Written by Murie Gillett
Photos by Jacalyn Meyvis
Mackenzie Zerniak graduated from The National Gourmet Institute in 2014. With extensive restaurant experience, she hopes to help others understand the benefits of incorporating seasonal, local, and organic food into their cooking, eating, and lifestyles. Now living in Rochester and working as a vegan whole-food plant based chef, we're lucky to have the chance to work with Mackenzie on classes right here Rochester Brainery. We munched on hummus, gazpacho, bruschetta, and falafel as we talked.
How long have you been vegan? What first inspired you to make that choice?
About twelve years! I was 11 and reading this book called Vegan Virgin Valentine. It’s about this girl who was vegan throughout the whole book and then, at the very end of the book, she eats a grilled cheese sandwich. I was like “Huh, what’s vegan?” I didn’t even know what it meant! So I looked it up on my laptop, and I thought “Oh! I could do that!”
At that point in time I had already been vegetarian for a few months. I wouldn’t eat eggs unless they were in baked goods, and beyond that I would only drink or eat milk with cereal. That was mostly it! I would eat cheese with pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches. Basically, I was like 'Oh, I can do that,' after I read this book.
The first day I became vegan, my best friend, who I’ve been friends with for probably like 15 years, was there. She was eating some cheese puffs and I was eating Frito's and I just automatically grabbed a cheese puff and ate it. She was like “You just ate a cheese puff! That’s not vegan!” and I was like “Oh my god! You’re so right!” so I had to start all over again.
Have your reasons for being vegan changed over the years?
I think there are a lot of reasons that people become vegan: health reasons, animal rights, environmental rights, you name it. For me, when I was becoming vegetarian, it was just a fad. My friend asked “Do you want to become vegetarian with me?” and I said “Sure!” I became vegetarian and then converted to the vegan thing- I was very into animal rights. That was probably up until I was 15 or 16. Now, I care about the animals to the point where I don’t want to eat meat myself but I would cook it, my family would eat it. It was never like I couldn’t be around it. It was always involved in my life. As I became older it definitely became for more of a health reason, just because I felt better doing the vegan lifestyle thing. There was a critical point in my life back in 2014 when I had been eating a lot of tofu, the mock meats, and all those processed foods, and I went to culinary school, which was all about whole foods, plant based, vegan, vegetarian. They did offer meat classes and stuff like that but really we were sourcing organic ingredients, local ingredients, non-GMO, non-irradiated, all these qualifications, you know, fresh, whole food, using the whole thing, local, seasonal foods.
Through the 6 or 8 month period where I was living in New York City, I noticed my skin got clearer and I lost weight. All of my acne went away and it was because I stopped eating processed foods. I was eating a lot of processed foods. Just because you’re vegan doesn’t mean that you’re healthy. You can be vegan and eating just as badly as someone who is eating meat, if not worse. At least with meat it’s more natural, compared to eating a lot of processed soy and corn, things that have a lot of sugars, and other garbage chemicals in it.
That was the point I wanted to grow my own food, and eventually from there, I really wanted to know where my food came from. In school I realized that I’d been eaten tofu so many times, and I didn’t even know how tofu was made! I feel like that happens to a lot of people! They don’t question what their food is or what they’re eating, they just eat it and they’re like “Wow. This is great.” They never want to know how it gets to your plate and where it comes from and, you know, what goes into it.
When I was in culinary school, I really got to learn how to source ingredients: where to get them, how to select ingredients that are good, and a lot of things like that. I can go to a farmer’s market, which is usually organic, locally grown, seasonal foods. Culinary school really put a perspective on that for me. That’s the point where I am now. I’m vegan, yes, I follow the vegan guidelines for the most part: I do eat honey. But I’m more whole-food plant-based, or I’m whole food plant based vegan, rather than just vegan. So for me personally it’s different. Every vegan has a different story and a different method to their madness.
What do you think one of the biggest misconceptions is about vegan cooking and eating?
Probably the protein thing. Or nutrients. People ask, "How do you live? What do you cook? What do you eat? Am I a bunny rabbit?" No. I’m not a bunny rabbit. I don’t eat salad everyday. I don’t ever actually eat a salad any day. Although kale is in season right now, so I eat lots of kale. I think a lot of people are like "How do you get your nutrients?” And my answer is “Well, I know what nutrient value vegetables have, so I eat those!” I believe it's really important to eat the color of the rainbow. If you think about it, different color foods are linked to different nutrients
Where do you get your inspiration for vegan recipes? Do you usually start with a non-vegan recipe, or will you work with the ingredients you can use?
I look everywhere. Sometimes, I’ll be driving down the road and I’ll have to pull over and write down an idea. I do a lot of looking on Pinterest. Pinterest is probably the most inspirational because it has a visual. I don’t like using other people's’ recipes. I like making my own recipes, putting my own twist to it and making it my own. I’m sure there are probably recipes that I come pretty darn close to because, you know, how many different types of spring rolls can you make? Pinterest is a good visual for me because I can look on there and I will sit there and think and be like “Oh, here’s a little something something! I could put this on it instead of that and I could do this and do that” and then it’s like a completely different thing. That’s kind of how I do a lot of different stuff. I’m more of a visual learner. I need to see something, or I’m like “Okay, I have this ingredient, this ingredient, this ingredient,” and I just go through my pantry: that, this, that, sometimes I come up with something that I didn’t even plan. That’s kind of how I get it.
It’s easier to cook meat than it is vegetables, for the most part. At least in my experience. You can put a little bit of salt and pepper and olive oil on any sort of meat protein and it will taste good. Grill it up and call it a day. Vegetables, it gets a little harder, because then you don’t want to eat just the same thing everyday: it’s like, okay, now what can I do? I tend to lean towards my favorites. Anything you can do with meat protein, you can figure out how to do with a non-animal source. It doesn’t even matter, it doesn’t even have to be a bean!
You have a lot of restaurant experience, and not all of them were vegan restaurants. What is it like cooking and preparing meat for others in the culinary sense?
It can be tricky, yes, but it’s something that I have gained more confidence at now that I’ve been out of school and have been cooking meat a lot more. I’m the type of person where I think about meat as I would think about vegetables. Because I can’t try something with a meat ingredient in it, I need to think about the flavor profile and the other qualities that make the dish. For example: a moroccan stewed garbanzo bean. I’m like “Oh my god! This is the best thing ever.” I’ll take that recipe and the flavors and use the same ingredients but change the protein. "I can substitute something for the chickpeas. I can use chicken, or I can put lamb in there. I could put anything else in there that isn’t vegetarian and it would taste probably good
I get a lot of inspiration also from other chefs, and mostly ones that I know, so one of my greatest mentors, his name is Brian Van Etten, he was the head chef at the Owl House, and he is now the current owner of Swillburger. (You should go, you should try their beet burger!) I work with him for a catering company, and he’s always coming up with these different ideas, He’s using these different ingredients that I might not know. There’s also other people, I try to just talk to people and see what they enjoy.
I spend a lot of time at the farmer’s market, that’s where I tend to source my ingredients, I wanna do the organic, the local, and the seasonal stuff. There’s this farm called Squash Blossom, they’re down in Naples, I actually got a lot of stuff from them. Sometimes at the farmer’s market, you get a lot of people who only want certain produce, whenever you go to the farmer’s market in the season of the vegetable, you always find kale, swiss chard, carrots, onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, beans, zucchinis: very traditional vegetables that everyone knows. You won’t find a lot of okra, you won’t find a lot of cardoons, you probably won’t find a lot of even artichokes! People don’t know what to do with them, and they don’t take the initiative to ask: “What do I do with this?” The people who are growing the food are eating it, and when they’re eating it, they’re cooking it, or doing whatever they’re going to be doing with it, and they’re usually more than happy to be say “Oh, you do this with it, or you do that with it,” and that’s how I learn as well. If I don’t know what something is, I ask about it.
When it comes to cooking meat, I try to have someone test something for me. When I am cooking meat, if I’m not 100% sure, I’ll look up a recipe, and even if I don’t follow that recipe to a “T”, I get the concept of it, and it’s just kind of something that you learn over time. In my culinary experience, especially my education, I was able to find different techniques, and learn about different techniques, that can be very versatile for everything. For example: spices. There are different techniques that you use certain spices for, and that you do with the spices, and it kind of just works for everything. Certain profiles, certain flavors that go well together, I kind of just go off that, and hope for the best.
You put a lot of emphasis on seasonal cooking. What is the value of that? Do you have any starting places for people who don’t do as much seasonal cooking to start incorporating it more?
I don’t know about the philosophies of it, I just say “Go and support your local farmer! Instead of going to a supermarket” It doesn’t have to be a one-stop shop. That’s convenience. People forget that there are other cool things out there. It goes back to the fueling your body, wanting to know what you’re eating, where it comes from, and being able to source those out.
Fortunately enough, we’re really lucky! We have dozens of farmer’s markets that happen here in Rochester. I’ve so far counted at least one every day of the week, except for Friday, and that’s not including the public market. I go to the Brighton Farmer’s Market at the Brighton High School; there’s another little one that happens on Wednesdays, over on Monroe near Dogtown; there’s another one on Thursdays in the South Wedge if you take Alexander all the way to Mt. Hope; there’s one in Fairport that happens on Saturdays; and the Sundays in Brighton. Oh! And there’s one in Mendon on Tuesdays; and then the Westside Farmer’s Market happens on Thursdays! Basically every town now has a farmer’s market.
That’s seasonal, organic, locally grown, unprocessed, non-irradiated things that grow here, non-GMO, all the good stuff. Choosing the ingredients and going to local farmers and asking questions, asking people how they grow their vegetables. The Brighton Farmer’s Market has really strict guidelines on being able to source your ingredients from there. They’re very selective about the farmers and the people that are allowed to distribute there. It makes me feel a little bit better when I can go up to someone and start to have a relationship.
So going to the farmer’s market and talking to the farmers is a good starting point?
Yes! There’s also this site called RocWiki, it does a lot of different things. I met the guy who does it, who runs it, who sources its information, and he has an entire list on there of the farmers markets. Going there, starting there.
People will complain about prices, but they don’t understand the quality of what they’re getting. People don’t farm, and they don’t garden, so they don’t know what goes into it. They want to get something at the lowest price possible. But they have to think about everything else that’s happening as well. So it’s also about supporting your community, the more money you put into these people, the better crop they’ll be growing, and the more variety, we’ll be getting cooler stuff! Compared to the same old stuff all the time.
If a person isn’t ready to commit to being vegan, how easy is it to incorporate vegan cooking practices in their own cooking?
Being able to experiment with flavors, veganism doesn’t just have to be American. Veganism can be the world. There’s so many different cultures, and some cultures already naturally eat relatively vegan, or are easily converted to vegan or vegetarian. Like India, a lot of their stuff is automatically vegan, even China, it can be made vegan or is already pescetarian. There’s a ton of other places that have that style of cuisine: Mexico, for example.People are scared, or nervous to try flavors that they’re just not used to. I’d recommend people to start easy, because there’s nothing better than eating something that has salt, pepper, and olive oil on it. Literally, you put that on any vegetable and you’re good to go for the most part. But if you’re like “Wow, this is a little boring for me,” then get into a different flavor profile. Go for an Indian, or an Asian cuisine, or Mexican, or whatever you want to do. Try whatever you want to do!
What is your favorite dish to make for yourself?
I don’t know! I do have a lot of tacos. We have a Taco Tuesday almost every week, so I really like tacos. That’s probably my favorite because there’s so many different things you can do with it: make a salsa, make a corn salsa, make a tomatillo salsa, stewed black beans, rice, lettuce, guacamole, you can do a ton of different stuff. I also like curries! Those are my favorite because they’re really easy. Or just stir frying some vegetables! Literally just a little bit of oil, salt pepper, throw them into a hot pan.
It also depends on the season! As far as eating seasonally, our bodies, in the summer, the spring, semi the fall, it’s hotter out: you don’t want to be eating something that’s going to make you feel warm. You want to eat something that’s going to make you feel cool! Eat gazpachos, eating more salad-style stuff. That will help regulate your body heat. In the wintertime, eating the pastas, eating the curries, the stews, the soups, that kind of thing. It’s all kind of like figuring out the balance.
Mackenzie is teaching a series of vegan cooking classes at the Brainery. Her next classes are: Vegan Size Dishes on Monday, November 7th, from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM, and Well-Balanced Breakfast Foods on Monday, November 14th, from 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM.