Interview with vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz

Colourful, vibrant and passionate, US vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz talks to Vegetarian Living about spurning cupcakes, mixing cooking with punk music and recreating some healthy takeaway favourites.

Interview with vegan chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz

Words: Iain Aitch

With our television schedules dominated by cookery shows, it's probably only a matter of time before we finally see a wholly vegetarian programme on our screens. But you can bet that, whoever presents it, it won't be as fun or as chaotic as the very first vegan cookery show, which screened in the US in 2003. Post Punk Kitchen may have only been seen on community cable services in Brooklyn and Manhattan, in New York, but its impact on vegan cookery in the US has been substantial and has made something of a celebrity of one of its creators, Brooklyn-born Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

The show featured a then 30-year-old Moskowitz and her co-host Terry Romero cooking in a tiny apartment kitchen while punk bands chopped veg and knocked out tunes in the living room. There was the odd missed note, as there was the odd missed ingredient, but the show's novel content, thematic approach (Valentine's, Passover, Mexican) and raven-haired, tattooed hosts made for something of an underground hit.

Before long an online community started to build around the programme, with hosts and fans alike exchanging recipes. Then came a spin-off book entitled Vegan with a Vengeance, which had a similar feel to Post Punk Kitchen, inspired as it was by punk music, a do-it-yourself attitude and a desire to amuse and entertain alongside the recipes.

'I was holding down a cubicle job and cooking at a café,' says Moskowitz, talking about the show's inception. 'While I was cooking I'd always do a cooking show in my head.'

Moskowitz learned a lot of her vegan cookery skills while volunteering for the politically motivated Food Not Bombs project, during a period in her teens when she was living in squats in Manhattan. She was immersed in a musical scene devoted to bands such as UK-based Crass, who were best-known for being vegetarian and creating expletive-laden wall of noise albums packed with anarchist polemics. The band created stencilled artwork that has since been cited as an inspiration by the British street artist Banksy and they also published leaflets telling their young followers how to make vegetarian food.

'It's [cooking] a lot like learning to play an instrument. If you learn the chords you can eventually play your own songs.'

'It was really the politics and the mentality behind the music that inspired me,' says Moskowitz. 'I already loved animals, I just didn't know anything about vegetarianism. Having a community and developing a DIY mentality made the transition easy. After I learned the basics I was able to cook without recipes, which led to me creating my own recipes. It's a lot like learning to play an instrument. If you learn the chords you can eventually play your own songs.'

More books followed, with most being collaborations with her co-host on Post Punk Kitchen, Terry Romero. Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World was published in 2006 on the cusp of the whole world – seemingly simultaneously – realising that cupcakes look cute and taste good. Though that joyful, icing-topped moment swiftly turned into overkill.

There's more to life than cake

'For a while I swore off cupcakes,' says Moskowitz of the cupcake explosion. 'We had baked and ate so many. But now I can have the occasional cupcake and be happy. I just don't want to be "the cupcake lady", which is what strangers were even calling me.'

This extended tasting session was partly the inspiration for Moskowitz's latest book, Appetite for Reduction, which is jam-packed with mouth-watering vegan recipes that are low in fat and light on the calories.

'I was constantly surrounded by food,' she says. 'I also quit smoking and found it difficult to keep cookies from hopping into my mouth instead. But on top of that I was diagnosed with two medical issues that are known to make it difficult to lose weight. So even if I wasn't eating more than usual, my slower metabolism would guarantee I put on some extra pounds. I wrote this book for me. I definitely didn't want to perpetuate the fat-phobia in the US. I don't think being fat makes you a moral failure.'

A move across the country from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, provided a good deal of the inspiration for the recipes included in Appetite for Reduction, with Moskowitz recreating low-calorie versions of restaurant and takeaway meals that she was missing from her old neighbourhood. Though the dedicated team of tasters sourced from the Post Punk Kitchen's website forums ensured that the writing of the book was not an exercise in overeating for Moskowitz.

'My guilty pleasure is this boxed mash potato mix that is basically instant mashed potatoes and nutritional yeast.'

'If I was longing for my favourite dish from the West Indian restaurant I used to live around the corner from in Brooklyn, I would just have to make it myself,' she says. 'I don't aim to replicate dishes exactly the way I know them, but I just naturally make them my way. Laziness sometimes works in my favour too, so instead of creating a pot pie I make a much simpler pot pie stew. All the flavour, hardly any of the work.'

Another source of inspiration for Moskowitz is her Jewish heritage, with veganised Jewish culinary favourites featuring in early episodes of the Post Punk Kitchen cable show. She has thus far produced vegan recipes for kugels, kasha varnishkes and matzoh ball soup in her books, introducing readers to dishes they may not even have heard of in their non-vegan form.

'I love Jewish–American cooking,' she says. 'Outside of New York City, so few people seem familiar with it. The ingredients are often so exquisitely simple, it's all about the cooking methods and letting pure flavours shine through. Matzoh is definitely bland, but it's somehow nuanced. For me, it's the taste of pure comfort.'

Comfort is very important to Moskowitz's cookery, which is a long way from the stereotypical perception of vegan cuisine as being all about a kind of worthy denial. Her recipes are visual and gastronomic delights, which inspire the reader to try new things and cook outside of their comfort zone, while never underestimating the beauty of the familiar, be it onion rings, curries or vegan pancakes. There is even room in Moskowitz's worldview for the odd bit of junk food.

'My guilty pleasure is this boxed mash potato mix that is basically instant mashed potatoes and nutritional yeast,' she says. 'It's bright yellow and delicious. I have a thing for bright yellow food!'

That said, she is not a big fan of those vegans and vegetarians who rely on meat or dairy replacements.

'I definitely think that depending on packaged foods is a big problem,' she says. 'I understand and partake in the occasional veggie burger, but living off expensive vegan cheeses and frozen fake chickens isn't sustainable for the earth. Of course, there are a billion problems with our food system, but minimising our environmental impact should be a no-brainer.

Post-punk cookery

Moskowitz now works full-time writing her vegan cookery books, with brunch and cookies both recently being the subject of her always-engaging and often laugh-out-loud style. Though her love of community ensures that she does not stay locked away in her test kitchen with a laptop. She regularly holds benefits for animal welfare causes and holds cookery demonstrations to spread the word about vegan cookery being fun and tasty. She may not solely listen to angry, blaring punk music as much these days, often preferring anything from the likes of the Bee Gees to Otis Redding when she is cooking. But the political motivation remains, especially when it comes to the economics and environmental impact of what we eat.

'Local organic vegetables, fairly traded coffee and cooking meals at home instead of depending on packaged foods, those are all lifestyle changes those of us with a choice can make,' she says.

Moskowitz's previous book (with Romero) Veganomicon aimed to make at least part of this process a little easier, being a primer for vegan cooks everywhere. It includes instruction for those who can barely wield a wooden spoon, but aims to help everyone end up with a cordon bleu vegan meal that does not include packaged foods or cheese substitutes.

'I understand and partake in the occasional veggie burger, but living off expensive vegan cheeses and frozen fake chickens isn't sustainable for the earth.'

Sadly, Post Punk Kitchen has never been commissioned as a networked show in the US, though Moskowitz's growing fame means that she has been making appearances on others' shows, including an upcoming Food Network special on vegetarian food. Her next project will be something of a departure from her previous cookbooks, as she is just about to set off for an extensive bout of travelling, taking her sampling spoon and a notebook with her.

With Europe the destination, you can be sure there will plenty of tales of misinterpretations of exactly what constitutes vegan food, but Moskowitz's independent spirit means that she will be able to retain her adaptable demeanour and sharp sense of humour. With Spain being one stop on her trip, you can be sure that she will come back with some great adaptations of tapas dishes, as well as meat-free versions of something that would have sustained the International Brigades and anarchists of the Spanish Civil War.

Appetite for Reduction (£9.99) is published by Da Capo Lifelong Books on 7 December. You can find out more about Isa and her work at www.theppk.com.

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