What happens when a seasoned gourmet chef discovers firsthand the many benefits of plant-based eating? Some of the most stunning vegan dishes you could imagine!
Chef Edwin Anthony Rodriguez, who came up in New York City and currently resides in Charlotte, N.C., worked in Michelin-starred restaurants for over a decade before launching his own private vegan chef business. From appearing on Chopped to working as a consultant for hospital dietitians and nutritionists, Chef E has truly seen all sides of the food service industry.
“I have a large amount of gratitude for all those years I spent in restaurants,” says Chef E (he speaks highly of the work environment that allowed him many opportunities to mentor others in the kitchen), “as I got older, though, I did start to yearn for being around just vegans and cooking just vegan food.”
Chef E spoke with Tenderly over the phone about becoming vegan while working as a chef, his unusual favorite comfort food, and the high school teacher that encouraged his passion for cooking in the first place.
Tenderly: How do you describe your cultural background, or cultural influences you grew up around?
Chef Edwin Rodriguez: I grew up very Nuyorican. There are more Puerto Ricans in New York than in Puerto Rico — I’m not sure that number’s still accurate, but I’m pretty sure it is. But I grew up in a very, very Nuyorican neighborhood. The middle school I went to was very Nuyorican, the food I grew up eating was very Nuyorican all the way until high school. My grandparents raised me, and my first language is Spanish. And I grew up eating and I grew up eating a lot of rice and beans and chicken. And I had a very limited diet, actually, growing up. I grew up eating pretty much rice, beans, chicken, avocado, and I didn’t end up trying a lot of other foods until I became a chef.
When did your interest in cooking begin?
I went to John Dewey High School, which is named after a philosopher who did not believe in competition. So we did not have football, basketball, rugby, we didn’t have any of those programs. So they use the funding, actually, to have programs like cooking, pottery, photography, dance, we had top of the line funding for that.
‘I was suspended over 50 times in high school, but for some reason, I did really well in this cooking class, always. I was always in the cooking class.’
A couple of my friends are in the cooking class. And it wasn’t my first interest! First, I took pottery, and I was very good at it, surprisingly. And I was interested in photography and dance. But I ended up going to the cooking class, and it was a teacher who was Haitian. And I gravitated towards her, and she gravitated towards me.
She took me under her wing. She was a bit of a disciplinarian! And she was like Eddie, you better come to class. And I remember almost dropping the class my first year. And she was on me. She was like, I need to see you next year. You’re starting this class again next year, right? So I ended up staying in the cooking class for four years.
And as soon as I graduated high school — which I didn’t do too well in, I was suspended over 50 times in high school. But for some reason, I did really well in this cooking class, always. I was always in the cooking class. So when I graduated high school, I didn’t really have my eyes set on college, but I had these four years of culinary experience.
So I got a line cook job in Times Square. My first real job was as a line cook in the Times Square Junior’s Cheesecake, which is a landmark in New York. So at 17, I was a full time 60 hours a week line cook. So I skipped being a prep cook or a dishwasher. I became a line cook, and then I became a sous chef, and executive chef, and now I’m where I am.
When did you become vegan, and what led you to that decision?
Veganism started when I was 23, and I was working at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. And by 23, I’m already five years into the culinary game. I’m working at these fancy places — Ramsay’s restaurant had two Michelin stars at the time, probably in the top 15 restaurants in New York City.
But I couldn’t eat there. I didn’t feel comfortable eating there. I couldn’t invite my friends, I couldn’t invite my parents. So I thought, “I need to find something that fits me.” And I’m working all these hours as a chef, and I needed to adopt a healthier lifestyle. So I gave up caffeine, and then I gave up any type of drinking. And I adopted a very healthy lifestyle just to continue working 70, 80, 90 hours a week as a chef.
‘I made diets for people with cancer, people who had just gone through jaw reconstructive surgery, people who need low sodium, people whose medication conflicts with dark leafy greens. These dietitians and nutritionists taught me how to substitute.’
So I became vegan, and I started meditating, and fasting, and adopting a lot of spiritual practices. And that’s where the veganism came from, about when I was 27. I started to almost fully transition to an alkaline vegan diet, but now I’m just vegan. But when I started, I went as deep as alkalinity and fasting and adopting all those practices.
Did your relationship to the restaurant industry change when you became vegan?
No, not even a little bit. Because by that point, I’m already 10 years into the restaurant game as a chef. And for me, cooking was so much more than just cooking actual product. It was teaching dishwashers and cooks how to follow these recipes, and teaching them the skills to make more money in their career.
You know, cooking is a beautiful thing where you can actually teach someone something tangible. I literally can teach you 50 recipes, and now you’re a chef! Cooking is teamwork, in these places.
So for me, personally, when I went vegan, it didn’t really change my job per se. Ideally, I would have loved to work at just a vegan spot, of course, but at the end of the day, when I’m cooking that food, it’s not for me. It’s for the customers.
When I go and do a wedding for someone, I am a part of their wedding. I want to make their dreams come true, regardless of what I personally feel. As I got older, though, I did start to yearn for being around just vegans and cooking just vegan food, because I felt it was a bit hypocritical to make food that I personally would not eat.
Can you tell me about re-launching your private chef business? Does it allow you more freedom to cook food you’re more comfortable cooking?
Starting my personal chef business was very liberating, because I have full creative control. However, I have a large amount of gratitude for all those years I spent in restaurants, and for my business degrees that I was able to get through the salaries at those jobs. I needed all of those experiences to be able to start my business, how to form an LLC, how to hire people, follow tax codes, get a business lawyer.
How do you develop a menu with a new client, or create meal plans for someone transitioning to a vegan diet?
Before I started my business, I worked with a nutritionist, and I worked with a dietitian at a hospital. I worked at several hospitals, making diets for lots of different patients: people with cancer, people who had just gone through jaw reconstructive surgery, people who need low sodium, people whose medication conflicts with dark leafy greens. These dietitians and nutritionists taught me how to substitute things in people’s diets.
And me, myself, when I went vegan, it was a long transition. I had to eliminate sugar first, to eliminate all of those cravings we create when we’re eating whatever we want. So when I cook for people, the first thing I eliminate is vegetable oil. The second thing I eliminate is sugar, and the things they drink, a lot of times — almost 500 calories a day can come from just the things you drink. So I ask them about that.
And then I ask them to go see a doctor to run a quick blood panel test to see if they need any nutrients before I start messing with their diets. I’m making it clear to them that I’m not a medical doctor, and that they should have a primary care physician and follow their health.
Then I ask them what they crave, do they have any allergies, do they work out? For example, if someone runs a lot, I need to make sure I’m getting them enough carbs. Whereas if someone has an office job or is more sedentary, I know I can limit their carbs a bit. I try to give them all of the information that I can as well.
Another huge part of this is trying to send them encouragement. That’s such a big part of helping someone change their diet. I text them, I call them, to ask them how they’re doing, and I try to encourage them if they’ve fallen off of their diet. I always say that it’s okay, and we can start again tomorrow.
And my diet plans are also about getting someone in the habit of introducing new foods. Maybe a client hasn’t eaten bok choy before, or quinoa, or kamut, or beets. So my diet plan is big on introducing clients to things they’re maybe not used to. These are all things I didn’t have until I became a chef. I had a very limited diet before that. I try to give everyone that experience, to show them there are so many vegetables out there.
‘Being a New York City resident almost my entire life, smoothies are an amazing thing to me. That’s my comfort food. I think smoothies are such a powerful instrument.’
And even if they’re not vegan, I don’t shut them out. I cook food first with coconut oil, and I try to eliminate that vegetable oil first, and slowly introduce more vegetables into their diet. The American diet is so limited in the amount of vegetables.
I know that cooking is your job and you spend a lot of time experimenting — what’s YOUR comfort dish, what you want to make for yourself/your loved ones when you have the time?
Smoothies. I know it’s weird, it’s very weird. But being a New York City resident almost my entire life, smoothies are such an amazing thing to me. You’re running to work, you’re running to the gym, you’re running to a date. Being time efficient in New York is huge. My friends all have two jobs, or a job and a side hustle, or a job and a passion.
I try to tell everyone to make smoothies! Throw something in the blender. You’ll be surprised by how much of an improvement this can make. It makes it so easy to incorporate raw foods in your diet, it makes it so easy to stay hydrated. So I push this, even though it’s weird. That’s my comfort food. I think smoothies are such a powerful instrument.
What’s your go-to smoothie combo?
Spinach, definitely with spinach. It used to be kale. I do spinach and I incorporate the Green Vibrance supplement. It includes probiotics, so if you have that in the morning before you eat, you’re already setting up your stomach lining for a good day. Also berries, mangoes, and ginger. I try to stay away from supplements in general, but I always try to add greens. There’s not a lot of farms in Brooklyn, there’s not a lot of farms in the five boroughs. So if you have five minutes to make a meal, you can get a lot of nutrients right there in a smoothie.
What advice do you have for new vegans, or someone considering veganism?
I would say to throw the word “vegan” away. And think more about your health and what you care about. I love animals. There’s one quote that stays with me, I remember reading it when I was younger, in college. It was from the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, I think. He said something along the lines of, “If I can live without eating meat, without killing an animal, then there’s no reason for me to eat it,” something like, “then why would I kill an animal?”
‘Vegans are a nice supportive community, where we help each other out and keep each other accountable.’
And I would say stay informed on what you’re eating, try to stay healthy. Oftentimes, when you eat vegan, sometimes it’s not healthy. You can have a vegan mac and cheese with pasta and nuts, and it’s not always healthy.
And even if you don’t choose to go vegan, that’s fine, that’s your choice, but try to stay informed on what you’re eating. A lot of times people are not informed on what they’re eating at all, like not at all. If one day you’re vegan and the next day you’re not, don’t beat yourself up. It’s a long process, but eventually you’re not going to crave all of the non-vegan items.
And support each other! I like how the vegans are a nice supportive community, where we help each other out and keep each other accountable.
What’s up next for you?
Stay tuned on my site. I’m about to upload some new recipes. Most of them will be vegan, but some of them will be for transitioning diets. I love the pressure cooker right now — I would encourage everyone to get one. I’m doing a lot of pressure cooker recipes right now, because it’s very easy for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of time on their hands. You can just put the ingredients in and plug it in.