In this episode of the Sentient Media Podcast, we meet the incredible Chef AJ: host of Chef AJ Live on YouTube and Healthy Living with Chef AJ on Foody TV, author of best-selling books like Unprocessed and The Secrets to Ultimate Weight-loss.
Previously, Chef AJ was the executive pastry chef at Santé Restaurant in Los Angeles where she was famous for her sugar-, oil-, salt- and gluten-free desserts.
In this episode, we talk about the future of food, if cultivated meat provides a real alternative to traditional meats, and of course get some tips about how we can optimize a healthy plant-based diet without compromising on taste.
Ana Bradley: Welcome to another episode of the Sentient Media Podcast where we meet the people who are changing the way we think about and interact with animals and our world. Today, I’m really excited to welcome the wonderful Chef AJ, host of Chef AJ live on YouTube and healthy living with Chef AJ on Foodie TV, also author of the bestselling books, a lot of bestselling books, like Unprocessed and The Secrets to Ultimate Weight Loss. Previously, Chef AJ was the executive pastry chef at the Santé restaurant in Los Angeles, where she was famous for her sugar, oil, salt, and gluten-free desserts. So today, we’re going to talk about the future of food, if cultivated meat provides a real alternative to traditional meats, and of course, get some tips about how we can optimize a healthy plant-based diet without compromising on taste. So thank you so much for joining us today, Chef AJ, I’m such a fan of you and what you do. Let’s kick things off. I want to hear more about your story. So what was your journey into plant-based living?
Chef AJ: Oh, boy. So the main part of the journey was I love animals. And I think that’s where a lot of people start this, with the ethical component, because the truth is, is I was born in 1960, and nobody was talking about the environment then you know, I know that’s a hot topic right now global warming and animal agriculture. But it was very recent that that was even part of the conversation. And the truth is until Forks Over Knives came out about 10 years ago, I don’t think most people were really talking about veganism or plant-based diets for human health either. So really, if you went vegan, it was because you loved animals. I always wanted to be vegan or vegetarian growing up, I thought eating animals was not just wrong, but I just thought it was bizarre. I really did. And, and I’m grateful for a couple of things. For my mom, I know she is a single parent, she did the best she could and in 1960 we didn’t have Neal Barnard, or PCRM telling us that we didn’t need to eat animals. So you know, she thought, well, you know, if you don’t eat milk, if you don’t eat meat, you’re gonna die. But she was respectful enough that at least I didn’t have to eat anything that looked like an animal. So in other words, like, if, you know, a lot of times when you eat fish, you know, the fish is like, it’s the bones and it still has the head. And there was I mean, I would be like disgusted and sick, there would be no way. But tuna fish and a can, on a sandwich I was able to somehow ingest because it didn’t look like the animals. So like, I might be able to eat a bowl of chili, I’d had beans and some ground beef. But I couldn’t eat anything with a bone or you know me that looked like an animal so that this and this was just something how I was born because everybody around me ate animals. The other good thing was is that I am Jewish, and we were raised orthodox, which was I’m not now, I’m a nondenominational kind of person. But still, ethnically I am because I’m considered Jewish. There were animals we didn’t get to eat anyway, which is so awesome. Because in my work now with people with weight loss and food addiction, what we know is you only can develop taste preferences for foods you habitually eat. And the only really taste preference that human has is for breast milk, everything else is learned so because I never ate pigs and we didn’t have bacon or pork, we didn’t have milk with meat. So I never had a cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza. And there were just very few types of animals we could eat. I really couldn’t eat any shellfish. We couldn’t eat lobster, clams, crabs, shrimp, any of that. So you know, what could we eat, you know, a little chicken, maybe a little fish. So I never really developed the taste that other people do like thinking these things are delicious. Which, what I want people to understand is if they are delicious, they’re delicious, because of what you put on the sugar, fat, and salt. I mean, if you like lobster, it’s because you dipping it in butter of high caloric density. If you like bacon, it’s because it’s cured in sugar, fat, and salt. Unless you’re a carnivore eating the animals, you know, uncooked, the reason you like animal products is because of how you cook them, and what you put on them. By themselve they’re not delicious, don’t believe me, then next time you see a cow go bite into it and knock yourself out because first of all, you don’t have the teeth to do it. And second of all, it would be disgusting and you wouldn’t like the way it tasted. So I think I was born vegan in my heart. But it wasn’t until the age of 17 when I went to the University of Pennsylvania and I can tell you the date. I call it my veganaversary and it’s coming up on 44 years September 1, and I stopped eating animals entirely and I would have done it sooner and I wish you know like going back in time I wish I would have stood up to my mother more but like I didn’t have any money.
Chef AJ: I should have probably figured out rice and beans. But anyway, you know I’m not making excuses. But still, 44 years is a beacon that’s a lot of animals not eaten. And I went to university in Pennsylvania because my dream was to be a veterinarian. And I always joke that instead, I became a vegetarian because on the job the first day the man in the white coat, the doctor, and I was on scholarship, gave me a tank of live salamanders and said I need you to cut all their heads off. And I’m like, Why? He goes, Well, we’re doing protein lens regeneration experiments and the salamanders take up too much room when they’re alive. Just give me the head. And I didn’t want to do it because I remember even as a young child being taken fishing, which I think is just so cruel and bizarre. I mean, I just, I’m squeamish I can’t I can barely get a blood test without like, I can’t I just not into anything like that. So I did it once and I literally vomited. It was such a horrendous traumatic experience. I remember going to the Student Health Centre and then you know, I said to the doctor, I said, “no can do” and so they put me in the lab meaning I just washed things like for the rest of the semester, and then I transferred out of my major because I couldn’t dissect the cat. I couldn’t dissect the frog. I couldn’t, I couldn’t I mean, they were dead, by the way, the cat and then I even before PETA I just knew that somehow this was wrong. And but there was nobody else in the world to say you’re normal for thinking this right? And to me, thank god people like, you know, Neal Barnard, and others saying, “Yeah, this is barbaric. This is wrong. And, and it’s unnecessary”. That’s the other thing, so I never became a veterinarian. And yes, so that’s kind of my story became an ethical vegan. The problem was, and this is where it’s, I almost feel like I don’t fit into any group or any world because even though I am an ethical vegan, it’s funny that I mean, I wore this shirt today, just because it matched my shorts. I’m like, Oh, I got blue shorts, I gotta wear my shirt that says vegan, you know, compassion, all these things. I was a very unhealthy vegan. And it’s interesting because, in 1977, we didn’t even have the products that they have today. We didn’t have Beyond Meat, I don’t even know all the names, you know, all the cheeses and meats and milks, there was nothing, there was nothing as far as I can remember, except for because Seventh Day Adventists were vegetarian, they did have some canned meats from Loma Linda, which was like not that delicious, but I don’t remember there being the kind of products that they have today. So I could have technically done this healthfully, had I known more, you know, eating beans and rice and fruits and vegetables, but I became a junk food vegan. So basically, I was just omitting the animal products but not really eating healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes I was having Coke slurpees for breakfast, which are vegan and Dr. Pepper, bagels for lunch, and french fries and potato chips and all kinds of really non-food items that lack fiber and nutrients. And unfortunately, I became obese close to 200 pounds. But more than that, because my blood tests were still pretty good. I didn’t have high cholesterol or high triglycerides or high blood pressure because I wasn’t eating animal products. But I developed what they call pre-colon cancer from eating a junk food vegan diet with no fiber, I really didn’t eat fiber till I was 43 years old. Like I didn’t get the memo that if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you’re supposed to eat fruits and vegetables. So my story is that I’m also an advocate for a healthy vegan diet. And I see that there is a place for these fake meats and cheeses, especially in the carnivore world really. But for people that especially have compromised health or excess weight or really trying to be healthy, these are not things we should base 100% of our diet on 100% of the time.
Ana: Absolutely. I mean, that’s really interesting to hear your journey into how you transitioned from vegetarianism, veganism, and then the actual diet shift. When did you become interested in becoming a chef?
Chef AJ: Well, so I was funny, that was never on my to-do list. I always loved cooking. I remember getting an Easy Bake Oven for Hanukkah when I was seven. And I always especially baking because I find I find baking fascinate like because it’s more chemistry than cooking. I always say that cooking is more of an art baking is more of a science. But what happened is, is when I got my pre-cancer diagnosis, and they weren’t able to remove the polyps, during the regular colonoscopy because of the state of disarray of my colon and my ill health and they said you’re going to have to come back and have surgery, I went to a place called the Optimum Health Institute, where they teach people that what you eat actually has a profound effect on how you look feel, what diseases you get, and ultimately what diseases you can reverse. And when I went there, I ended up adopting probably the strictest version of a plant-based diet which was 100%, raw, uncooked, low fat. I mean people can do it and they can be very healthy. But it was difficult for me to do this diet, I ended up doing it for close to six months strict and about two years less strict. And when I went back and had my colonoscopy, my colon is clear, clean pink vascular, like a newborn baby. The doctor said he accused me of having surgery. So I went to culinary school, just because the food didn’t taste very good. I was eating just like you know, like plain fruit plain vegetables and I’m like if I’m going to stick to this and not go back to slurpees and Dr. Peppers, things are gonna have to taste a little better. So I went to culinary school it was so funny because my first chef job, I mean, was $15 an hour which was like $35 less an hour than what I was making my other job you know, working it as an activity director in a Retirement Home. So it wasn’t that I was trying to become a chef, it was that I wanted the healthy food to taste better. And now it’s much easier, especially since the pandemic, everything I learned you pretty much can learn online.
Ana: Yeah, right. So I’m curious like about two things. One is, you came to the chef space slightly, like, slightly more recently, but the world of chefs is notorious for being very male-dominated. So I’m curious, firstly, about if you experienced any kind of that, you know, male…
Chef AJ: I don’t know if I experienced the aggression, but I have a really funny story about that. So when I was working with, you know, there was a transitional period, where I was still working in with the seniors. And I had to keep that because the chef job didn’t pay anything. So when I was working with the seniors, there was a Jamba Juice, a place to get smoothies really close by. So when I was transitioning my diet from coke slurpees, to a really healthy one that I was having green smoothies or fruit smoothies for breakfast, because it was right there with the work. And it’s very noisy, and Jamba Juice, think about like, you know, six blenders going and they go, what’s your name? And I go, Abby, that’s my legal name, Abby. And they say what and I say Abby and then go, AJ was just easier, right? And it was also easier for the seniors, they couldn’t remember Abby. But somebody had given me this necklace. This is AJ. And they could, it was just easier to remember AJ. And so that was my name, Chef AJ. And so when I applied for jobs, they didn’t know that I was female, which was to my advantage, because I would get there and they’d be like, oh, you’re female. What are they going to do, make me leave? Because then they’d be discriminating. So I’d still get to do my test day. Because when, I don’t know how it is now. But this was 2003. When you, I don’t want to say audition, that’s when you apply for chef jobs. Basically, you work again for free, and they see what you could do. But my work was good. And they hired me. So it actually worked to my advantage having initials instead of a name because they thought I was male.
Ana: That’s so interesting and obviously devastating. But that’s awesome that you managed to get through the door, at least. But the other thing I was curious about is I guess since 2003, have you seen a transition in the role of plants and plant-based products in the kitchen?
Chef AJ: Absolutely. I think that, you know, people are motivated by what sells in business, you know, and you know, you want to like bash all the businesses for things but the truth is, business is business. I think Michael Moss told me that. And if something healthy will sell or something plant-based will sell they’ll keep it on the menu, they’ll do it. So for example, I remember the year 2000 we had it well, they’re still there. It’s a restaurant, a fast, fast, casual Mexican restaurant called Sharpies. It’s in Southern California, I think they have a few locations in Washington and maybe Nevada and I used to go there for a burrito. And they make a big deal about organic but they didn’t really understand what vegan meant. And I would go and I’d get you know, basically, beans and rice and I would come home and they’d be cheese in it or sour cream or fish. And every time I would like actually like call the CEO and they would come and deliver a new one. I’m like, David, just forget it. I’m not eating there anymore. You don’t understand. So it was an opportunity. I had him come to my class I educated him. And there it’s actually on the menu. Now the AJ burrito where it is like basically beans and rice and steamed broccoli and a little guacamole and pico de gallo which doesn’t have any edit oil. And like they finally got it right and because it’s a delicious burrito like you know, that’s why and so plant food can be anything. That’s weird because people eat plants, they don’t even realize it. You know, everybody loves guacamole. Everybody loves salsa. Everybody loves hummus. And everything that’s delicious about meat is the plants. So if you like wings, it’s not because it’s a chicken’s arm. It’s because you put in the ranch dressing or the barbecue sauce. Everything you like about the food is from the plants. And again, if you don’t believe me, then just start eating all your meat raw now. And you tell me how much you enjoy it don’t add any sugar, oil or salt. You’re going to hate it.
Ana: It’s so funny. So yeah, onto the kind of the whole-food plant-based approach. You know, looking at people like Dr. McDougall, he’s reasonably loose with white starches you know white rice things like that. Are you more of a whole food absolutist?
Chef AJ: Oh, that’s so funny because my heart belongs to Dr. McDougall because I think he helped me so much in understanding what I teach now which is calorie density, and understanding that for, at least for me, it was the fat in my diet that was keeping me fat even when it came from whole food sources like nuts, seeds, and avocado. So I’m not gonna lie I love white rice. I do. It’s my favorite do I eat it every day? No, but it’s my guilty pleasure and I don’t shy away from it. But I also eat brown rice and red rice and black rice and quinoa and millet and you know, other grains. It’s not like I’m sitting there eating white rice three times a day. I might need it twice a week, sometimes three times a week but as part of a healthy meal with other things. And I do eat white potatoes but my favorite food is sweet potatoes, which I know are considered very healthy by pretty much everybody in the plant-based diet. So I would say if my diet is based on any starch, it’s that just because it’s my favorite.
Ana: Right. And me too, I love white rice. And what about so the plant-based animal product alternatives that we touched on a moment ago, they’re obviously not as healthy as a whole food plant.
Chef AJ: It depends on what a person’s goals are, I think people have to be realistic as to what they are. And, you know, it’s funny because people say, oh, but we need them as transitional foods. And that could be absolutely true. But there, I know, some vegans that are 100% junk food vegans like I was, and they’ve never transitioned, and they’re not eating any fruits and vegetables. So I think that you have to look at the totality of your diet, and if you’re going out to a restaurant once a week, and having a beyond burger, I don’t think that’s the end of the world. If you have if your health where you want it, this is the thing. And again, I’m not going to tell, you know, an 18-year-old vegan athlete, you know, that has no weight problems. No, you should never eat that. That’s not what I’m saying. But you know, I’m in my 60s, and most of the people I’ve worked with are people that already have lifestyle diseases, right? They’re already significantly overweight, they probably have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides. So for this population, these are not necessarily the healthiest foods that are going to move the needle to get them where they want. So I tell people, what are your goals? And then we work within that parameter. I mean, I don’t think maybe if I knew I was gonna die, maybe I would taste them. But like, to me, I didn’t like animal products anyway, so I don’t want something that bleeds or looks like meat. It’s like for me, as a vegan. It’s like, That’s weird. Why would I want to eat a fake chicken wing or a fake burger? I mean, I do make burgers, don’t get me wrong, but they’re made out of sweet potatoes and rice and broccoli, things like that. They’re shaped like I don’t even like that we call them burgers. I mean, they should be called something else patties. And I don’t like the animals aren’t called what they are because people wouldn’t eat it. If they, you know, we’re eating pork No, you’re eating a pig. You’re eating bacon. No, you’re eating a pig. Let’s you know you’re not eating beef, you’re eating the cow. See, they trick you by doing that, for some reason chicken, we still call chicken. I don’t know how chicken and fish that, you know, got through that way. But the other animals, we don’t call it animals. We call it something else that confuses people. And I think if children knew what they were eating, you know, I don’t want to torture children and have been seen Earthlings when they’re four years old. I think a lot of that a lot more kids wouldn’t eat animals if they knew where they came from. By the time they figure it out, those tastes are set, you know, people’s tastes get set, and they get very stubborn about giving them up.
Ana: You’re absolutely right. And it also depends on like in your case, and in my case, what the parents do and what their answer is. So yeah, I think that’s a, it’s a very good point. But thinking about like food form, as a chef, so we know that altering the state of, you know, a grain or blending a fruit, you know, to make a smoothie or whatever changes how the body absorbs it, and how the body reacts. So you can get like blood sugar spikes and things like that. Like, but obviously, for you as a chef, changing how the form of the food is a really powerful tool to change the taste and change how people interact with what you’re making. Do you think about the effect of food form on your dishes?
Chef AJ: It depends who I’m making it for. Because a lot of times I’m hired by doctors like Dr. McDougall to teach in his program, and then I have the parameters within which I have to work. I think that what I tried to do is just make delicious recipes that will fit for everyone. Right. But again, I think like for people that don’t have health issues, or they don’t have weight issues, or they have weight issues aren’t interested in doing anything about it, then I think a more flexible approach can work. What I’ve said and I wish I could, I’m going to be cremated. But if I was buried, I want this on my tombstone. Because I’ve been saying this since day one, because people say, Oh, she’s so restricted. No. What I say is, well, first of all, what are your goals, but then I say, do the least restrictive diet that you can do, but that will get you the results you seek. But you can’t, you can’t expect that if you do like my junk food vegan diet that I had, you know, in the 70s to have stellar health and an ideal weight unless you’re, you know, genetically very unusual. So what is the least restrictive diet you can do, but that’s going to give you the results you seek. And many people seek a vegan diet, not just for improvement of health, a reversal of disease, because they find that it gives them just so much more energy, they feel better on that. And there’s so many versions of the vegan diet, as you know, and, you know, I’m just happy when people are vegan. I also and this is another thing and this is where I get a lot criticized a lot. You know, because I never fat shame anybody. I was fat for 52 years. The thing is, is I think if you’re a vegan advocate, you want to try to look as good as you can, because they’re always pointing the finger at you. Like there’s I don’t even want to give them dignity to say their name. But there’s this horrible YouTube channel that’s basically anti-vegan, that will take people that are successful in the vegan world and they’ll like they’ll take the worst picture they can have us like you know, sometimes like when YouTube like you might look kind of weird like and they’ll say, look, look how horrible this person is because they’re vegan. So I think that if you are an advocate you want to try to be the best-spoken person. To be healthy doesn’t necessarily mean to be good. It just means to look as healthy as you can and feel as healthy as you can. Because I think that is attractive to people that we’re trying to bring in. And that’s why it’s so cool when you see these of these older people, like, especially women, because you know, women, when they get older, they don’t all everybody, but it gets older, we get wrinkles, you know, things like that, but to see people like, you know, Victoria Moran in her 70s, Linda Middlesworth, who’s almost 80, these are people that have been long-term vegans. And I mean, they look 2030 years younger than their age. And you can say it’s genetics a little bit, but we know that what we eat has a profound effect, because I’ve gotten, I don’t want to say I’ve gotten better looking, but I look at younger pictures, and my skin has gotten better, just things, I think I’m aging better than a lot of people my age or people in my family. So you know, again, I think eating plants is the best thing you can do. But eating whole plants is perhaps even better for your health and longevity. But again, it depends on your goals of just I’m so happy when people want to be vegan. Also, I don’t want people to get sick. Ana, this is what I worry about people follow the junk food vegan diet like I did, there’s a greater chance that they could end up with a lifestyle disease, either because they’re missing some nutrients because they’re not like me, or eating any fiber, or because you know, they could get some disease, and then they go to your doctor, they go to their doctor, and most doctors are plant-based unless you seek them out there. Oh, see, it’s because of the vegan diet. So, you know, whatever you do, just eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and do that as well. That’s what I tell you.
Ana: I have a question for you that I think I know the answer to. But you know, we’re kicking off this theme week where we’re talking about the future of food. And often when we think about the future of food, or what our future food system might look like, cultivated meat is at the top of the list. So would you have a cook with cultivated meat?
Chef AJ: You know, I don’t want to I mean, I think it’s great, because, again, you’re not harming animals. And if you can create it at a price point that’s less than meat that looks like me, that tastes like meat. I just, it’s just creepy to me. I never like that texture. It’s just too reminiscent. So I wouldn’t do it. But I mean, I have all the other dishes that can go with it. So what people do, you know, because like, for example, if I want chicken, which I don’t want, I could put jackfruit in its taste like it’s got that mark, you know, so I would rather use plants. But again, I don’t bash the people or I think it’s great that they’re doing it for the people for whom it will serve. But for me, again, the meat analogs, especially when they make it like full make shrimp-like in there put them they’ll make it look like it’s creepy to me, it just that’s just me. But if you like it, please eat it. You know, because it’s always better than eating an animal. But I think eating a whole plant is probably better than eating a processed plant. For most people most of the time.
Ana: I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think for a lot of people. And you know, friends and family of mine included, like it’s hard to imagine a world without meat or fish. And I think largely because of tradition and culture. And even like for me as a vegan going somewhere like Paris. And you know, you see croissants and all these pastries everywhere. And it’s kind of sad to miss out on that in a way. So do you think that plant-based chefs have a responsibility to kind of reinterpret these traditional dishes?
Chef AJ: That would be fine if that’s what they want to do. And I think that everything you see in Paris can be made plant-based. I’ve never been there. But what I mean is, you can make everything vegan, somebody can maybe I can’t, but there is some talented chef out there that anything you can make, they can do vegan. And I think a lot of them, even ones that aren’t vegan, are becoming more interested like that chef in New York that made the whole restaurant vegan. He wasn’t even a vegan like that. So there’s I think there’s a possibility and I think there’s hope.
Ana: Yeah, I think that whilst we have all of these, like older traditions and cultural tropes to lean on, you know, meat and dairy, we are seeing the changes, like you mentioned, Daniel Humm and the restaurant Eleven Madison Park, and then we also have the New York Times food newsletter that’s going vegetarian/vegan now. And then we have like, there’s this online website, Epicurious, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they’ve decided to not publish any new recipes that include beef.
Chef AJ: Right, Isn’t it about time? You know, it’s sad that we have to wait, you know to me, it’s just I understand global warming and how dire it is, and that there are people that wouldn’t have been vegan without that concern. But it’s sad to me that it’s just not enough that animals are being tortured and abused that that wasn’t enough for people, you know what I’m saying? It’s bizarre to me how people could ever have thought it was okay. And I’m not talking about like, if you’re in Tanzania, and you’re part of a hunter-gatherer tribe, like the Hadza, I’m not talking about that, where they actually procure their own animals and things like that. But if you live in the United States, or pretty much anywhere in the world, I mean, just the fact that people just think it’s okay what’s been going on in all these factory farms for years and, and then you’ve got you got, I know two kinds of people either ones that just don’t care and you’re not going to change them because you can’t give somebody empathy when they don’t have it. And then the ones that just don’t want to know. Right, you know, and I think that’s the global warming is a wake-up call because people are going to have to know and, you know, it’s like Paul McCartney said, so many years ago, if slaughterhouses had windows, everybody would be vegetarian. And the people have been putting their heads in the sand for too long. And, you know, we’ve been the crazy vegans when, when it’s, I don’t know, we’re the ones that are actually saving the world one bite at a time.
Ana: Yeah. And I think it’s also interesting how the health argument seems to just get buried. And I feel like what happens, you know, with messages like McDougall’s, and with other kind of whole food plant-based messages that we’re like, I don’t know, that the meat and dairy industry are kind of pushing these different agendas, but you’ve got keto, you got all these other, you know, diet options with lots of weight and money behind them that are trying to cause confusion when you’re googling, you know, what’s the right diet to have.
Chef AJ: And don’t forget about the pharmaceutical industry, people they play, because what people want, people don’t understand. And I once said this in a lecture, I was actually giving lecturing at a medical school, believe it or not, and the person said, that’s not true. And then I got all the research that showed it was true, the curriculum of medical schools is controlled by the pharmaceutical industry. And so if people were healthier, they wouldn’t need as much medication. And I love how Dr. Kim Williams, who is a past president of the American College of Cardiology said there’s two kinds of cardiologists, vegan and those that haven’t read the data. And so, you know, our whole healthcare system is not a healthcare system. It’s a sick care system. And it’s built on pills and procedures. And so if people ate like us, there’d be a lot fewer deaths from heart disease and other diseases. And it’s not the doctors would go out of business. That’s the thing people have to reinvent themselves and, and do more of lifestyle medicine, for example. And, you know, like, obviously, people have to feed their families. So what are farmers going to do? You know, like, they’re not all going to do like Howard Lyman, The Mad Cowboy, but you know, they need some, either education or some programs because you can’t just like just say, Okay, I’m vegan. Now, what am I going to do with all these cows, they need help to help these people that want to do it, because a lot of them, I mean, I know people that like, are higher-ups in companies like soda and sugar companies that are completely against sugar, but they privately but they still sell these products, because it’s their job, right. And they don’t know how to get another job that will pay that. And so I think we have to find ways to help people that way, you know, because, I mean, if agriculture, animal agriculture, I could wave a magic wand and just shut it down, or at least shut down the dairy industry, there’s a lot of jobs that are going to be lost, right? And so somebody that’s much smarter than me, and economics is going to have to figure out how to make that transition because it is just so bizarre. I, I don’t know if reincarnation, you know, is real. But if it is I hope that if I come back, you know, I’ll come back at a time where we look back at animal agriculture, like we do now. I mean, like people, I mean, I’m sure there’s still child labor in parts of the world. I don’t know how the whole world operates. But as far as I know, at least in the United States, it’s against the law, you know, things like slavery, it may exist, but for the most part, at least here, it’s against the law. And I’m hoping that one day when our descendants look back, they’re gonna say, Can you believe that they had these things called dairy farms, you know, because it’s so cruel. And I just think people just need to be educated, you know, if people knew that their milk contains so many parts per million of blood plus and feces, there are people that might not drink it anymore, you know, but people, you know, they say, ignorance is bliss. And the thing is, is the people, like I say, they either don’t care or they don’t want to know, but we’ve got to find a way to get them to look at the evidence. And because once you see it, you cannot unsee it.
Ana: Yeah, but I also think that there’s like, the role is for decision-makers and policymakers, you know, coming from the top coming from the government to put these things in place, rather than putting the responsibility totally on individuals who might not have access. I mean, lots of people don’t, you know, don’t have access or aren’t aware of say how to live a healthy, incredible diet on hardly any money just buying, you know, potatoes and broccoli.
Chef AJ: Or they don’t think it’s healthy because they’ve been told. You’re probably familiar with Dr. Milton Mills, how he talks about how U.S. dietary guidelines are racially biased, you know, and, milk in schools is subsidized. Like they have to have it, but no, no you don’t. But you know, you know, now you can get soy milk, but it’s always like, you know what, you got to ask for it. No, that should be the default. And if you want dairy milk, they should have to ask for it. Perhaps you get a note from their doctor just says it’s okay.
Ana: Yeah, right, exactly. So like what future would you like to see for food and our relationship with it?
Chef AJ: Well, I’d like to see a world where everybody has enough for sure. And I think that if people were vegan, we would have enough because the amount of land and water that we take to make meat we could fill up and we can feed the whole world. So for sure enough food for everyone at a price that people can afford and so if there are going to be subsidies, whether it be for healthy things like beans and rice and fruits and vegetables, you know, let those dollars go farther, let the world at least be fair, so that things cost what they really cost so that we’re not paying, you know, $4 for a head of organic cauliflower, but paying, you know, 49 cents for a cheeseburger Let it be fair, you know, it’s not fair, right now.
Ana: No, it’s not fair right now. You’re absolutely right. That’s definitely the future that I would love to see as well. So I had like a couple of controversial things. So you’re familiar with the Blue Zones?
Chef AJ: Yes. I’ve interviewed Dan Buettner.
Ana: Yeah. Yeah. And obviously, you’ve interacted with Lorma Linda, which is one of the Blue Zones.
Chef AJ: Yes, it’s like, an institution. So many wonderful doctors practice there.
Ana: Awesome. Yeah. So for those who don’t know, Blue Zones are those areas, a few areas around the world where people live healthy, long lives into the, you know, their hundreds. And Dan Buettner pulled together a great study and continues to work on this with National Geographic and with his company, the Blue Zones. So I’m curious about your take on the fact that what like two of the primary things that Dan Buettner says we should have, as part of our diet is oil and a little alcohol. What’s your take on that as part of a healthy diet?
Chef AJ: Well, you know, I think he’s a wonderful person who’s made wonderful contributions, but I don’t think he’s a medical doctor. And I go by what the medical doctors say, which is the World Health Organisation says that no amount of alcohol can be regarded as safe. I don’t know if the reasons that the people in the Blue Zones live longer was because of alcohol and oil, do the Okinawans drink alcohol, I don’t know, the thing is, is what I see, when I look at the Blue Zones, what they really have going for them that most Americans don’t, especially since the pandemic is close personal relationships. And people in, at least in the United States, don’t seem to have that. And I think that is a longevity, a factor just as much as the potential of drinking alcohol and having oil, you know, that it’d be interesting to ask that to Dr. Esselstyn, you know, who reverses heart disease, but alcohol is a toxin. It’s toxic to every cell in the body. You know, I mean, if you’ve, if you’ve had people in your family, like me that have been hit by drunk drivers, you have a different view of alcohol, then maybe somebody that feels like they have to have it in their diet. It’s a highly addictive substance. I don’t I feel like there’s no, I don’t want to say there’s no place for it. But I don’t see the reason for it. You know, it, it’s, it doesn’t exist in nature. Our ancestors didn’t drink it throughout much of human history. It’s very calorically dense. It’s linked to every kind of cancer. So I have a really hard time believing that the consumption of alcohol, I mean, he is he’s saying that based on his work, or actual scientific studies, I don’t know. I feel like if you don’t drink, that would be not a good reason to start. I think I’d like to see more evidence on it. But I have seen, I can just say that I’ve seen more lives destroyed by alcohol, then that helped by alcohol. So that’s what I would say to that. As far as oil, you know, it’s been, again, the poison is in the dose. So are we talking about somebody that has a glass of champagne on their birthday and New Year’s Eve? Or are we talking about somebody to drinks every single day, so that that would also be a factor, but with oil? You know, again, I don’t see how, whether you believe in God or nature or whatever, why a highly processed food like oil and alcohol would be the secret to longevity, when I feel that what Jack Lalanne said over 80 years ago, is which is if God made it eat it, if man made it, don’t eat it. There’s no oil in nature. There’s no alcohol in nature. And I believe what I’ve heard many times said that whenever you have a question, always look to nature. There is no alcohol in nature. Unless a, you know, I guess a piece of fruit could fall down and get rotten. There could be an alcohol-like effect, or, you know, there’s no oil in nature, you can’t make oil. And I also think that, and this is why I don’t understand people promoting oil, especially in the United States, where 70 percent of the population is overweight and 40 percent are obese. It’s the most calorically dense thing on the planet. I don’t call it a food, it’s 4,000 calories a pound. If there was anything in oil that you needed, wouldn’t it be in the whole foods? So if you feel like there’s something in olive oil that’s beneficial to your health? Why wouldn’t it be in the olive that had the fiber and water and vitamins and minerals and tap or felt coconut oil? Why wouldn’t it be in the coconut oil or if it was in the flaxseed oil in the flax so I feel that it’s always better to eat the whole food rather than the processed food. It’s more calorically dilute but also more nutrient-rich. So as much as I like and respect his work, I don’t agree with him on that, again, not a doctor, but it’d be interesting to see what the doctors say about that. At least the ones in the circles I travel with, none of them are promoting oil or alcohol, especially to patients that have a lifestyle disease and those that are overweight or have heart disease.
Ana: Great answer. Okay. I’m aware. We’re like you Getting into the time and you’ve got another show to do. But I do have a couple of like quickfire questions for you if that’s okay.
Chef AJ: Of course, I have plenty of time.
Ana: Okay. So it’s obviously, it’s notoriously difficult, I’m in the media space where we’d write a lot of articles, we create a lot of content. and it’s notoriously difficult to convert somebody to veganism, just by talking to them, right? But as a chef, you have this other fantastic tool. And I’m wondering if you’ve ever converted anybody to veganism through a plant-based meal that you’ve made them?
Chef AJ: You know, what, what was really interesting is, when you asked me about being a chef being a female, they didn’t even know it was vegan. That was the cool thing is this the main desserts were so good, they hired me it wasn’t a vegan restaurant. So I don’t know if I converted anybody to veganism just because of my peanut butter chocolate cheesecake or my German chocolate cake. But I think that it did help them realize that like things could take tastes really amazing vegan, and I did when I lived in LA has celebrity clientele that were always ordering these desserts for me. So, you know, did I ever? I’m trying to think because, you know, it’s interesting because I think the most people that I’ve converted it to veganism was through weight loss because it’s the number one personal goal of people, especially women to lose weight. And by teaching them what I know about calorie density, I think that’s how I’ve converted more people, especially women, because they desire this for themselves. And also health improvement, but really sorry to say that more people want to lose weight than be healthy, but you can do both through a whole food plant-based diet. So at least for me, and I try to make the recipes like you said, like, delicious, whether you’re trying to lose weight or not, whether your whole food plant-based. I want them to not be like, Oh, this is good, but it’s you know, it’s just I tried to make food taste good to everybody. And I tested on people that are not vegan, and then if they don’t like, it’s probably not going to be good for anybody.
Ana: Yeah. And the thing for me is, it’s sustainable as well. When you eat this kind of diet. it’s not a diet in the traditional sense. It’s just the food that you eat, and you’re not going to, you know, become unhealthy.
Chef AJ: I don’t feel like it’s a diet. And you know, like I said, I mean like I have people like Dr. Fuhrman over my house for dinner. And we pretty much the same way I don’t think he’s ever been on a diet. It’s just it also we love our food. That’s the other thing, you know, when we didn’t really get to talk about this too much. But one of the reasons people eat the way they eat, whether it’s animal products, especially dairy, or processed food is because it’s addictive. And so most people are addicted to sugar, fat, and salt, we’re genetically hardwired to prefer the taste of sugar, fat, and salt for survival, but we were supposed to get it in its whole food form. Avocados, not avocado oil. You know, our salt was from eating green vegetables, our sugar was fruit. So we are supposed to like these things for survival. But the processed food industry hijacked our taste buds and our brain chemistry, making these types of palatable foods, whether they’re vegan or not vegan. And that’s really part of the problem is the food addiction piece. And that’s why people I think, have such a hard time transitioning to whole foods because of this addiction piece. And that’s kind of what I’ve been talking about for about 10 years now. And again, a lot of people don’t want to hear that because, you know, Dr. McDougall says people want good news about their bad habits. They don’t want bad news about them.
Ana: So to me, removing oil from my diet has been such a life-changing thing. And I want everybody to you know, it’s the one thing that I’m like, I don’t care if you go vegan, vegetarian, whatever, just remove oil. If there was one thing that you could convince people of what would it be?
Chef AJ: Yeah, oil is a close second, but I would say dairy first. And you’re so right because it is such a scam. I mean, it is really a triumph of marketing over science. When you were looking for a diet, if you’re somebody that suffered with from acne that goes away right away, your skin improves, your weight will stabilize if you’re somebody that’s struggling with that, but I would say dairy first, because to me is so addictive, as you know from the casomorphins, and dairy cows suffer, I mean all animals in factory farms or almost all animals being killed for food are suffering. But I think dairy cows suffer especially, well chickens too. But dairy is just so, it’s so unnecessary. It’s not necessary for health unless you’re a baby, you need your mother’s milk. You’re only supposed to get milk from the person that was your mother and from your species. It’s the most ludicrous thing in the world to think that God or nature designed us for our health to be dependent on another species. I mean, it just, it makes no sense and for people to think that this is where you get calcium from, no you get calcium from you get it from greens. You don’t get it from stealing the food of a baby calf that now is going to become veal because you took the milk. I mean, it’s just it’s bizarre, but also so many health conditions are linked to dairy. They’re thinking that type one diabetes, for example, that people are getting from that all the reproductive cancers, like breast, prostate and ovarian and uterine cancer link because people don’t realize that it’s not like farmer john, who has Bessie in the yard, and he’s milking her and you’re getting the milk. No, they’re giving these dairy cows, well they’re giving all animals for food massive doses of antibiotics, first of all, which is why so many people like when we have a pandemic are resistant to antibiotics because if you’ve been eating milk, or meat, your whole life, every time you ingest these, you’re taking antibiotics, because otherwise if the cows or the other animals were sick, they can’t sell them for you for food. But also in the case of dairy, you’re giving them massive doses of hormones, because cows are not supposed to be pregnant and producing milk at the same time. But they do this in a very unnatural way. So they’re getting massive doses of hormones, which is why if you have a daughter, she’s not getting her period at 15, 16, and 17 like you’re supposed to with nature, she’s getting it at eight, nine, and 10 now, and you know kids like with ear infections and things like that when they remove dairy. So not only is it addictive, it’s really detrimental to your health. So if I had the magic wand and I could just let everybody be vegan, I would say just take dairy out. And if you want that flavor I mean, like Miyoko’s Creamery, you can get every kind of cheese, it will taste like it, it won’t have that addictive component. So that’s what you’re you’re looking for though, which you can get other ways which you can get used to not having your food be a drug. That’s what I would do is I would take dairy out and let the cows be mothers to their calves.
Ana: Hmm, agreed. Oil and dairy we will partner on that. So finally, like, as an experienced chef, do you have like one kind of top tip for cooking whole food, oil-free, plant-based?
Chef AJ: Own an air fryer. An air fryer is a game-changer. I mean, I love my Instant Pot too. But you know, especially without the oil, I mean, fries from an air fryer are they’re better than the ones drenched in oil and salt. I even have the professional cutter. It was like 50 bucks on Amazon that makes them look exactly like they do at restaurants. I mean, air fryer babies, if you can afford it the Breville I get no money from them. They don’t even answer my calls or emails, but it’s the top of the line you can, everything you can do like like even vegetables that you might not like the air fryer is magical. It makes things crunchy, it makes things delicious. You don’t need oil. And it was a game-changer. Because back in the day, they weren’t available for home use, and the ones that the restaurants were several $1,000. So from anywhere from $39 for a teeny tiny one at Walmart at the top of the line and a Breville for $399. And you can have crunchy food with no oil and it’s in I think you probably like better because it won’t upset your stomach.
Ana: I’m gonna go get me an air fryer. I just put my stuff like with a little bit of cider vinegar in the oven and just see what happens.
Chef AJ: Yeah I mean, an oven can work too. And I mean, if air fryer does it a little bit more quickly, in a smaller unit. And I live where I live in the desert. I don’t want to turn my oven on, but I think that that’s gonna make a lot of people happy to get, you know, really crunchy fries.
Ana: That’s awesome. I’m excited to try that. And finally, where should our listeners or viewers go to find out what you’re doing and what’s happening next.
Chef AJ: For sure. Well, my website is my name, chefaj.com. But I do a live daily show every day at 11 a.m. pacific time on YouTube I’ve done at the time of which we’re talking, 620. And I usually have interesting guests like you who are going to be on the show soon. Lots of chefs doing demonstrations, lots of the plant-based doctors, or just sometimes authors on subjects that I find interesting. And you can be part of the I call it the Zoom-unity because I’m there live answering questions in the chat and you can ask the speaker questions and it’s been a lot of fun interacting with people on a daily basis.
Ana: That’s awesome. Well, thanks so much for your time this morning, Chef AJ, we really appreciate it.
Chef AJ: Thank you.
Ana is the Executive Director at Sentient Media. Her background is in content production and startup consultancy. She also creates social impact within Black communities as Digital Director of Do it Now Now.