Podcast Episode 29

Chad Sarno: Why Plant-Based Eating Is Here to Stay

Chad Sarno | 40 Minutes | February 8, 2022

In this episode, we chat with Chad Sarno, plant-based pioneer whose mission is to prove that eating healthy can be delicious. Chad’s journey to a plant-based lifestyle began when he discovered food as the cure for his asthma as a teenager. From that moment, he endeavored to impact the world by alleviating suffering for people, animals and the planet by exposing plant-based alternatives.

Chad is an internationally respected chefpreneur, author, mentor, and educator. As the co-founder of Wicked Healthy and Gathered Foods, along with his brother Derek, Chad is building a plant-based culinary empire that’s encouraging people to simply eat more plants. He’s the co-author of more than 10 health related books, including the New York Times Best Seller “Crazy Sexy Kitchen”.

Listen as we chat with Chad about why plant-based eating is so critical, how he and his brother are building their brand, and what’s next for plant-based enthusiasts.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Chad Sarno, an internationally respected chef-preneur, author, mentor, and educator who’s on a mission to prove that healthy eating really is delicious. As the co-founder of Wicked Healthy and Gathered Foods, along with his brother Derek, Chad is building a plant-based culinary empire that’s encouraging people to simply eat more plants. he’s the co-author of more than ten health related books, including the New York Times bestseller, Crazy, Sexy Kitchen. Chad has launched boutique plant-based restaurant brands throughout Europe and has consulted on restaurant launches globally. In 2009, he helped launch Whole Foods’ healthy eating program, Health Starts Here, while serving as the company’s global R&D chef and culinary media spokesperson.

Join us today as we chat with Chad about why plant-based eating is so critical, how he and his brother built their brand, and what’s next for plant-based enthusiasts.

There he is! Chad, welcome buddy! Good to see you.

Chad Sarno: Hey, Kirk, how are you? You too. Thanks for having me.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Happy holidays. Are you ready? Are the kiddos ready?

Chad Sarno: You too! They’re ready. They’re ready. We’ll see what Santa brings them.

Kirk Bachmann: Hey, I’ve got to kick this off. I’m going to go crazy here. First of all, you’re just a good guy. You’re a cool guy. You live in Austin, Texas, and I’m really, really excited about this. I think I’ve told you a couple of times that my family made the clean break maybe four years ago to be a little bit more plant-based. Maybe 80/20, as you’ve recommended. What’s so cool about it is, I’ve studied cuisine most of my life. Grew up in a master pastry chef’s kitchen, home. When my family and I dove into plant-based cooking, it was like we were just learning how to cook again.

Let me read part of a paragraph – and here’s the book, my favorite book. This paragraph is what we preach to our children, and this is what keeps us going. This is yo guys, you and Derek.

“We’re from New England. For us, Wicked Healthy means good for you. Food that tastes good, so good that you think it must be bad for you. The bottom line is, we want you to be healthy because healthy people are full of life. They’re upbeat, confident, and energetic. We want you to eat more vegetables, especially the green ones. We’d prefer if they were organic, maybe even local.”

I mean, that’s it! We’re done!

Chad Sarno: That’s it.

Kirk Bachmann: We’re done here. My gosh.

Chad Sarno: It’s as simple as that.

What’s New in Austin

Kirk Bachmann: It is. First and foremost, how’s Austin? You’re in the new studio, right?

Chad Sarno: I am. This is my office. It’s totally empty right now, because we’ve just moved in. We just opened up our Gathered Foods headquarters here in Austin, and for those of you who know Austin, it’s on St. Elmo at this place called The Yard. It’s becoming a little destination here. This Austin distillery here, there’s St. Elmo Brewing Company, Tesla headquarters showroom is right across the parking lot. It’s definitely picking up. Gathered Foods is calling it our new home, too.

We just built out a 10,000-square-foot space, well, 14,000 if you included the mezzanine, but 10,000 on the main level, which is all of our office and all of our headquarters. But I also have my R&D kitchen lab and my kitchen studio, which I’m really excited about.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that built out and ready to go as well?

Chad Sarno: Everything’s ready to go. It’s beautiful. Heston has been our partner with the build out, so it’s been pretty remarkable. Anybody who knows Heston it’s incredible – I don’t rep their product – but it’s my favorite. It’s hands-down my favorite product.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s reputable.

Chad Sarno: It sure is.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to have to connect you. Escoffier’s got a campus there in Austin, if you need help or just gawkers, we’ll send them over.

Chad Sarno: Excellent.

Kirk Bachmann: How’s Derek? How’s you’re brother? I love his social media presence, can I just tell you.

Chad Sarno: Derek’s good. He’s taking some time off for the first time in a very long time. He’s probably not doing much besides just cooking.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s good. I’ve only meant Derek once and it was, ironically enough, with Ken at the farmer’s market in Portland, Oregon. It was perfect. I think he was about to head to London. Does he live in London full time?

Chad Sarno: He recently bought a house. He’s been there for rounding out almost five years. He’s the head of plant-based innovation at Tesco. He is sort of the gatekeeper for all of the plant-based brands that enter Tesco, the retailer over there.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I’ll send him a bill for that little plug right there.

Chad Sarno: There you go.

Turning Anger into Fuel

Kirk Bachmann: Chad, in the book, Wicked Healthy, you state that Mum always told you to eat your vegetables. And now look at you, is what it says in the book. Take us back a little bit. Was it because of Mum that plant-based eating became so important in your life, or was it serendipitous? It just happened?

Chad Sarno: Everybody has these certain aha moments in order to get pushed plant-based, whether it’s health, whether it’s religion, whether it’s seeing animals suffering first-hand. That empathy is quite powerful. But for me, I first got introduced to the connection – not even just plant-based – but the connection that food had on my health. When I was young, I had super bad asthma. I was in and out of hospitals my whole childhood. I was on so many inhalers. I used to breathe off of nebulizers. It got to the point where I was breathing off a nebulizer on the weekends, I don’t know how many times I did that. It all blurs together. But I remember being pretty crippled with asthma. I didn’t play a lot of sports. I would have asthma attacks quite regularly. It was pretty scary as a kid.

Somebody told me. I still cannot wrap my brain around who it was, but I heard it somewhere and I always said it was a friend of the family, but I heard it somewhere that dairy contributed to asthma. I was in my late teenage years at the time, and I stopped eating dairy products. Within a couple of months, I was off of all my inhalers. That aha moment for me was massive. It was everything. It was my first look into behind the curtain of the information that wasn’t mainstream. No doctor told me that. It got me really angry. Because I was young, I was angry. I’ve always had a difficult time with authority.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s kind of a chef thing.

Chad Sarno: Now I have a sixteen-year-old daughter and I’m like, “Why won’t you listen?!”

I always had a hard time with authority, and the fact that these people that we looked at as experts, doctors who were by my side all those years of having asthma never told me that. It got me really angry. I felt betrayed, almost, by these people that I trusted growing up. My parents didn’t know better, so no blame on them. But the doctors! We were looking at them as experts. I went to all these allergists, nobody said anything. And so I used that fuel to find my passion with what I wanted to do.

I had, by default, my only jobs were restaurants growing up, even to this day. At the time, I used that fuel to dig deeper. I used that anger to dig deeper and to really feed that passion of understanding the why. I dove into that, and I dove into the connection between health and foods that we eat. The rest is history. That anger that I had of feeling that sort of betrayal that I wasn’t told that as young guy, that connection, that’s what seeded my passion, I would say, for getting into plant-based.

The Desire to Share

Kirk Bachmann: Totally makes sense. Fast forward. Today, you and Derek together, you’re prolific ambassadors for plant-based healthy eating. You were a teenager when that shift occurred – do you believe that shifting to a plant-based diet, lifestyle also fueled your interest in becoming a chef? Maybe to help others?

Chad Sarno: Yeah. Without a doubt, because I wanted to share. I felt like I now had an answer that helped me that I wanted to share. I’ve seen this over and over over the years. If somebody has a personal experience – it has to be personal in order for someone to adopt such a huge change, because it is a lifestyle change, it is not just a diet change. It’s a massive lifestyle change. You start thinking of things different. People look at their diet just like they do religion, just like they do politics. They hold it very near and dear, very close to their heart. It becomes their identity.

So for us, it was definitely a huge shift. It was a huge shift to really go in that direction of plant-based.

Kirk Bachmann: How did the cooking piece start, then? Did you find yourself in restaurants over here by yourself. Hey, I’m just going to rip on these veggies!

Chad Sarno: I worked at a steak restaurant. I was cooking steaks right when I started to become vegan, and I was like, “This doesn’t really make sense.”

Kirk Bachmann: What’s wrong with this picture?

Chad Sarno: It doesn’t really make sense. By default, I was in restaurants just because it was what I was used to. I wanted to share as much as I could with people. I started hitting the road, teaching. It was in the younger years when I was with this place called The Tree of Life, which is this raw food retreat center down in Arizona. I started doing a lot around raw foods and healthy vegan foods, whole vegan foods kind of thing. I started to teach. I just picked up teaching and I didn’t have the first spit of knowledge about how to teach anything except I just wanted to share my experience and share recipes.

I set up this whole tour. This was way before my time. I set up this whole tour of doing these vegan, raw food classes. I remember, I had this little Saturn. I don’t even think that car maker is around anymore. But I had a little Saturn with a roof rack. I bought a bunch of knives. I bought some Saladaccos, which are like spiral slicers, and mandolines and micro-plane zesters and all these things. I filled my roof rack with all these products, and I printed this little book. It was called “Vital Creations.” It was my first home-printed book with word art and all these things on it. And I would sell those.

I set up a tour, and for about a year and a half I traveled in my little Saturn and unloaded my products and put them on a table. I’d teach this class, and then I’d go to the next place. I did it for about a year and half. Really sharing, just wanting to share. No other reason besides wanting to share. That’s how I naturally fell into teaching.

Impact of Celebrity Influencers

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That’s entrepreneurship, too. Just taking the bull by the horns.

You mentioned raw food. Woody Harrelson, big fan. He provided a very passionate forward in Wicked Healthy, in the book. As I read it again this morning, I was wondering: has it been, or is it helpful, that celebrities like Woody and others promote things, particularly healthy lifestyles? Woody talks about how, when he’s working, you were his personal chef for a while. He talks about loving raw food while he’s working because it doesn’t bring him down. It keeps him fresh and clean. There’s an evangelistic component to that. If you get a celebrity who’s got a voice and a presence, you can really promote things. Do you believe it helps in this space, in the plant-based?

Chad Sarno: Without a doubt. 110 percent. Your product can be everywhere. I’m talking from the CPG perspective, a consumer product perspective. Your product can be everywhere, but if the brand awareness is not there, and the adoption is not there, it’s not going to sell. People aren’t even going to know it’s there in that corner of the store. People aren’t going to know what it is or how it functions or what to attribute to it. Those influences are massive.

We have some really exciting partnerships we’re working on right now. One of them is with Support and Feed, which is Billie Eilish’s mom’s foundation. Billie and her mom, Maggie, and her brother, Phineas and her dad, they were raised vegan. Their whole life they were raised vegan. Seeing her as the biggest star right now, onstage globally, I would say, she has an opportunity to make a major, major change. The fact that if she could stand up on stage and just tell people to go plant-based for one day. Just try it. The amount of impact that she will have. If you get 110 million followers on a social media platform, it’s just exponential. There’s nothing like that voice.

We’re at a time and age where social media is – you need that influence for a product brand and you need that support for a product brand.

Kirk Bachmann: Powerful. I also love the comments Dr. Michael Klaper –

Chad Sarno: Love him.

The Growth of Plant-Based Options

Kirk Bachmann: Wonderful. Big, big, big fan. No nutrients, proteins, vitamins or minerals found in meats. There are none that you can’t find in plants. Chad, do you believe that society is beginning to understand that more and more? I did a little bit of research. It just keeps going up. Almost 10 million people are self-identifying as plant-based in the United States. That’s up 3000 percent in the last decade.

Chad Sarno: First of all, I love Michael. I was just with him in New York last weekend for an event. I loved seeing him. I haven’t seen him in a while.

What’s amazing – I’m now in the CPG space, so I’m in the retail product space now. Granted, of course, I focus on culinary but understanding new data and the different perspective with what I’m doing now. Over 50 percent of shoppers in the U.S. are actively seeking plant-based alternatives. Over 50 percent. Which is crazy. It was like 49 percent a couple months ago, and I just saw new data around 51 percent. In the U.K. it’s over 75 or 77 percent of shoppers that are actively seeking protein alternatives. It’s that whole – I hate the term flexitarian because we’re all flexitarians since we were born – but I think that shopper is the one that’s really booming the sales of plant-based proteins in particular.

This has also gone through the way plant-based products are merchandised. Beyond Meat’s a perfect example. When they started selling their product, they were selling it in the vegan section. You work at a retail store, you know that probably five percent of your shoppers are going to that vegan section in the frozen area. Five percent at the time, anyway. Once you start merchandising that plant-based meat next to regular meat, you’re getting the shopper that is the flexitarian shopper that’s going to be in the meat department and say, Ah, you know what? I’m going to try this plant-based protein this week because I’m going to swap it out for this meal. You get that shopper and you get that adoption. They saw sales grow tenfold just by where it was placed and merchandised. Retailers are following suit. Now you see a lot of the burgers are in the meat section. A lot of plant-based chickens are in the meat section. A lot of dairies are in the dairy section. It’s all becoming integrated, which is smart because that vegan shopper will find it. I’ll drive thirty miles if I find out a fast food joint is offering a vegan burger. The vegans will find it. We have this tracker.

It’s huge. To be able to see that growth just in the past decade has been exponential.

Real Research and Development

Kirk Bachmann: When I introduced you, I mentioned the research and development work you did with Whole Foods and even outside from Whole Foods. I think for many of the students that will listen to this chat, they’ll be fascinated by that. Can you speak a little bit about that career? Is that a viable career or path for culinarians that is more open today than it may have been a few years ago?

Chad Sarno: It is. I would say R&D for products is a great way to go. It was an interesting role at Whole Foods. I was hired on by leadership to help them articulate a new core value around healthy eating education for stakeholders. We translated that internally to these really amazing internal programs to essentially help lower health care costs at the end of the day, because they are self-insured. That was one of the main reasons. The immersion programs that his dad has led. I’m not even sure if they’re doing them anymore.

I was also tasked to do a bunch of R&D around no salt, no fat, no sugar. It was really difficult. I would say that was one of the most challenging paths and careers that I’ve taken on, in those years, because of the politics that I had to deal with from a leadership level and being hired for a new program during a hiring freeze for a new position that didn’t exist. That’s didn’t make me the biggest fan. That didn’t create many fans for me.

From an R&D standpoint, I did a lot of recipe development that was consumer facing and stuff like that.

I wouldn’t necessarily call that role focused on the R&D with now what I understand R&D of working with Wicked and working with Good Catch. We’re basically doing bench-top testing. We’re doing bench-top testing, and we’re doing everything from whiteboard to bench-top to commercialization. That’s been an amazing journey. Learning the ins and outs of what it takes to commercialize product. It’s really hard. It’s not easy. This is why people go to school for this. I’m self-taught and I’m thrown in it. That’s how I learn fast, personally. I, obviously, surround myself with people that know far more than I do. That’s the only way, I think, to operate a business, and a successful business. Know that you are not the smartest one in the room.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s called leadership, right?

Chad Sarno: Exactly. Working with that process alone has been amazing. it’s been an amazing journey of understanding what I can do here in my kitchen, and then trying to scale it to fully automated with ingredients that function differently than what you can buy in a store. A lot of nuances there, but it’s been a good journey.

Impact Opportunity

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great response.

Phenomenal career. I had the good pleasure of meeting you a few years ago. You’ve worked as an executive chef. Consultant in Europe, like I mentioned early. Spent some time with Whole Foods. R&D. Culinary media spokesperson. Served as a VP of Culinary Wellness and Plant-based Education, as we know. Can you walk me through your journey from when you first knew that this was your calling to launching your own businesses? The entrepreneurship part of this is so fascinating and interesting to me. Was that always a goal or did you always just want to make good food? You still want to make great food, but you’ve parlayed this into a business that did not exist when you started doing this. A marketplace.

Chad Sarno: It’s been amazing to watch, to be the observer in it all. I think that’s been critical to continue to observe and not be so in it. This is something I’ve really learned from my brother and why we walk with each other really well in business and partnership. We keep each other in check. he’s been studying Buddhism for a number of years, so he brings some of that philosophy into what we do. Even though he’s probably tough to work with, and I have to translate, being the good cop. But together, as a partnership, he’s teaching me to be that observer and it has been critical. Over the years of not allowing yourself to get in the way, and learning from your mistakes and taking them as learnings.

I’ve fallen down a lot. I’ve fallen down. I’ve screwed up. I’ve made some poor choices. But I’ve also done it because I’m mission-driven. Everything I’ve done. As soon as that aha moment happened, when I stopped taking an inhaler, that put me on the path of wanting to understand more. As soon as I turned back the curtain, I started to look at all the suffering that I had been a part of all those years of animal consumption. It hit me hard. I had pets growing up. Health turned into a driver. That’s how I seeded into this mindset. But once I turned back the curtain, animal rights and animal cruelty and all of that was really a huge driver. I devoted my path and my career to alleviate suffering as much as I can through everything that I do. If I can do that through amazing food and get people to listen, that’s great. Food is always a conversation starter, and if you can make somebody a kick-ass meal and not tell them it’s vegan. Just be a stellar meal, and they walk away and say, “Wow! That was incredible!” And me knowing that animals were not served, and then them asking questions. That’s the best conversation starter. You know this, Kirk. It’s probably what you teach.

What I’ve been able to measure in my career, if I were able to measure it with anything – I can see this trajectory over the years – of taking on projects that impact opportunity was the biggest driver. Going into the restaurants, I was teaching on my own. I was traveling around doing consultancy. Then I got brought into a restaurant group in Europe. I opened up six restaurants over there. I thought that impact opportunity was huge, to be able to reach a lot of people. But it wasn’t enough for me. I’m constantly driven.

I guess there’s that ego side of it. It wasn’t good enough for me. So I wanted to reach more. But I recognize that. So I wanted to reach more people with my work, but it didn’t have to be Chad doing it. That’s when the opportunity came up with Whole Foods. It wasn’t “Chad’s show.” I worked for Whole Foods under the radar, and even though I did some media spokesperson stuff, I knew that it was reaching a wider audience. I was teaching more people. Even if it was indirect. I was able to still share and bring my knowledge in what I was doing and my experience to that.

It was a natural progression to go to Rouxbe online culinary school to be able to reach a wider audience. A digital online platform audience. Then the natural progression was to CPG. You go from teaching on my own to brick and mortar locations to a chain of restaurants, to a retailer, to an online school, to CPG. CPG is where I needed to be. I had to check all those boxes and learn from my mistakes and surround myself with people who are far smarter than I am along the way to get to a point where I was like, You know what? I want take this and have it available everywhere. Wicked, obviously, the joy of that success I hand over to my brother. He’s been an incredible force behind that brand. At the same time, we started both brands, Good Catch and Wicked, and both of them have just been incredible over the past four year, which we can certainly get into.

It’s been a progression, and impact opportunity has been the driver.

Kirk Bachmann: Such a great message for students. It’s about the journey. I have to ask: are you and Derek secretly really ninjas? Are you?

Chad Sarno: 100 percent. Yeah, right.

Building a Brand

Kirk Bachmann: No, I love the storytelling. You’re a storyteller. Were there some critical decisions? People always ask that. I’m not going to ask this in a negative way. I’m going to ask it in a positive way. Were there some critical decisions along the way that you and Derek step back and say, “Wow! Really glad we went that route”?

Chad Sarno: Yeah. I welcomed my first son into the world about five years ago. He’s five years old. I have a two year old, now, too. Which keeps me busy. But a little over five years ago, right before he was born, the opportunity all kind of came to a head. Derek had taken a sabbatical from working. He was raising squirrels, baking bread, and smoking pot in Oregon. I was basically with Rouxbe and I was looking for some next steps of what I wanted to do. It came to a head.

We knew that we wanted to get in the CPG space. We were talking a lot. Our book had just come out. Tesco had reached out, which is one of the largest retailers, as you know, globally. They reached out and they wanted to license the brand. They reached out to Derek and said, “Hey, we want to license the Wicked brand.” So the leadership came out to Oregon and worked with Derek a lot. Derek moved over there to help launch our brand within Tesco, Wicked Kitchen. Wicked Healthy was our brand. They loved the Wicked philosophy around the book and all the videos that we were doing. Derek jumped on that opportunity, as Wicked.

We also, at the same time, we wanted an impact project, so we got together with a number of our close friends and investors. Chris Kerr, who’s our business partner in all endeavors and one of my dearest friends, he runs Unovis Partners, and prior to that he was with New Crop Capital. Their whole focus of investment – and they have probably three dozen companies in their portfolio – and their whole focus is disrupting animal agriculture. That’s where all their investments would go. In speaking with him around the same time, we determined that the white space was around the oceans. There was a lot of burgers. Beyond was starting to take off. Impossible was in the works. We knew that we needed to address the oceans because it needed to be addressed in terms of having some alternatives to keep fish off our plates and in the oceans. So we started Good Catch.

It was literally around the same month or two that we got that call from Tesco – Derek got that call – on behalf of Wicked, and then we also got the seed funding for Good Catch. They were birthed around the same time. Derek went to the U.K. to run the U.K. brand of Wicked, and I stayed here to run the Good Catch brand all under Wicked, being the driver behind us.

Fast forward four years: with Good Catch we have nine SKUs on market. We have address three of the major species that are consumed globally. We’ve got a white fish and crab and tuna. Salmon we’re launching, and some others in this year, ‘22. Then with Wicked, we just created a global brand, because it was just a U.K. brand. It was licensed by Tesco. Five years later from launching, we have 160-180 products in store under the Wicked Kitchen label within Tesco. We formed a company in the U.S. called Wicked Kitchen and we have an amazing team of like 19 on staff. Incredibly leadership. In this past July, we’ve launched 26 products in 2500 stores. In Kroger and in Sprouts. We’re about to launch in a big way again with the same partners. Some other categories, which is very exciting. Good Catch is doing great, saving some fishes.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable.

Chad Sarno: I don’t know if I even answered a question there.

Plant-Based Is Here To Stay

Kirk Bachmann: It’s wonderful to hear you tell the story. there’s humility. There’s pride. There’s innovation. It’s just fun to listen to the story. Our students will see it in a few weeks when it goes live.

I wanted to ask. I was thinking while you were speaking there: it’s pretty clear that plant-based eating is growing in popularity, like you mentioned earlier. Restaurants, fast food chains, catering to this marketplace. I’m not going to hold you to it, but where’s it going in the future? It’s definitely not a trend.

Chad Sarno: It’s here. It’s not a trend. Ten years ago it was a trend, or even eight years ago it was a trend. I think it grows far beyond even a mega… It’s just this micro-trend. Micro-trends. It’s just words. But at the end of the day, when you have some of the largest animal agriculture companies that you’ve been fighting up against now IN. I’ve been into animal rights for a number of years, which I keep very much on the down low. I’m an activist through my work and through food.

These animal ag companies that have been part of the problem for all these years. Some of these large, massive legacy brands that have been part of the problem for all these years are now coming on board to invest and launch their own brands within plant-based. That’s when the tides change. Things have shifted. Behind Good Catch, we have one of our first strategic partners. When it comes to investment, we’ve just closed Series B-2 round, which is bit of the extension round. but we had seed money, and then you get into the series A, B, C, so on and so forth. But we have with our seed round and our A round, we had mostly impact investors. Mostly people that were aligned with the mission and all that. The only strategic that we had early was a company called PHW, which is the largest poultry company in Europe, out of Germany. That was interesting. But then we get into our B round. In our B round, we have Maple Leaf Foods, which is the largest pork producer and exporter of pork out of Canada. We also have Greenleaf Foods who bought Field Roast and Lightlife. So we have them on the cap table. We also have General Mills on the cap table with Series B.

Once you see this investment coming from these massive protein companies – and a lot of these are no longer calling themselves pork companies or chicken companies. The CEO of Tyson came out, and I was sitting at the table with the CEO of Maple Leaf, and he says, “We are a protein company. We are not a pork company. We’re not a deli meat company. We are a protein company.” They need to diversify their protein. Because the consumer. It’s not sustainable, and they know that. They are seeing the demand. To be able to put those resources there, it’s amazing.

With Good Catch, one of our first partners was Bumble Bee out of the gate, as our distribution partner.

Kirk Bachmann: Tuna. Wow.

Chad Sarno: It’s here to stay. It’s definitely not a trend. I think for any chefs that are listening or chefs that have restaurants: if you’re not on the boat with plant protein, then you’re going to be scurrying to catch up. It’s one of those things that it’s far beyond – don’t serve couscous and grilled vegetables. Just don’t do it. As a side dish, maybe. There’s just so much more than that. Plants are far more than a side dish. More and more people are demanding it. It’s our job as experts in the culinary world to meet the consumer where they’re at, not just to do it selfishly of what we want to serve, but what people want.

Using Familiar Language to Introduce Plant Protein

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. 100 percent. Last night at the dinner table, we had an avocado bar. We were all just chatting. The kids love that, because there’s all kinds of toppings and stuff. I was telling my wife, Gretchen, that we were going to chat today. I’m holding the book up, and they’re like, “What? You’re going to talk to the person who wrote that book?” The kids are young still. They’re trying to understand this.

But I brought up this conversation that you and I had, a couple of years ago before the pandemic. We were at the restaurant show in Chicago. It may not be as much of a big deal today, but back then my question was, It’s interesting that, from a language perspective, that certain products leverage titles that we’re used to. Plant-based chicken fingers. Plant-based meatballs. My kids asked this, too. If it’s plant-based – and that’s the way I posed it to you – why are we using the protein dialogue or language? I think your response at the time was something to the effect that we’re not dissing the fact that chicken tastes good. We’re just eating chicken. We’re eating plant-based products. Has that changed, Chad? Was there some psychology around using a protein title in selling.

Chad Sarno: I think there has to be, because there has to be a reference point. There has to be a reference point because if we did not serve our plant-based tuna product at Good Catch as plant-based tuna and we basically called it “six legume processed flakes with seafood flavor, with ocean flavor,” who the hell is going to buy that? You know what I mean? Or Beyond Burger as “extruded pea protein with beet juice that cooks like a burger.” That’s not appealing.

I’m an ethical vegan, personally, first and foremost. I didn’t stop eating meat because I didn’t like the flavor. I didn’t stop eating seafood because I didn’t like the taste of seafood. I stopped eating it because I don’t feel like a being should suffer for me to enjoy a meal. I love the taste of animal products; I just eat them without the animals being involved. I love having a melty cheese, and it hasn’t been until recently that vegan cheese does that now. It’s a breaking point for the industry.

We get this all the time. You look at our YouTube channel, and you can look in particular – and I’m in Texas, and I’m not Texan at all. It was our video guy that demanded that we call it Texas Seitan Brisket. We launched a brisket video, and you should just comically look at the comments. There are so many angry people on there saying, “It’s not brisket.” This and that. “This is grilled bread.” The comments are really funny.

But at the end of the day, if it’s going to get Uncle Joe down the road to try my product because it’s going to taste like what he’s used to, that’s what we’re going to call it. Because we’re trying to make change. We’re not trying to appeal to vegans. Vegans will find us. I’ll find whatever products that are out there. We’re trying to make change. In order to make change, you have to be part of the system and not looking out, but looking in to the problem. We’ve got to be part of that.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s brilliant.

Chad Sarno: Naming is critical. Marketing is critical around it. And of course, the Dairy Association and the Beef Association, and all these guys, they’re fighting pretty hard against it because they’re pretty pissed off. It’s their livelihood. I have empathy for their choice of livelihood. Everybody, each to their own, in my opinion. I don’t think the world’s going vegan, but the world should have options. There should be options and there should be opportunity around every choice possible when you’re choosing what you’re eating for a meal.

Open Their Eyes

Kirk Bachmann: When I watch you and Derek cook, the think I love the most – well, you have fun – but there’s so much respect for the food that you’re working with, whether you’re working with just a beautiful mushroom or broccoli, cauliflower, whatever it is, there’s just so much respect for the craft. That’s probably the number one thing we try to teach at our stoves in our kitchens and our classrooms. Just respect the craft.

Chad Sarno: That’s it.

Kirk Bachmann: What do you think is the best way, in your mind, to introduce people to plant-based cooking? You’ve done a beautiful job with the book. Is there just an easy way to talk about it?

Chad Sarno: Depends on who it is. If it’s a chef, it’s getting in the kitchen. “Hey, let’s cook together. Or let me just show you some cool shit. Let me show you some stuff, some products on the market that you might not know about.” There’s creamers that work like half and half. There’s butters that work like butter. There’s chicken that cooks up like chicken. There’s burgers, and ground. All of that. You can even do that with vegetables. “Oh, I don’t want processed food.” That’s fine. Here’s some core technique that we can choose just standard vegetables and plants to give you that texture, and that umami that we look for in meat and animal products. Getting in the kitchen. If you’re a foodie or a chef, that’s the easiest way to convince somebody.

Not convince them, just open their eyes. I’m not out here trying to convince anybody. All my goal is is to alleviate suffering, and if I can do that through the foods that I’m creating, amazing. If somebody wants to see that there are other options besides reaching for that animal product, that’s amazing. That’s a win. That that person will walk away and say they’re going vegan, that’s not the goal. That would be cool, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to say, Hey. There’s other options. Food’s changing. Food science is now involved with culinary, and there’s a very fine line there. Science and art. That could be debated all day. What percentage of culinary is art, what percentage is science? The intersection of both is what makes the future of food so incredible. Plant-based is there. Plant-based is right at that intersection, that’s what we need to look at and see.

Chad Sarno’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: That right there, that’s a TikTok reel right there. That was perfect. That was perfect.

Hey Chad, we’re getting close to the end here. I don’t know where this 45 minutes have gone so fast. But I’m not going to let you go before I remind you that the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. What is the ultimate dish in your world?

Chad Sarno: The ultimate dish in my world. It depends on the setting, really. The ultimate dish…I’m going to take one out of my brother’s page book here, which we’ve been really pushing here, is mushrooms. Mushrooms are hands-down the most sustainable single ingredient on the plant. You can grow from spore to harvest in two weeks on a lot of these mushrooms. I would say pressed, grilled barbecue maitake there’s nothing like that. You take a whole maitake, pot, sear, cast iron press, and once it’s seared, seasoned. Let it sit in some of your favorite sauce: barbecue sauce, Asian barbecue, bulgogi, whatever. Then grill it. Throw it on the grill, get that char. Get those crispy bits, that caramelization, all that. Chop it up, serve it with some bread or in a wrap or in a bao or whatever. Really good.

That’s my go-to. Otherwise, it’s fresh pasta.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Well said. Very unique.

Hey, thanks for being with us. I really appreciate it. I hope that you and the family have an amazing holiday. Congratulations on all the success.

Chad Sarno: Thanks, Kirk. Appreciation you. Thanks for having me.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. And thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned in the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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