Chef Jason Wyrick is the executive chef for The Vegan Taste website. After being diagnosed with diabetes in 2001, Jason adopted a vegan lifestyle, lost 100 pounds, and reversed his diabetes. Since then, he has co-authored the NY Times bestselling book 21 Day Weightloss Kickstart with Neal Barnard, MD, became the first vegan culinary instructor in the world-famous Le Cordon Bleu program, and founded the world’s first vegan food magazine, The Vegan Culinary Experience. His new book Vegan Tacos has had the blogosphere buzzing for the last few weeks. I recently had a chance to talk with Jason, and we chatted about veganism, health, and of course TACOS!
Chic Vegan – What motivated you to become vegan? Was it an overnight switch or more gradual shift?
Jason Wyrick – I was fat and diabetic is what it came down to. I had gone vegetarian five years prior solely for ethical reasons. That moment is still crystal clear to me. I was watching my cat problem solve how to find her new toy that I had hidden and I had the epiphany that my cat was also another sentient creature. I certainly knew that on an intellectual level, but there’s a big difference between knowing something and understanding it. I think when people gain understanding is the moment when exactly what eating meat entails hits them. As soon as I had that epiphany, I immediately made the connection that every other animal was like that. I realized that the only difference between the ethics of eating my cat and the ethic of eating a cow was completely arbitrary and that’s no basis at all for a rational ethical system. The problem was, I replaced the meat I was eating with cheese. I was already gaining weight every month and I just kept going. Eventually, I looked like Jabba the Hutt with a human head. By my mid-twenties, I was at least 100 pounds overweight and diabetic. That was 13 years ago.
I found myself in the emergency room of a hospital in Austin, Texas being treated for a serious infection on the back of my neck. It was traumatizing. I remember the physician coming in and angrily asking me why I didn’t put that I was diabetic on my entrance form. The next day, I got the official diagnosis. I had a very good friend who had been diagnosed a year earlier. She went vegan and was able to reverse her diabetes in less than a year, so I just copied her.
I rebelled hard against it at first. I didn’t want to give up cheese and all these other foods I thought were wonderful. I felt horribly constrained. It was extremely stressful because I had to not only go vegan right away, I felt that I had to go super healthy vegan. I would rebel by going to my favorite Mexican restaurant and getting all-you-can-eat enchiladas every Wednesday. Eventually, it was once every other week, then once a month. After about eight or nine months of doing this, I realized they no longer tasted good and I never felt good afterwards. The last time I went, I ordered my enchiladas, looked down at them, pushed them away, paid my bill, and never looked back.
CV – You lost over 100 pounds and cured your diabetes on a vegan diet. That’s amazing! How long did it take to lose the weight and get healthy?
JW – It took about 2 years to lose all the weight, but it only took just a few months to get healthy. I completely reversed my Type 2 diabetes in about 8 months and all the symptoms went away in about 3 months. It was an incredible transformation. The crazy part is that I lost about half that weight without any exercise. As I got healthier and my energy came back, I added in exercise and lost the other half.
CV – When people learn that you are vegan, what is the #1 question they ask and what is your response?
JW – It’s not a question so much as a comment, and that’s usually along the lines of “You don’t look like a vegan.” I’m 6’3” and weigh about 250 pounds, but a lot of people still have the perception that vegans are rail thin, or tatted up, or whatever. The truth is, vegans come in all shapes and sizes. When I hear that, I smile and ask, “How should I look?” That usually makes people laugh puts them at ease, and subconsciously it cues them into the fact that anyone can be a vegan.
CV – You haven’t always been a vegan chef. What made you decide to switch careers?
JW – I had a pretty decent career as the Director of Marketing for a tech company, but it was about as soulless as one could expect. I needed to make a big change and I had just cured my diabetes and learned about the brutality of factory farming. I had a talent with food, but along with it came this compelling feeling that my talent was needed. That if I could help others learn how to make excellent vegan food, their lives would be better and in making their lives better, I could save the lives of thousands of animals. I’ve always felt that if you had a talent with something and you could use it to make the world a better place, you had an obligation to use it. It just happens to be an incredibly fulfilling obligation in this case!
CV – Tell me a little bit about your new cookbook Vegan Tacos. What inspired you to write a book about tacos?
JW – Vegan Tacos isn’t just a book about tacos, it’s about bringing the authentic Mexican taco experience into the vegan world. I love Mexican cuisine because it’s bold, and lively, and soulful all at the same time and a good taco encapsulates all those qualities into one handheld meal. It’s about everything that surrounds tacos, from salsas to drinks to making fresh tortillas, to history, and anthropology, and taco culture, and my family’s personal experience with Mexican cuisine. I tend to be, let’s just say, “thorough” when I write about food. It wasn’t enough to simply create some taco recipes and call it good. I significantly improved my Spanish skills so I could do research on authentic tacos and I even traveled through Mexico to hunt down the best vegan tacos I could find and to discover which regional tacos I could translate into vegan versions. If it sounds like a lot of painstaking work, it was, but it was such a joy to write, I like to think of it as funstaking work.
In a way, writing Vegan Tacos was a natural extension of my work writing The Vegan Culinary Experience, which was the world’s first vegan food magazine. I started the magazine in 2008 and made a pretty good name for myself publishing it, but digital publications are still not considered as professional or legitimate as writing a book and the vegan marketplace has become incredibly crowded. I hit upon the idea of tacos because they are one of those foods that puts a huge smile on people’s faces and because no one has given a real treatment of Mexican food to the vegan community, so I set aside the magazine to write the book. It’s like an amped up issue of the VCE and I can already see the difference the book is making in my personal life and the vegan community.
CV – What’s your favorite type of taco?
JW – It switches all the time because they’re all so delicious! The one I gravitate to the most, though, is a simple taco of black beans, salsa verde, peanuts, and fried chiles de arbol. It only takes me a few minutes to put together, so it’s the one that gets eaten most often.
What do you typically eat in the span of a day?
JW – That’s an interesting question because I don’t have a standard regimen. I have a long-running meal delivery service that I ship all across the US every week. It’s a week’s worth of healthy organic vegan meals and it’s a new menu every single week. I always make myself a set of meals, so I eat that throughout the week. I might have a torta one day, a Thai curry the next, and a bowl of gnocchi the next. It changes every single day.
CV – What is your favorite vegan indulgence?
JW – I’d have to say vegan pizza. Once I got back from Italy, I was completely spoiled, so I built a pizza oven on my patio. There is nothing quite like fresh wood-fire pizza!
CV – What tips would you give someone who wants to follow a health vegan diet but doesn’t know where to start?
JW – Make sure the food you are eating isn’t just good, it’s outstanding. The best way to stick with a lifestyle change is to make sure it’s enjoyable. You shouldn’t be eating food that makes you grimace just to be healthy. Health includes psychology, not just physiology.
My other tip, and this is equally important, is to not let other people make you feel guilty about the choices you make with your new vegan diet. There are a lot of people out there that preach that people should eat only vegan food that is super healthy or it’s not worth eating and they can be pretty abrasive about it. Ignore them. I tried going all-out at first and all it did was make me miserable, so much so that I almost gave up being vegan. Once I figured out that I could transition at my own pace, becoming a healthy vegan was one of the easiest things I ever did. If you have an urgent need to go super healthy right away, then do it, but if not, go at your own pace and don’t ever let anyone else make you feel guilty about it.
CV – In your wildest dreams what will your life look like in 5 years?
JW – I’ve been dallying with a few major networks over the past year about getting a cooking show on the air (I think it would be awesome to have a vegan chef on the air talking about food the way that, say, Rick Bayless does,) so I would love to see that finally come to fruition. It would be an exploration of culture, authentic food made vegan, and food that’s fun! No fussy food, and no dainty food, please! I would also have my first restaurant underway and a few more books under my belt, written with the same thoroughness with which Vegan Tacos was written. I would also be mentoring new vegan chefs and getting them to up their game, so we can keep moving vegan cuisine forward. That’s the food side.
On a more personal side, I would have a role-playing game company as a hobby business and a contract for my first fantasy novel. I’d sit down with George Martin and tell him how much his books influenced the way I run my role-playing games and show him how going vegan could give him some extra quality years to his life, allowing him time to finish the last book in A Song of Ice and Fire, all while sharing some fabulous vegan tacos together. Hey, you asked!