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A chat with an Avant-Garde Vegan

There aren't many vegan chefs who can boast over a quarter of a million followers on Instagram, but one man who can is Gaz Oakley – better known by his online moniker: Avant-Garde Vegan. Although still only 25, Gaz, who hails from Cardiff, has worked in some of the most renowned restaurants in Wales. Alongside bringing a range of tasty and attractive dishes to the Instagram crowd, he also holds an exciting position as executive chef at Vurger Co in London. We managed to speak to him ahead of the release of his latest book, Vegan Christmas.

The Vegetarian: Hi Gaz. First of all, who inspires you in the kitchen?

Gaz Oakley: When I was a young chef, I looked at people like Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay but now that I’m vegan there isn’t really a celebrity top chef like that out there, especially in the mainstream media. My main motivation really is the cause that I’m working for; trying to save as many animals as I can, encouraging people to go vegan…

TV: And where do get your ideas for flavours - such as when you’re travelling?

GO: I generally get my inspiration from day to day life. If I’m at a supermarket or a market and see some vegetables that I think I can do something with, I’ll always experiment. Or generally just looking back on nostalgic flavours; things that I miss, textures that I miss, trying to re-create and make them vegan is something that I do often.

TV: You’ve been vegan for a while now, have you noticed any differences with your health or fitness?

GO: When I first went vegan, I felt a lot ‘cleaner’, lighter, more energised. I went vegan overnight and prior to that I was eating lots of meat and dairy because I was weight training. As soon as I quit that I felt a lot less run down, so yeah, I definitely noticed positive effects when I first went vegan.

TV: Which would be your top three ingredients to have in your kitchen, if you want to create some good vegan dishes?

GO: Sea salt and pepper; I think any chef would say that you need that to bring out flavours from the dish. My next ingredient would again be something to help season; miso paste. It’s always been a huge thing in Asian cooking, like Japanese… but miso paste is an amazing way to bring out flavours and add seasoning, depth and flavour to dishes, which is really important in vegan cooking. The third one – I couldn’t live without chickpeas. You can make a quick curry, houmous, falafel. You can make so many things with just a tin of chickpeas.

TV: What simple dish would you recommend to make when you don’t really have time to cook?

GO: I would just get everything out of my vegetable tray in the fridge; whether there’s pepper, half a courgette, a red onion, bit of broccoli, spinach, a few tomatoes, a bit of tofu. I would just make a quick stir-fry.

gaz oakley

TV: You do a lot of work on your YouTube channel. How long does it take, on average, to produce one recipe film?

GO: I film around four days every two to three months and I film 12 videos in those four days, three videos a day. I hire a studio, I hire my crew and then you have to hire things like a make-up artist, lighting, a kitchen assistant to help me in the kitchen. Depending on the size of the
recipe, it usually takes anywhere from one hour to two hours to film each video. I make one dish and hopefully I don’t mess up during that take of it and we can get the perfect results just by making one dish. I keep trying to improve every time I film a new season of videos… and up the level with creative graphics and on-screen animations, so they’re going to get better I think, and the recipes are even better too.

TV: Do you do your own food photography?

GO: When I started my Instagram, over two years ago, I started taking pictures of the dishes I was cooking at home and posting pictures of them that I’d taken on my phone. Then I decided to upgrade
and get a proper camera. I didn’t know how to use it but I learnt on YouTube and invested in props and backgrounds so the pictures were actually getting a lot better. It got to the stage where I was asked by companies to do specialist food photography for them which is obviously a great feeling.

Still, to this day, I do a lot of my ownfood photography but I am so busy these days. I’m lucky that during the video shoots that I do, I also hire a photographer to come along so as I’m
cooking up my food I’ll make sure I present beautifully. Everything that I post on social media is all food that’s been cooked by me. It just may not have had a button pressed by me on the camera, but I still do my own food photography.

TV: One of the things people worry about is those big occasions, like Christmas, and the food you might miss if you’re a new vegetarian or vegan. Do you think your new book, ‘Vegan Christmas’ addresses that?

GO: Definitely yeah. I cooked for my non-vegan aunties and cousins last Christmas and had a vegan Christmas dinner and they didn’t miss anything.

TV: What did you make?

GO: The ‘No-Turkey’ that’s in my Christmas book, I did the cauliflower cheese, stuffed squash and a huge array of sides. People would always say stuff like, ‘I could have a vegan Christmas but I’ll miss the pigs in blankets’, so that’s what encouraged me to make ‘No Pigs in Blankets’ recipe which is in the book. I get comments on YouTube saying ‘you’re vegan, why do you still want to make meat-like things?’, and it is just going back to the point - you live your life as a meat-eater for 20+ years you become accustomed to tastes and textures. So, I’ve no issue with making them. I believe that the more offering, the more people that are going to potentially cut down on meat, or better, go vegan.

gaz oakley

TV: What would be your favourite dish for Christmas?

GO: I really love ‘The Ultimate Christmas Roast’, that’s in my book. It’s just got every Christmas flavour you can think of inside it and it’s an easy way to make seitan, which, if people haven’t made before, it’s the perfect thing at Christmas time. You can get this nice ‘meaty’ texture but it’s a lot easier to make; just amazing orangey, cranberry, sage, rosewood, chestnuts - all those lovely Christmas flavours are inside.

TV: We’re so hungry now… Do you have any tips for people who are cooking on Christmas Day?

GO: Definitely. My advice is don’t make it on Christmas Day! Do all the main weekly things; seitan, centrepieces that are in my book such as the ‘No-Turkey’, ‘The Ultimate Christmas Roast’, the ‘Beef’, and the ‘No Pigs in Blankets’ - that can all be made three to four days in advance and all you need to do on the day is do the final touches. Then you can just make sure that your sides; your vegetables, your gravy, the potatoes are all top notch because you have time. You’re
not worrying about the centrepieces - they’re already done and dusted.

TV: How do you feel about a nut roast… are you a fan?

GO: Yeah, I’m a huge fan. A nut roast is absolutely incredible. The one that’s in my book [Festive Nut Roast Wreath] - it’s almost like a ‘meatloaf’ because the way you get texture from the pulses, the lentils, the nuts and it’s absolutely beautiful. I cook it in a wreath mould and the crispy edges are just incredible. It’s all about seasoning and making sure you’ve got enough substantial textures in there to make it wholesome really.

TV: And on your Christmas menu this year, will you be having a special dessert, do you like a traditional Christmas pudding?

GO: Christmas pudding is lovely. I did make some profiteroles that are in my Christmas book which are absolutely amazing so, maybe I’ll cook them for the family.

TV: So, what’s next for you Gaz… are there more books in the pipeline?

GO: In the short term I’m going on this amazing book tour… to be able to travel is another amazing way to learn and soak up cooking and cultures. In the long term, my goal is to have a restaurant when I reach one million subscribers on YouTube and I’m now half way there. In the meantime, I’m working with some big restaurants in the UK. I’ve just become executive chef of The Vurger Co in London. Definitely more books in the future, not in the short term future. I want to learn more, I want soak up more culture. I want to explore my other passions, which is ethical fashion. I want to create my own line of clothing. I’d love to do fitness videos and just show people how to live a really good ethical life.

TV: We feel quite exhausted listening to that but very inspired as well…

GO: I hope that I can put it all into fruition, I don’t see why not. Just stay tuned to my social media.

TV: Yeah definitely! Thanks so much for talking to us Gaz.

GO: Thank you for all the good work that you guys do, it’s great.

gaz oakley

For a sneak peek of the recipes in Gaz Oakley's 'Vegan Christmas', go to our Christmas pages, where you will find recipes for Tofu Benedict, Herb-crusted cauliflower and leek "cheese" and Christmas Pudding.

VEGAN CHRISTMAS: Over 70 amazing recipes for the festive season from Avant-Garde Vegan, Gaz Oakley (Quadrille, £15.00) Photography: Simon Smith.


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