Jason Wyrick: Founder of The Vegan Taste and Vegan Chef

Jason Wyrick, vegan chef and cookbook author and founder of The Vegan Taste, photographed in central Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

Jason Wyrick, vegan chef and cookbook author and founder of The Vegan Taste, photographed in central Phoenix, by Nicki Escudero

Jason Wyrick

Adopting a vegan diet helped Jason Wyrick lose 100 pounds and reverse his diabetes, while learning about factory farming conditions has kept him passionate about the lifestyle. Wyrick, 42, from Glendale, founded The Vegan Taste, a vegan meal delivery service he runs with his wife, a fellow chef. Wyrick also creates vegan cookbooks, such as his Vegan Tacos, which is one of the world’s most comprehensive taco recipe cookbooks. You can even hire him as a private chef, and he plans international culinary tours.

Wyrick talked about his fervor for veganism and what he offers as a chef, and you can hear him name his five favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley in a video.

What brought you to Arizona?

My parents, when I was 4. I was born in Houston. My dad’s family all lived in Texas, and my mom’s family all lived in California, and they came to Phoenix because it was right in the middle.

I went to Apollo High School and have a degree in philosophy from Texas Christian University.

What has your career evolution been like since you graduated college?

It was pretty random. I started out in college wanting to get an astrophysics degree, so that’s what I started my major as. I let my parents convince me to go to business school, which I totally hated. I learned some good skills, but it wasn’t my crowd, so I figured if I’m going to graduate with a degree, it should be something I want to learn, which is why I got a degree in philosophy.

After graduating, I did go into business and had a telecom consulting business for awhile. I got hired on as director of marketing for a computer company in Fort Worth, Texas, which I did for a few years. During that time, I was getting severely overweight and became diabetic. I went vegan in 2001 and lost about 100 pounds and cured my diabetes. I realized the work I wanted to do needed to be more meaningful than being a marketing director, so I quit my job and become a chef.

I started a food business in Fort Worth but realized I’d have more success here and wanted to be around friends and family again. I moved back here in 2004 and immediately started teaching classes and did catering jobs under my first company, Devil Spice. I did that for a couple years, and then I started an online magazine, The Vegan Culinary Experience. The company, which I’ve been working with my wife on since 2009, re-branded in 2013 as The Vegan Taste.

We were taking all these pictures of food for the magazine, and people around town were asking us if we’d deliver meals to them. We took what we were shooting for the magazine, packaged it into a meal delivery service and started delivering. In 2013, we decided to just concentrate on the meal delivery service because it had taken over everything we had been doing.

I also do private chef consultations.

What’s your typical week like now?

On the weekends, we shop the local farmers markets for produce for our meal delivery service. We make everything fresh and ship it out into the country on Monday and deliver it here in Phoenix. Every meal is individualized portioned. You take the container of that meal and heat it on the stovetop or pop it in the microwave, and it’s ready to go.

We have clients in every state. We take a breather Tuesday, and on Wednesday, it’s back to figuring out what the next week’s menu is going to be and doing some web design and recipe development.

I also write cookbooks now instead of doing the magazine, so I’m doing photography for that and doing press.

Why are you passionate about being vegan?

I came to veganism because of health, because I was overweight and diabetic and got that way while I was in my 20s, but I stayed vegan because of ethical reasons and found out about factory farms after I had become vegan. It helped me stay vegan.

Going vegan is a great way to be healthy, and I’ve gotten a lot of success with clients who have been on my vegan meal delivery service program. I can’t tell you how many people have reversed diabetes because of it, people who have gone into remission of cancer, and who have been cured of heart disease and obesity.

Going vegan can be a frustrating process for some people. There might be a bunch of people out there screaming, “Do it now, and do it right now,” but it’s OK to take your time. Get there at some point, but don’t let other people force you to do it by going from 0 to 60. Make the effort, and make sure the process is fun and that the food you’re eating is outstanding.

It’s the psychology of being healthy that is the first way to being healthy. You’ll never be healthy if you’re miserable.

What does your recipe development entail?

I approach food first by thinking, “Would this taste good?” Then, it has to be vegan. I get inspiration from chefs Diana Kennedy, who is one of the biggest experts on Mexican cuisine right now, and Rick Bayless. I travel other countries and explore the food there and find people from other regions, and I’ll talk to them about their food and learn recipes and ingredients. It’s very exciting.

What are your culinary travel tours like?

We’ve done a few in Italy, Costa Rica and France, and now I’m looking at where I want to do the next one, which might be at the end of next year.

What are the benefits and challenges to working with your spouse?

The great thing is, we both love food, and we can immediately talk about stuff and figure things out. Because it’s a family business, we can set our own hours, which is really nice.

The challenge is, if there’s a problem in the business, there is no way to leave that at the office. You have to make sure each of you has a different space, a place where you can be by yourself for a little bit. She loves sewing, and I love music, so if I need to get away, I’ll get out my drum set or bass and play a little bit in the music room.

You’re raising your daughter vegan. What advice do you have for raising a child vegan?

So far, it’s been way easier than I expected for my wife and I to raise our child vegan. Five or six years ago, people would have given us a lot of grief about it, which we don’t get now. It’s been a little different for us, because our kid, who is 1, is already a foodie. She likes bean burritos with chipotle salsa on them, for example.

I work with a lot of kids, and they’ll pick up on what you do. They’ve got their own tastes and will try to integrate what you’re doing with that. If parents are fussy about food, their kids will be fussy about food. Your kids will generally follow what you do.

As for nutrition, if your kid is eating well-rounded types of foods, you won’t have a problem. My daughter is only 13 months old, and she’s already wearing 2-year-old clothes. She’s growing fine, and she is very, very intelligent. She’s already learning how to spell. I worried slightly at first, but she’s great.

Why should people consider integrating more vegan nutrition in their diets?

From a health perspective, it’s never bad to eat more plants. Meat and dairy are pretty over-served, especially here in the U.S. A lot of health problems stem from eating diets that are rich in those foods. The more you can replace those foods with plants, the healthier you’re going to get.

Plants are filled with lots of different nutrients you don’t get from meat and dairy, and they’re loaded with antioxidants. Plants have a really cool effect on us, because they trigger our immune systems to improve.

What are some easy ways to make the transition to being vegan?

It depends on if you want to cook for yourself. If you don’t want to cook for yourself, our vegan delivery service is a great way to get started. Even if you do cook for yourself, it’s still a good option, because it exposes people to the wide range of vegan food out there. A lot of people think vegan food is strictly salads or lentil soup. Discovering there’s a whole world of food out there you can experience is really important.

If you’re looking for recipes, look for some basic recipes you can make vegan. If you’ve got some basic cooking skills, you can make some amazing food.

If someone is trying to be completely vegan, are there certain foods they should be especially wary of not being vegan?

The biggest one I still see is the use of chicken or beef broth for something.

What’s your favorite ingredient to use, and why?

Chiles, probably because I grew up here and grew up on Southwestern food. I had the basic language for it already, and I started exploring lots of different chiles about 10 years ago and found all these subtle flavors.

Also, the heat and endorphin rush you get makes chiles fun.

What’s your favorite dish to eat?

That’s tough, because it changes every couple days. Right now, I’d say my favorite dish is a chilaquiles, just because I’m really pressed for time trying to get all the photography done for my next cookbook. I can take a bunch of chips or tortillas I made and drench them in a really good chile sauce. I’ll add black beans or avocado to it, and you don’t need much more than that.

What can people expect from your cookbooks?

My next one is called Vegan Mexico, and it will come out probably in spring. The last one I did was called Vegan Tacos. The books highlight where the beauty of vegan food is going. Ten years ago, you could easily identify something as vegan, and now, what we’re trying to do is capture the vibrant, fresh flavors you find around the world. I am very well-versed in Mexican cuisine, so when you pick up Vegan Tacos or Vegan Mexico, you’re not getting just vegan recipes – you’re getting a full course in what it means to make authentic Mexican cuisine, in flavors that just happen to be vegan.

Vegan Tacos is one of the largest compilations of Mexican tacos in the world in English or in Spanish. It has more than 80 types of tacos, plus drink recipes.

Why should people hire you as a private chef?

They’ll learn how to make really great vegan food, but they’ll also learn core techniques they can transfer to other vegan recipes.

What’s a kitchen tip you have for beginning chefs?

Get a good knife. That will totally change how you cook. It changes how much time you spend in the kitchen and how well the food comes out. To me, the end meal is not the only thing you should concentrate on as part of the experience. The whole thing should be enjoyable. If you’re cooking, to me, it’s worth it to spend a decent amount of money on a good knife, because it will totally change that meal experience.

What should you look for when shopping for a knife?

Make sure it’s one that will stay sharp and can be sharpened. Forged knives generally stay sharper and can be sharpened at a professional knife shop versus some of the stamped knives, where once they dull, you have to toss them. Even if you spend a couple hundred dollars on a knife, over several years, it will pay off. I would have had to toss probably four or five knives if I hadn’t have gotten a really nice one. It’s paying for itself now.

Make sure it’s a nice forged steel knife, and make sure it feels comfortable in your hand. Hold the knife properly, and make sure it feels nice and well-balanced. The knife I use doesn’t feel good in my wife’s hands because her hands are smaller, and the knife she uses doesn’t feel as good in mine because I’m used to the weightier hold.

What basic cooking tips do you have?

The biggest one I see people miss is timing on recipes. It’s not like you have to cook something for exactly 30 seconds–it’s more that I see a lot of people throw everything into a pan or pot at once, because it seems easier, but different veggies have different cook times. You don’t want to cook onions and garlic at the same time — you want to cook onions and add garlic in at the last minute. A small diced potato will cook a lot more quickly than a large hard carrot. Pay attention to the timing of your food.

What’s your favorite restaurant in town?

It’s tough, because there are so many good ones, but right now, I’d have to say Fresh Mint. I get something different every time. Their flavors pop off the plate, and it’s not the typical greasy fare you see at some other vegan restaurants, so I don’t feel heavy afterwards. It’s nicely prepared and has got a balance of flavors and is nice and bright.

What are your goals?

That’s tough, because there are so many projects we’re working on right now. I’d say growing our meal service is a big priority, especially the local part of that, because there is no one who delivers fresh here except for us, and I think people need that fresh food delivery, especially if they’re really busy. That’s our primary goal.

Secondarily, it’s to get my next cookbook done after this one. As soon as I’m done with the photography, I’m going to start working on my next cookbook. I can’t say what it will be on yet, but I’m excited.

I also record progressive rock music, and I would like to see some of that get out there, too. It’s just me, and I just started doing it, but it’s turning out way better than I thought it would. I can’t say I sing very well, but I also play bass, drums, keyboard and guitar, doing all the instruments on it.

Do you have any aspirations to ever open up your own restaurant?

I would like to open up a restaurant if I’m not going to be tied to it 60 to 80 hours a week. That’s the biggest fear of opening up a restaurant, is that I’ll disappear and pretty much live in the restaurant after that. I’m almost at the point where I can justify having it and having a staff there doing a lot of the cooking while I’m doing recipe development. That’s in the future, and Phoenix needs a high-end vegan restaurant, because it’s a shame we’re not doing anything like that yet.

I have some ideas for restaurant chains, too, that I think would do really well. I’d like to see that happen within the next two or three years.

What advice would you have for aspiring vegan chefs?

The best thing you can do is to manipulate social media to your advantage and take pretty pictures, because that’s what people are focusing on right now. The vegan community is in a state where we’re just getting on the foodie scene, and social media is becoming very visual, and that’s the power. The scene is really inundated with people giving out recipes, so what people are gravitating toward are pretty pictures of the food. That’s what’s making people go crazy right now.

I think we’re going to get to a point, too, where the food has to be really outstanding, and I think that will be a good point to get to.

What advice do you have for aspiring business owners?

It’s tough. It’s changed so much in the past 10 years. Make sure you have a good marketing plan, all the stuff you need to do a traditional business, including a solid financial plan. Businesses are getting really competitive out there, and marketing is what wins over people.

How would you describe the Phoenix dining scene? What do we have going for us, and what could be improved upon?

The Phoenix food scene is pretty interesting because we have a lot of great chefs here, so there is a lot of creativity. You need a cohort of fine diners to allow chefs to serve really fine food. A few years ago, that cohort wasn’t big enough to support super-fine dining here in Phoenix, because those cohorts would have one or two people who didn’t want to experiment or try anything fancy and wanted a basic meal. The chefs were having to deal with that, and it kind of hampered the food scene, but now that people are super-excited about food all around the United States and especially here in Phoenix, it’s allowing more creativity in the food scene.

I think the only thing we have going against us here is that the city is so spread out, that if someone opens up a restaurant in north Scottsdale that’s really nice, as nice as it is, it’s a real pain for someone who lives in Chandler to get to. The light rail sort of helps, but not in the limited area we’ve got it right now.

What are your favorite vegan food brands?

I’m lucky, because I get to travel around and teach classes a lot, so I get to try lots and lots of different foods. My favorite one is a vegan cheese I found in Los Angeles. They ship across the country, and they’re called Vromage. The cheeses the guy makes are incredible, because they’re nut-based cheeses, but they’re cultured like dairy cheeses. They’re creamy, they have that full-mouth feel, and they have that slight tang a dairy cheese has, all done in a natural way, not by adding a bunch of weird chemicals or food additives to get the cheese to do what you want it to do.

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