Transcript of the No-Bullsh!t Vegan podcast, episode 128
Self-care for chefs, food insecurity, and more: a discussion with Chef Stephanie
Karina Inkster: You're listening to the No Bullshit Vegan podcast, episode 128. Chef Stephanie Michalak White speaks with me today about the plant-based program she helped to develop and launch at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts, the market need for a program like this, and self-care in the culinary industry.
Hey, welcome to the show. I'm Karina, your go-to, no BS vegan fitness and nutrition coach. Thanks for tuning in today. Have you had a chance to check out my latest book? Resistance Band Workouts for Seniors came out very recently, just in June, and it features my awesome 70-year-old mom demonstrating all 50 exercises. And it doesn't just show you the exercises; it also teaches you how to put together your own well rounded workout program. So you can check it out, and my other books too, at Karinainkster.com/books.
I'm excited to introduce to you Chef Stephanie Michalak White. Stephanie is a chef instructor for the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts Plant-Based Program, a culinary arts program that she helped develop and launch. She has over a decade of experience in the culinary industry. She holds a bachelor of professional studies in culinary arts management, a master of arts in food studies, and recently completed her doctorate in higher education leadership.
She's passionate about seasonal and plant-based eating, sustainable practices, ending food insecurity, and the role of self-care in the culinary industry. Chef Stephanie's favourite dish depends on the season, but right now she's really into tamales with salsa verde or mole verde. Here's our discussion.
Hey Chef Stephanie, thank you so much for coming on the show today. Great to have you here.
Stephanie Michalak White: It's a pleasure. I'm super excited.
Karina Inkster: Me too. We got a lot of stuff to go through. So why don't we just jump right in? You've got a serious history here in the culinary world. So I'd love to hear a little bit of background first. Then we're gonna go into the program that you have created and that you're working in. So what's your origin story when it comes to just being in the culinary world at all?
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah, so it’s funny. I have different parts of my life that really influence like, oh wow, I really should be in the industry. But you know, one of my first food memories growing up, my grandparents used to grow raspberries and sell them on the side of the road. So I used to help them harvest and sell and things like that, which, you know, child labor’s a thing now. So that probably wouldn't happen anymore, but it was magical when I was a kid. And I really fell in love with that connection to food. My mom's a big foodie too. So we used to kind of do chores on the weekend and it became a thing where we'd go and try a new restaurant every single weekend. So for us, that was the time I got to bond with my mother.
So food became very valuable to me in that way. And then in high school, kind of those two things kind of wrapped around the whole fact that food became very political for me. And I got really pissed off at the American food system pretty early on and that kind of drove me down a path of veganism, but then also realizing that I just enjoyed cooking and I loved cooking for other people and creating delicious food that could nourish them as well. So there's a lot of little pieces in my life that make sense now, but definitely when they were happening, I would've never been like, oh yeah, I should've been a cook.
Karina Inkster: Interesting how that works. So was veganism kind of developing at the same time then like the interest in all things culinary and also being plant-based or was that kind of a separate thing?
Stephanie Michalak White: It started separate. But then I realized that you know, I loved food prior to that. But funny enough, one of my first food memories is actually eating a carrot cake at this place called It's Only Natural, which is in Connecticut, which is where I grew up. A vegan restaurant as a four year old, I had no concept of that. But it was my favourite food and they did it amazingly well. And then I became vegan. I was like, oh, shoot, this has been like a part of my life this whole time. So in many ways it started separate, but really it ultimately kind of was the same thing, which is kind of odd.
Karina Inkster: Yeah. Well odd, but also really cool how that works.
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Karina Inkster: Neat. All right. Well, thank you for that. So you are an instructor and you helped develop and launch this amazing program. Can you tell us a little bit about this plant-based program at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts? I'm very excited to hear about it.
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah, absolutely. So Escoffier has been doing online courses for quite a while now. Almost I think a little over nine years now, which is crazy to think about as far as online education, but really amazing. And you know, we have a culinary and pastry program too and a couple other programs, but those are kind of our larger programs and I started at Escoffier kinda at the beginning of the pandemic and they had already started building this plant-based program. And you know, I started my veganism journey back in high school, but I went to culinary school as a vegan and I worked for a lot of vegan establishments over the years, and really tried to hone in, even when I wasn't working at a vegan place, a lot of plant-forward foods just to show everybody the abundance.
So I kind of seamlessly fit into being a subject matter expert for the courses and helped develop the recipes and a lot of the content before we launched it. And then when we launched it, I was able to help oversee it as the lead chef instructor. So super excited because by this point we have our first cohort that started in July of last year. It was our first cohort ever for plant-based. And when they get back from summer break they're in their last practical course before externship. So they'll almost be graduates, which is amazing to think that we'll have plant-based graduates very soon.
Karina Inkster: Ooh, that is very amazing. Wow. It sounds like a pretty involved program. So what does it look like in terms of, I know that there's an online part, I think it's a year, right? And then there's this externship, what's the deal?
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah. So it's essentially the diploma program is 60 weeks. We also do have an associate's program, which is a little bit longer because of general education courses. But the plant-based section of it is the same. The major difference with the associates, they do that general ed and then they also do a second externship, which for anyone not in the culinary world, every culinary school basically calls their internships externships because it's external from the from the culinary institute. So a lot of our courses, we start with foundations courses, and our courses are six weeks long. At least the online ones, our Boulder campus also has an in person plant-based program, which is amazing and awesome too, just not everybody lives in Boulder. So, it's great that we have an online program where we have students literally from around the world.
So that's pretty, at least in my book, pretty baller that we have plant-based peeps like in other countries. So the first three courses are culinary foundations. So you know, the first one focusing on knife skills, but also classic culinary techniques using all plant-based ingredients. Then their second course, they really hone in on stocks and soups because that's a foundation for really any chef, but particularly for plant-based. And then they've got a couple weeks on grains and a couple weeks on legumes. Also, obviously really paramount to making delicious and nutritious plant-based foods. And then PB 103, which is their third course. They go into some of the plant-based proteins. So they make seitan from scratch. They're working with tofu and tempeh. I've been working on getting some Burmese tofu added into there as well for the people who are avoiding soy, cuz that's a thing as well.
So that's a really cool course. And then they move on to two pastry courses which is amazing because I think that's where a lot of folks who may be great at vegan cooking in general, the baking side gets goofy with like aquafaba and flax seed meal and things like that. So you know, they're making vegan brioche, they're making lemon meringue pies, cookies, scones, some really cool stuff. So those are really two amazing courses. And then they move onto a seasonality course and an approaches to wellness course, which kind of spans a lot of different health trends ranging from like Ayurveda to macrobiotics to raw veganism, to just health trends as well.
So they do kind of a specialty week their last week, where they learn about like plant-based keto and what that kind of looks like from a nutrient density perspective. So after that they go into two cuisine classes. So it's a really diverse program and then they do their industry experience. So they get six weeks and they work at a variety of different places. It really just depends on where they're located, if they're gonna move or not. So we're trying to work with plant-based companies too so our plant-based students can actually work somewhere fully plant-based, but it's gonna depend on geographic location too.
Karina Inkster: Well that was one of my logistical questions. I have two for you based on what you just shared. So one is, yeah, how does this externship work when folks are potentially around the world, right? If they're doing their online section of this course, then how does that work? Like do they kind of network on their own with places that might have opportunities?
Stephanie Michalak White: That's a great question. So we have a career services department. They're amazing and phenomenal. They help both our students and our alumni. So they do a lot but they definitely help coordinate and provide suggestions. So it's really up to the student to find a location site that's appropriate for them, cuz every student's got their own desires of what their experience is going to be like. Also, you know, are they looking for 100% vegan or are they looking for a place that does a lot of vegan and other things too? Because our students are diverse too.
So you know, we're happy to help kind of facilitate the process, but it's up to the student. But we do have suggestions and places that career services will recommend and stuff like that. But it's up to the student to create the contract because once they graduate, it's up to them to get their job too. Well we're certainly happy to help and we have a lot of business courses where students will practice like interviewing and writing their resume. So we try to prepare them as much as possible for the industry and getting ready for that. But they're adults and they're crushing it, so they're gonna do it themselves.
Karina Inkster: That makes absolute sense. Other technical question: what is Burmese tofu? I've been vegan for 20 years and I’ve never heard of it.
Stephanie Michalak White: Haha! you know, it's like a hidden gem. So Burmese tofu is chickpea tofu.
Karina Inkster: Oh!
Stephanie Michalak White: It’s made out of chickpeas, yeah. So two different ways to make it: you can either soak the chickpeas from dried and then pulse it in like just a Vitamix works totally fine. And then from there you cook it down until the starches just starts to release from the chickpeas and then it'll actually solidify. So you make it differently than a soybean tofu where you'd add a coagulant, where the starch is naturally in those chickpeas to start to kind of thicken it. But you could use chickpea flour too. Not everybody has the time to soak chickpeas and or has a high speed blender.
So you cook, especially the chickpea flour, very similar to like making polenta. But then you get this cube. I usually add some turmeric and some nutritional yeast in it too and some salt just to add an extra depth of flavour. And you can thicken it pretty much as much as you want. So you can kind of make like a silken version versus an extra firm. It's just cooking out the liquid at that point. But it's super cool. I actually really love to cube it and deep fry it because it gets super crunchy, but then a little gooey in the centre. So it's just a magical experience for me. I love it.
Karina Inkster: Very cool. I might need to try making my own because a) I've never heard of it and b) of course I've never tried making it. So I think that would be kind of a cool experience.
Stephanie Michalak White: You should do It. Yeah. Yeah. I have a recipe. If you need it, I can send it over.
Karina Inkster: That would be great! So clearly in developing this program and in launching this program, you knew that there was a need and a desire for this out there in people who want this type of education. And of course we've all seen this, right? Like our listeners are all on the vegan spectrum somewhere. So we all know, even if it's just a business decision for companies at this point, which in many cases it is, you know, the large scale food producers who are saying, oh, we have a vegan option now or fast food restaurants who have Beyond Burgers or whatever.
You know, it basically is exploding now worldwide, but how do you see the market or the industry need for specific training in plant-based culinary skills? Like this is pretty niche when we talk about veganism in general, right? Like yeah, sure, companies have vegan options. If you go to a restaurant now more often than not there's vegan options or they have little labels of what's vegetarian and what can be made vegan, but this is pretty specific to folks who are learning in-depth culinary skills.
Stephanie Michalak White: I think it's a long time coming from an industry perspective, especially the hospitality industry, because well you've been vegan just as long as I have been. And there were the times where people looked at you sideways, where you got the like weird spinach salad that was supposed to have goat cheese on it and they just kind of forgot it. So it's nice that at least in the market there's more options just in general, but the reason why we need a program like this is because in most culinary programs veggies are a side. They’re more considered the side dish. And just in general, chefs, not just plant-based chefs, but chefs in general, are really leaning, especially in the last decade, leaning into veggies and understanding the depth and complexity and amazingness that they are.
So being able to hyper focus on plant-based cookery, whether or not somebody actually is themselves vegan, or if they're doing it for the market standpoint, we all need to know that like carrots, aren't just good for mirepoix in stock; they're amazing. They can be braised, they can be grilled, you know we could turn them into a puree and make a beautiful sauce or soup. So there's just so much we can do. And it's finally getting to a point, I think, where that's the traditional kind of avenue in classic and we still follow classic principles. They're still learning classic techniques and the food science behind everything. But we're taking it from that plant-based lens. So we're finally at a point where people are really digging this and I think it's just gonna make the food that we're producing as a society more flavourful and hopefully also a little bit more to the roots and not always hyper processed.
I mean, there's definitely a place for plant-based meats and things like that, but at the same time, really being able to use classic techniques to wow the crap out of people, you know for lack of a better word. So I really think we’re finally at a point where restaurants are viable, food trucks are viable, private dining services are viable. Like the opportunity to choose to have a company or to work for a company that's fully plant-based and have the customer backing is finally there. You know, it's not just like the one or two customers here and there that's like, hey, by the way, I'm vegan. And you're like, oh, you know, well, what are we gonna do? I guess we have pasta, you know?
So we're finally at a point where people are expecting and preparing to serve vegan customers, which is awesome. So there's a huge need to be able to do that well, because you know, there's competition out there making amazing vegan food already, and they're just gonna go over there if you can't compete. So that's kind of where I see that the market really expanding and why it's so important to have this niche.
Karina Inkster: Of course. And you mentioned things like food trucks or private dining services and a whole bunch of different options. Are these some of the routes that graduates will take? Like what kind of things are people in the program looking to do?
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah, you know, our current student population is super diverse. Some are already working in the industry. Some are planning on building either their own restaurant or like a food truck. Food trucks tend to be relatively popular, which is awesome because you're not trapped in a brick and mortar. But at the same time, it's one of those things where like, if you want a brick and mortar, you want a brick and mortar, and it's an amazing thing, but you know, you gotta rely on foot traffic and people move a lot nowadays. But you know, some of the other ways that our students are looking at it is private cheffing, catering, personal cooking. I mean, making product development too and creating lines of product that are specifically plant-based. Otherwise, there's some really cool opportunities to work for establishments still.
Not everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. We teach them business skills still because even if you're a manager at a restaurant that you don't own, you still need to know how to figure out your labor costs and your food costs. So you know, some wanna take the super entrepreneurial route and like go for it, and some of them already are, which is amazing. We have a bunch of business owners already. And then we have other folks that wanna work for other people. And that's awesome too.
Karina Inkster: That is awesome. Are a lot of these folks kind of doing a 180 or doing a career change or are a lot of them earlier in the career game? Younger folks, maybe?
Stephanie Michalak White: Mm-Hmm, you know, it's been interesting with plant-based where we've seen a lot of diversity where some are either career shifters - especially at the beginning of the pandemic, we saw that in general. That being said, we've had a lot of folks who have been in the industry for a couple years or more, and are really trying to deepen their skills. We've had a lot of our previous graduates from like the culinary program and the pastry program jump over to plant-based too.
So they're getting like a full spectrum education, which is amazing. You know, and some are brand new to it, but like they've been vegetarian or vegan all of their life, and they're super excited to start their education and be in a program where they don't have to look or feel animal products, which is what I had do in culinary school. And that was okay with me, but that's not cool with everybody. So yeah, they're all over the place in age and demographic. It's awesome.
Karina Inkster: That is awesome. Is this mostly what you're focusing on? I know you've done a lot of higher education. You have a PhD and higher learning and leadership and such. So is this kind of your main thing, or do you have other projects on the go?
Stephanie Michalak White: My main thing is definitely Escoffier and this program. I also help with the holistic nutrition and wellness program that we we offer, which has a lot of plant-based aspects to it as well. It's not fully plant-based, but it's definitely got really, really good roots in that as well. So in many ways, I mean, they're not my babies, but I feel particularly attached to both of those programs and helping them be the best that they can with the feedback that we received from our students and our faculty. So that's kind of my main stick right now, but my research for my doctorate was on food insecurity and higher education institutions. So I just finished that recently. It was an EDD from Maryville which is in St. Louis, if anybody needs to know that, for whatever reason, I have no idea. Really cool program.
I loved my research and I'm really hopeful that I get to work a little bit more with that and research a little bit more and also address food insecurity. It was earlier in my career, I used to do some presentations on advising patients and clients on the snap budget. So it's kind of been an undertone for my career and also my academic trajectory. Plant-based and food insecurity have tons of intersections too and just increasing food access and food literacy is what really excites me and gets me going every day. So I'm hoping I get to integrate it a little bit more at Escoffier in the coming future.
Karina Inkster: Interesting. What might that look like? Just as a kind of example, like integrating food insecurity, would that be like an educational component within the program, for example, or would folks be doing research or how would that look?
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah. That is a big I have no idea cuz I I'll have to see what the executive leadership wants to do, which is totally cool and they're amazing. So I will support whatever they decide. You know, the way I look at it really is internally helping our current students understand food literacy and education for themselves, but then also hopefully for their future customers or clients or wherever they go because food insecurity impacts all of us in some way or another. So currently the way I would see it, at least initially, is to help provide additional resources for internal student population to help them be as successful as possible throughout their educational journey, but then also take all of what they've learned and be able to help others.
Karina Inkster: What about in your bio, you have a section about the role of self-care in the culinary industry. So this is interesting to me. The next podcast guest I have, I don't usually do two in a row, but the next one, right after you, also put self-care as part of something he wanted to talk about within the vegan activism world. So there's like this overlap of self-care in different industries. And so is this like, I don't know anything about the culinary industry itself, so I'm a total newbie to this stuff, but is this like something that's really common where folks just work themselves to the ground and they don't leave room for self-care? Like why is that an important topic?
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah. You know I do think the industry is slowly changing. More chefs are coming out about mental health issues particularly, but this industry is not known for work-life balance. That's just not something we do. That's not what chefs do. But at the same time it should be, you know?
We shouldn't have to self-identify as the person who works 14 to 16 hour shifts, six to seven days a week, you know, sacrificing basically our livelihoods to provide a great customer experience for other people. Because we work most holidays, we work in the evenings when other people are off, we work the weekends, you name it. When everybody else is off, we're the ones working. So that's just fundamentally difficult to be able to balance spending time with other people because usually it's opposing schedules.
So there's that aspect. It's also just working, especially on the line or in kitchens that are kind of more traditionally run, you're on your feet pretty much the whole time, except maybe if you break for a family meal, which is usually, you know, like a half an hour before service or before everybody needs to set up for service. So yeah, I can't even count the times I snuck food and ate it over a trashcan right outside the back door to make sure I ate something before having to go back to work. So yeah. Balance is not something we do really well. And for me especially as a culinary educator now, I just think it's really important both in the education world too, but for our students to realize that like they're the future of our industry.
And I honestly, I would hate for anybody to go through the hours that I went through without being able to take care of themselves because you shouldn't have to power through like that. Like, there's nothing right about it. And honestly, part of the hospitality industry too, especially around cooks, we don't really talk about emotions. We don't really do that. And it is one of those things where you shouldn't have to be afraid to be like, hey, I gotta go to therapy. Like things are not right. And that's okay. That's just not, historically it hasn't been a thing. I definitely think there are more restaurants and more establishments that are opening up to that, but it's also a lot of small businesses, healthcare and all of that, balancing it. With mom and pop joints it isn't always a thing either.
So there's just a lot of play that impacts self-care. And as an industry, we kind of burn the candle at both ends and think that we're like warriors that need to do that just to be cool and be tatted and like make amazing food, but really it's it's not helping anybody and we can't be the best we can be for either ourselves or other people without taking care of ourselves. So for me, it's a really big part of both working in the industry, but also helping our students realize that they can carve a whole new pathway in the industry knowing that they can take care of themselves and knowing when to say, you know what, I need a day off, or, you know what, I'm not gonna take this full-time job. I'm gonna take a part-time job, or whatever else is going on in their life. So that's kind of how I see it there.
Karina Inkster: I think there would be, I assume anyways, some systemic level change perhaps because sure, I mean, folks can advocate for themselves, but doesn't that only go so far if your organization or business that you're working for has expectations, you know, like that might not line up with your boundaries?
Stephanie Michalak White: Oh yeah, absolutely. And that's I think what's so difficult, not just for the hospitality industry, for most industries, is that it’s, I don't know how many times I've seen on social media that like people are, they leave jobs because it's not conducive to their mental health or physical health. And then we also have these businesses that may not be changing even with flight like that. So it's interesting to think about it from a company side, because I would hope, you know, I'm a manager, I manage people, I’ve run kitchens. So like I care about my people. And for me, the people part is one of the most important things because you can't do whatever you're doing without them. But not everybody runs businesses that way. And there is that systemic need of, we have to get things done and we may be short staffed, but is that the employee's problem or fault?
No, but we gotta work with what we have. Even the managers realize that. It’s kind of one of those things where ultimately, thinking about society as a whole, we do also need to look at legislation that impacts different industries. What are the labor laws? What does overtime look like? And, you know, are there capacities or things that we should be following or the government should provide support for? You know, we're in a weird spot politically right now as a country. So that's like a whole rabbit hole that I don't think we need to go down.
Karina Inkster: Yeah. That would be multiple podcast episodes, haha.
Stephanie Michalak White: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So maybe we don't go down that route, but I do think I agree with you. I think it's systemic. There are things that need to happen fundamentally from a labour perspective, to be able to provide the care to both employees and self-care individually to be at a better place in society.
Karina Inkster: Absolutely agreed. Yeah. Well said. Is there anything about the program at Escoffier that we have missed? Any tidbits or vital pieces we've skipped over?
Stephanie Michalak White: You know, I think we've covered little bits and pieces and it's always really interesting to think, even though we have this curriculum that's set up, each student has their own experience through it. And I always find that higher ed is very much about whatever the student wants to take away. And part of that piece, at least for me, is always their instructors or their professors, depending on how you wanna look at it. And our faculty are so awesome. They're super cool people. They've been in the industry for a long time both as instructors and just in the hospitality industry.
And our plant-based crew, they're phenomenal people. They're amazing chefs. And I think it's something that we always talk about the curriculum. We always talk about like, what do they get to make? What are the topics? But at the end of the day, our students are coming to Escoffier because we've got really cool instructors. Like they know what they're talking about and they've walked the walk and they can help talk the talk and help the students navigate what they wanna do in their life. So that was one thing I did wanna bring up, is our faculty here are amazing people. And they're the unsung heroes of the program. I will say that.
Karina Inkster: Well I love that. And you're one of them and you're one of them and one of the founders of this amazing program. So kudos to you. It's absolutely fantastic.
Stephanie Michalak White: Nice. Yeah, we try to do our little thing. And generally speaking at this point, the other faculty members that I get to work with on a daily basis are the lifeblood of it. So I'm just happy to help facilitate.
Karina Inkster: Very cool. Well, Chef Stephanie, it was fantastic speaking with you. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Happy to connect, and I hope we can talk again.
Stephanie Michalak White: Thanks again for having me. And I hope you have a good rest of your day.
Karina Inkster: Well thanks so much! Chef Stephanie, thank you again for joining me on the show. Head to our show notes at nobullshitvegan.com/128 to connect with Chef Stephanie, and to learn more about the plant-based program at Escoffier. Thanks for tuning in.