My Turbulent Ride to Become a Plant-Based Chef

I never grew up wanting to be a vegan chef. Hell, I didn’t even know what “vegan” meant until I was in high school. At that age, I didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to enjoy the flavor of perfectly crisp bacon or garlic-buttered shrimp. Growing up in my grandmother’s kitchen and indulging in these and similar fine flavors is why I grew up wanting to be a chef—a real chef.

My mind was made up from an early age. In the fall of 1996, I headed to San Francisco to complete two years of cooking school. Right after that, I moved to the east coast to do a chef’s training program for four years. Essentially, if it moved, I learned how to cut it, cook it, and eat it. This process always involved plenty of salt, oil, butter, cream, and cheese. I had a great time, and I was doing what I loved. After completing my training, I returned to California and became the chef for a high-end hotel for four years. Pizza, veal, lobster, fancy cheeses, and certainly lots of wine flowed freely. I put on ten pounds per year, and at the end of my stay there, I was tipping the scale at well over two hundred pounds. That’s when the universe began to rattle me.

After the hotel was sold, I decided to move on and start my own catering business. During a class to get my certification in safe food handling, I got a phone call from one of my mother’s friends who told me about a guy who was looking for a chef to run his vegan kitchen. Up to that point, dealing with any vegan customers meant serving them a plate of rice with steamed vegetables on top and hoping they’d never come back. But as I wanted to have a successful business, and I figured “vegan” might be something some of my clients might ask for, I thought, “I’m certainly not going vegan, but I could further my education.” I took the bait, and I set up a time to meet my future boss.

He was so enthusiastic, so passionate and dedicated, and he truly believed that a vegan diet would be good for anyone. I thought, “What a nutcase! Why would anyone want to eat vegan the rest of their life?” To top it off, he told me that not only was the cuisine vegan, but I also couldn’t use sugar. I was slightly shocked, but I’ve never been a big fan of candy. 

To be courteous, I agreed to meet him once more. In our next meeting, we started talking numbers, staff, equipment, and whatnot. He also mentioned that I couldn’t use oil, either. What? No oil? At this point I felt like I was in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Out of sheer curiosity and amusement, I agreed to meet him one more time just to see how wacky this whole thing could be.

During our last meeting, we went over more details about the job and the potential growth of the business. It was then that he dropped the roof on me. “By the way,” he said, “you can’t use salt, either.” What ran through my mind sounded something like this: “No salt? No salt? No salt? Did this guy seriously just say no salt? Doesn’t he know that the first and most important aspect of cooking is to season food properly? Did he really just say no salt? This guy is definitely cuckoo. Maybe he’s also about to tell me that I’ll be cooking blindfolded or that I’ll be cooking with one hand tied behind my back.”

But my boss is a very smart guy. His thought process probably sounded something like this: “This guy seems like a capable enough chef. I want to hire him, but I don’t want to scare him off too quickly. I won’t drop the bomb on him all at once. I’ll just feed it to him bit by bit. Otherwise, he’s going to think that he has to cook blindfolded or with one hand tied behind his back.”

Whatever his thought process was, he was a fish out of water. No way was I going to take a vegan job, and most certainly not a salt-free, oil-free, and sugar-free vegan job. Under normal circumstances, I would have told him, “Thanks for the offer. I’m going to think about it, and maybe I’ll get back to you.” But this crazy vegan guy had two things going for him, and he didn’t even know about them. One, I’m a sucker for start-up projects. He was moving his business into a newer and bigger facility, and I would be opening the kitchen from the ground up. Two, I was scared that I might not generate enough income with my catering business to support my family, so a steady paycheck with a bump in pay compared to my previous job was certainly enticing.

But the man had just said, “No salt.” How could I introduce myself as the chef to any customer and be able to stand up for my food when it had no flavor at all? I was so very close to turning down the job, but I accepted it with the idea of furthering my education, learning about vegan food, and getting out of there in six months. I knew if I stayed any longer than that, it would ruin my chefness.

I’m truly happy to report I’ve been the chef at TrueNorth Health Center for over twelve years now. I’m very grateful for all that I have and will accomplish here. You might think this is a heartwarming story and that as soon as I became a vegan chef I had found my happily ever after. The truth is, that’s the furthest thing from what really happened. 

I took the job, and over the next two weeks, I cooked many dishes, but I would put a small portion of each dish aside and add a little bit of salt from a stash I kept hidden in a shelf. I would taste my dishes, and I figured that since all my new customers weren’t used to the same level of salt that I was, that we were tasting my food at about the same level of enjoyment. To my surprise, after two weeks, I no longer needed the salt to know whether or not my food was good. Within a few months, I had lost many of the extra pounds I was carrying, and I had a lot more energy to keep up with my daughter. I then began writing my first cookbook, Bravo!, and pulled the kitchen together bit by bit.

This may sound like the start of a great job, but the vegan novelty wore off quickly. A constant war raged daily in my head for the next five years. I would hear my inner critic put me down: “Why have you lowered your standards? Why are you wasting your talents? Why are you here, you fool?” I would try to argue that I had a steady income and that I was healthier. But it didn’t take long for me to feel angry and ashamed for staying at a job where I didn’t want to be. Every day I kept thinking, “Why am I here? This isn’t what I trained for.” 

Social media made me even more miserable because I saw my fellow chef friends working in great restaurants and making wonderful food. Adding insult to injury were the meal plans at TrueNorth, which meant from time to time I had to deliver plates of steamed vegetables or the occasional baked yam. Many people would greet me with great joy, and they would tell me how wonderful I was and that I was changing and even saving their lives. Even though that was a great compliment, all it did was enrage me more. “Why am I here? They can get anyone off the street to bake a yam and do my job. What the fuck am I doing here?” This conversation went on and on inside my head for five years.

While all this was churning inside me, my life became a statistic: one of the 50 percent of marriages in America that end in divorce. I was at a very low point in my life. But I distinctly remember having one thought: “You’re not special. You are suffering from the same problems that thousands of others are suffering from.” So I surrendered to the idea (based on one of those cheer-you-up social media posts) that my life wasn’t falling apart; it was falling into place. I decided to have one more conversation with the voice inside my head. “Either shut the fuck up or get another job, because we’re not doing this anymore.” 

For the next two years, my life transformed into one filled with gratitude and joy. I discovered meditation, and I began to enrich my life with positive people and experiences. I hosted a radio show for a year called The Love Kitchen. I learned to be happy and to embrace who I was. I accepted the fact I would lose some of my chef skills as a by-product of being a happy vegan chef. It may not be what I had trained for, but I was not going to cling to my skills at the cost of my sanity. 

Two years later, it all finally clicked together for me. I knew how to be a regular chef, and I had also become a damn good vegan chef. I didn’t have to choose one or the other; I was both, I was twice the chef, not half of one. I can now engage in food conversations with any steak-and-potato-loving Joe and a raw-kale-salad fanatic at the same time. This is something no regular or vegan chef that I know can do. I am a happy man who has found his purpose in life. I can cook tasty “regular” food, and I can also cook delicious and healthy vegan food. I can give people everywhere ideas for how to eat healthier, no matter what kind of diet they follow, and thus I can help them improve their lives. So yes, this story has a happy ending, but don’t get me wrong. Like I said, I’m not special at all. Without my daughter, this story could have to gone to shit. Without her, drugs and alcohol would have been easy to turn to, but I think kale and oatmeal (with the occasional naughty morsel) were better choices.

How did come to existence?

I have enjoyed teaching people how to cook for a long time. I do cooking demos, hands-on classes, appearances at Veg Festivals and also my ongoing job at True North where I answer a lot of food questions. All of these teaching avenues give me great satisfaction knowing that I am helping others live better and healthier lives. But in our modern world where the internet can connect people across the world in an instant, I felt there was yet another way for me to teach others about the joys and benefits of plant-based cooking. So, a few years ago I had the idea of having an online cooking program so anyone around the world could learn about plant-based cooking. Problem was, I knew next to nothing about film production. And yes, these days anyone with a phone camera can record any number of topics and post them online. But the self-critic in me was dead set on having a high-quality product that looked like the cooking shows on TV.

For two years this idea brewed in my head. But the more I researched it, the more complicated it got. And by complicated, I mean expensive. I was trying to have a champagne party, but with only a beer budget at hand. And again, besides being an expensive project, I had no idea about film production. But the universe was kind enough to intervene. One day I shared my idea with a wonderful woman at True North and she was willing to help. She knew of a great film crew who are not only amazing at what they do, but they were priced very reasonably, and so that got the ball rolling. I flew down to San Diego, worked crazy long hours and I got more makeup put on my face than I care to admit and we captured great plant-based footage. Three days later dazed and completely exhausted, I flew home knowing I had overcome my biggest hurdle in making my dream a reality.

Once the project started, there was no turning back, it was full steam ahead. I found a great web designer, someone to do the logo and part of the film crew did a superb job with all the film editing. And so finally, after having a great idea that I didn’t know how to turn into a reality, came to life. I do hope you enjoy all the information, tips, help and advice it provides for you. May it help you have a longer and healthier life.

Chef Ramses Bravo

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