Interview with Michael Natkin, author of Herbivoracious

Michael Natkin's HerbivoraciousWhen Michael Natkin was on a book tour for Herbivoracious, a book that expands upon his site of the same name, he took some time to talk with Eat Drink RI about his background and why vegetarian food. You can read a capsule review of Herbivoracious here.

Eat Drink RI: What was your path to becoming vegetarian?

Michael Natkin: I started cooking about thirty years ago, about the same time that I became a vegetarian. It was a combination of things [that made me decide]. I had a girlfriend at the time who was a vegetarian. I wanted to impress her and learned a few dishes and everything. The real sad part is that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. So she tried a macrobiotic diet and I wanted to help her out so I learned to cook for her.

Literally I went overnight from eating at McDonald’s every day after school with my buddies to, oh look I’m a vegetarian. Seriously, I haven’t had a bite of meat in thirty years except for the times that someone’s given me something and I didn’t realize what I had in my hand. No fish either. I eat eggs and dairy. I’m not vegan.

I’ve been cooking really passionately since then. I lived at Greenbelt Farm in Marin County for a few months during college, when I took some time off. I really liked the whole communal living, cooking for each other deal. I was able to pick vegetables on the farm, take them in the kitchen and cook them for dinner. Very locavore, but thirty years ago, very mind-blowing stuff.

EDRI: This lead to the web site?

MN: I went back into technology [what he went to school for]. I worked at ILM and worked on “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park.” I made Terminators melt and dinosaur’s skin wiggle and all that kind of stuff. I worked on computer graphics. I worked at Adobe on After Effects for the last twelve years. During all that time I kept trying to push the passion for my food. Can it just be a hobby? But it kept fighting it’s way back.

So I took a few months off from Adobe and worked at Cafe Flora, which is a famous vegetarian restaurant in Seattle, and a really great place to get my feet wet in a commercial kitchen. The food is really nice, it’s a big place, it’s fast moving and I was able to get on the line right away. I ran the salad station in the first couple of days. I was there for four months so by the time I was done I had done every possible prep task and worked the pizza station, worked the hot line, pretty much do everything in the kitchen and also get to see how ordering works, how staff management was, how to work with waiters. I kind of got the whole picture there, which was amazing.

I went back to Adobe. Then took some more time to stage at Dirt Candy in New York City. It’s a fantastic restaurant. Amanda Cohen was super generous to let me work with her for a few days. I also staged at Canlis in Seattle. It was my first chance to work in a white table cloth, fine dining environment. I really admire that kind of work, that kind of precision, especially in the plating and the attention to detail. It’s really cool to see a few different kitchens and how different chefs go about things and I try to incorporate a lot of their ideas in my own work.

EDRI: How did the book come about?

MN: The blog had been this product of frustration saying, O.K. well I’m not ready to jump into the restaurant world yet. I’ve got a little kid and can’t be up all night. I’ve got a family life and all that stuff which is definitely my top priority. So I was doing the blog and building these relationships with people in the food world, finding a lot of interest in the recipes and lots of great comments and seeing readership go up over time.A few years ago, Harvard Common Press reached out to me to do the book. I was terribly flattered because I love cookbooks. I read them the way people read novels. It’s been a lifelong dream to have one.

EDRI: So the process took a while?

MN: I spent two years developing the recipes for it, photographing them, beta testing them. With my background in software development we always beta tested our software. So I reached out to people to get feedback. I got something like 250 reviews back which was really helpful. You get a different kind of cross-section then if you were to hand them off to a professional recipe developer. You don’t get the technical parts [worked on], but my editors were incredible for that. But having real world people testers was incredible because you find out, “wow, that’s just too complicated for me to do in my home kitchen” or “my family just won’t eat that kind of thing.” All that kind of stuff.

EDRI: I feel like there’s been a surge of vegetarian cookbooks lately.

MN: I think it’s cool that there’s a lot of interest in vegetarian and maybe a few of us are the vanguard of looking at vegetarian in a different way. Being able to say it’s not about health food. It’s not going to be all brown and beige and it’s not just a free-for-all. So much vegetarian food in the past was we’re going to have some Thai food and Italian food on the plate. Or you’re just going to get a lot of side dishes, potatoes and steamed broccoli. What I’ve seen lately at a lot restaurants, which is kind of disappointing to me, we’ve moved the vegetarian entree past the veggie burger, but you’re going to get a pasta in a beurre blanc. Which is fine, but after you’ve eaten like the tenth one, it’s enough.

EDRI: What’s your main message?

MN: Definitely my message is there are beautiful vegetarian dishes from all over the world where people have figured out how to make really hearty, delicious entrees that have flavor. They’re sweet, they’re salty, they’re umami, they have all the different components that make a dish exciting. That’s how I look at things. I try to make culinary good sense. You can use the whole range of culinary technique too. I look at the ideas from Nathan Myrvold and Grant Achatz type work and see where I can incorporate them.

EDRI: Do you think about meat-eaters?

MN: People almost look at vegetarian vs. new ethical ways of eating meat as opposed to each other. I think it’s almost the opposite. I think they really go together. If you’re going to eat meat, by all means eat the best, most ethical sourced stuff you can and then eat vegetarian the rest of the time and let me help you sort out how to do that.

EDRI: Do you find particular world cuisines work better for you?

MN: There’s a difference between what you can cook at home and what you can find in a restaurant. So many cultures have dishes that may involve meat but it’s so easy to adapt them. I think almost anything other than the standard American diet is pretty friendly to vegetarian. Italian is great. Mexican cuisine is amazingly easy for vegetarian. I really love those smoky flavors and I’ve done a lot of work to try and figure out how to get that back into vegetarian food.

EDRI: What’s next?

MN: I’ve got this idea to take the blog into the physical world. I want to open a test kitchen which would allow me to be a lot more productive as a recipe tester, and then open up a prix fixe lunch for like a dozen people a few days a week. So I’ll be able to test recipes and you can come in and get to eat what I made. There won’t be a menu. I’ll just make a set three course meal.

Natkin recently took a position with Seattle-based ChefSteps, a culinary teaching start-up from some of the alumni of Modernist Cuisine. Read what he wrote about his role there, and congratulations to him on what sounds like a very exciting opportunity.

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