest-worthy vegan dishes. Seeing things like this helped me loosen up a bit more. I talk about these topics of becoming more comfortable in my growth as a recipe-developer and chef in the captions on my meal posts as well. I’ve had some rough days in the kitchen where something didn’t go as planned, and I was just like screw it.
Once, I made and plated a sandwich beautifully. It was a breakfast sandwich, stacked high on a bagel with lots of goodies, including tofu scram. I made the mistake of thinking that using a really sharp knife would help me avoid destroying the sandwich that I had already put together when slicing it in half. I was wrong. It toppled and smashed together. I was horrified. More so, I was pissed. I had already waited to eat after a long day so that I could put extra care and detail into preparing and plating this nice meal because I knew I’d be taking a picture. So not only was I hungry, but the wait didn’t even pay off because the sandwich was now ruined. But the anger didn’t last too long, because instead, the experience helped me continue to realize that: 1) it’s important to seize the moment when you can and should, and 2) this was life— nothing is perfect, and sometimes gravity wins and your sandwich falls and topples before you can take a picture.
I’ve also began to embrace the chaos of the kitchen and understanding the need to try out recipes and conduct R&D. More recently, when I created the recipe for my lavender cupcakes with lavender and blueberry buttercream frosting, I was so excited because I had begun making dishes from scratch. Nothing from a box here baby. Now I was starting to feel like a legitimate chef. And the cupcakes came out amazingly. But the buttercream. I screwed up the buttercream. And the crappy part was that immediately after screwing it up, I knew that I’d screwed it up but it was too late to turn back. This was me becoming comfortable with my mistakes — mistakes that would inevitably happen as I created things from scratch. But being a bit of a perfectionist made it hard to naturally be comfortable with those aspects of being a chef. So I had to pull inspiration from other areas of my life (and youth) and think about all of it as one big science experiment. Trial and error, and eating yummy stuff throughout — mistakes and all.
I’ve finally reluctantly accepted the title of amateur chef, but I’ve gone a step further and now call myself a plant-based recipe developer because I do love being an alchemist in the kitchen and creating new things from basic ingredients and turning simple food into food that looks extraordinary and tastes great and has things like “flavor profiles”. I feel that if the passion and willingness to learn is there, you don’t need classical training to be considered a chef. In fact, I know a couple of chefs with no classical training in the field, although I very much admire those who do have it. However, I myself definitely do not have enough experience in the kitchen or enough knowledge of food, flavors, or cooking techniques to take the “amateur” part off yet. And even when I do, knowing me, I’ll probably still call myself an amateur. I don’t know if cooking will become a more prominent part of my life after I leave grad-school or if it will remain as a passionate hobby. Just as my vegan and chef journey has organically unfolded, I am letting that part of my life organically unfold as well. But I am absolutely certain that so long as I can help it, and in some capacity, cooking and developing vegan recipes will always be part of what I have to offer to the world.