How Ellen DeGeneres Inspired This Carnivore Chef to Build a New Career as a Vegan

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  • Ellen DeGeneres
    Ellen DeGeneres
    American comedian
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Everything Roberto Martin learned about being vegan comes courtesy of Ellen DeGeneres. The chef knew nothing about meat-free, dairy-free cooking before he was hired as her personal chef in 2008. Since then he’s become an authority on the topic, having released two vegan cookbooks, Vegan Cooking for Carnivores and Roberto’s New Vegan Cooking and left DeGeneres’s kitchen to open a vegan café and bar in Los Angeles, eLOVate. The former meat eater himself has also gone vegan, along with his family, and Martin credits the diet for improving their health.

Below, Martin walks us through how he made the transition from a carnivore to a vegan, what he learned about vegan cooking from DeGeneres, and why you should under no circumstances buy vegan cheese.

You were the youngest of 15 kids?

Yup. My parents are both from Mexico — Mom is 87, and Dad is 91. Dinner for my immediate family is for 60 people. We had a small Christmas — that was 30 people.

How did your upbringing shape how and what you cooked?

Unlike some of my peers, I didn’t grow up in a restaurant family. I was the youngest, so I got to spend way more time with my mom than my siblings. My mom started making dinner at noon. We did two servings — the casual serving was for people coming home from school. Then my dad and the five eldest children would sit down, and dinner was more serious and less fun.

My mom is my first mentor in the kitchen. She used to taste food on the back of her hand. She smashed spices in her palm. She never measured anything. And because Mom was Latina, food was how she expressed her love. She didn’t check homework or that kind of stuff, but making sure we were well-fed was how she showed she cared.

What type of dishes did you cook?

We did a lot of stews. We did very meat-centric meals. It would always be around whatever the protein was. Ceviche, fish, pork chop, stews. We never asked what the sides were, because it was always rice and beans.

What were your thoughts on vegan cooking before you started cooking for Ellen?

I would do dinner parties, and I’d get that request: ‘Oh, we have that one vegan guest.’ I’d be like, ‘Ugh, just disinvite them.’ I didn’t know what they wanted to eat.

I was a successful personal chef, had a good résumé and worked for high-end clients, but I felt like I’d done everything. Then this opportunity came up to work for Ellen, but the caveat was that she’s vegan. I almost didn’t take the position because I didn’t think I had the ability to cook in a way to make her happy. Also, I thought, would I get bored? Would I like making this kind of food?

Ellen had a few vegan chefs before, but she and [wife] Portia de Rossi said, ‘We don’t want a vegan chef, we want a chef, and we’ll tell them what to make.’ I took it as a challenge.

How did Ellen and Portia educate you on vegan cooking?

They were never forceful or militant in their love of veganism. It was more, ‘Here’s this documentary I got for free — check it out.’ Or, ‘Here’s this book, The China Study. It really opened my eyes. I’m a science figure. I’m a Neil deGrasse Tyson fan. And then I find this stuff, and I’m like, ‘Whoa.’

How did you adapt your cooking to accommodate their vegan diet?

The first month, I’d make the food I’d always made in the past and just change the proteins and hope they didn’t fire me. So I would use Gardein and Beyond Meat for the protein. Then I made my own garden burgers and veggie roasts. For caviar, I used beluga lentils and soaked them in caper water and added some nori seaweed to give it an ocean flavor. One of my biggest things is flavor combinations. If you take a steak, and you don’t put any salt and pepper on it, and you eat it, it’s not good. What we do is we season it, blacken it, pan-sear it, add an awesome sauce, and a side of mashed potatoes. That is the key of what I do. When those combinations are in vegan food, the flavor is just as good and lower in calories and good for you.

What vegan staples do you keep around? Whether they’re substitutions for meat products or veggies that you use in every dish?

For me, it’s always tortillas in the fridge — flour or corn. Tortillas are more versatile than bread. A salad wrapped in bread sucks. A salad wrapped in a tortilla is delicious.

Snacking becomes easy when you have almonds and cashews that are roasted. Not only are you snacking on something that’s good for you, it’s packed with protein. Beans are great. Skip the fake cheese, it’s gross. Use more guacamole.

If you’re not doing gluten free, pasta’s great. And you have to have firm tofu. However you like your eggs, do the same thing with tofu.

Embrace roasting vegetables. Turn your oven to 500 degrees and take broccoli, cauliflower and carrots, chop them up, toss in salt, pepper, olive oil, and boom! Wait until your oven is really at 500 degrees, and in 10 minutes and the broccoli will be roasted and have some char. It’s so freaking good.

It’s seems trendy now to be vegan. What’s your attitude toward veganism?

It is a lifestyle choice, and you’re not beholden to it. I see people on Instagram that are afraid to taste the turkey at Thanksgiving because of the backlash. My attitude is, it’s none of my business. And that’s the attitude I put across at the restaurant.

How do you think the perception of vegan eating has changed over the years? It seems downright sexy now.

I worked for Ellen for five years, published two vegan cookbooks, and I employ over 35 people. I think about how many people I am affecting in a positive way through vegan food. Is it sexy? This is how I feel: You go buy a car. Maybe you never noticed that there’s a lot of Honda Pilots on the road, and then you get a car, and you notice, yeah, there’s a lot of Honda Pilots on the road. I don’t know if it’s en vogue because I’m in it. I’m not noticing it myself because I’m surrounded by it.

I was a chef for 20 years, and I never had any chef friends. Why? They’re all assholes. As soon as I became vegan, I started meeting people. All are phenomenally talented and better chefs than I am. Chefs have realized that they need to take vegan requests seriously. It’s a challenge for them. Chefs who cook meat and fish all day know that if someone asks for a vegan dish, they’re being compared to other very good vegan chefs out there. They’ve embraced the fact that there’s a lot of room for creativity. If you can make really good vegan food, then you can make any good food period. Any vegan chef when given the opportunity to cook nonvegan food would crush it. That’s something that’s changed.

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