Frank Picchione is a vegan chef, lifestyle blogger, and animal advocate. He won the season finale of Rocco’s Dinner Party on Bravo TV, and has been featured on the Martha Stewart Show. Frank lives in New York City with his dog Dudley, and recently took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the vegan lifestyle, his love for animals, and what it feels like to be healthy and mindful:
Out Impact: When and why did you decide to become vegan?
Frank Picchione: My personal vegan journey was a step by step process that began about 10 years ago. Like most people, I did not grow up vegan. And as a chef, I used to cook (and eat) all kinds of animals. But I have been an animal lover my whole life, and I have had pets of every kind – from mice, fish and birds, to dogs, a cat and a horse. Eventually I started to see that there really is no difference between the animals we love and bring into our homes and the animals who are raised for food. And as I learned about the cruel treatment of farm animals I saw no alternative but to stop eating them. Going vegan is a huge adjustment, and for me, in order to make it stick, I did it in stages. First I gave up eating pigs because they are so intelligent and suffer so much. Pigs are smarter than dogs. They are playful and social. It really is brain washing that allows people to disconnect and differentiate between animals they consider pets and animals they are willing to eat. All of the horrors of animal farming and slaughter are hidden from us. But as the saying goes, if slaughter houses had glass walls everybody would be a vegetarian. Unless people are curious and learn about what goes on behind the scenes, as I did, it remains easy to just go into a store to buy a faceless “product” under plastic wrap. After pigs, I gave up eating all mammals. Then I stopped eating birds. And more recently I eliminated eggs and dairy. Those last two are the hardest. Eggs and dairy are hidden in so many products. Most people think they cannot give up eating cheese. Well, the egg and dairy industries really are among the cruelest in animal agriculture. Baby boy chicks and male calves do not grow up to lay eggs and give milk. So literally half of all chicks and calves born are killed for being “useless.” In my opinion continuing to eat eggs and cheese is the same as eating chicken and veal.
OI: You were the winner of Rocco’s Dinner Party on Bravo TV. What was that like? Did you cook vegan dishes on the show?
FP: Yes! The dinner was to celebrate Liza Minnelli’s birthday. We were told in advance that beef was one of her favorite foods, but at the last minute Rocco came into the kitchen and announced that two of the other guests were vegan. At the time I still cooked meat professionally for clients, but most of the menu I had planned was already plant-based. I was happy for the added challenge and was able to take this in stride because of my experience. I added items from the pantry, like tofu and root vegetables, while my competitor was thrown for a loop trying to deal with all the butter and cream she had planned to use. It was hysterical. I still like to watch cooking competitions on TV, but I would never do one of those shows again. They’re always opening their mystery baskets to find pigs’ heads and sausages, and I’m just not going back there.
OI: You were also on Martha Stewart’s television show. How was that experience?
FP: It was an amazing, exciting dream come true. I had been a huge fan of Martha’s for years. This was before I gave up eggs and dairy, and I made a spectacular floating island dessert on her show. It was made from 18 egg whites, 12 egg yolks and a quart of half and half. Martha loved it. She featured it in her magazine and on her PBS show, Martha Bakes. She also put it in her most recent cookbook and blogs about serving it at parties in her own homes. Martha has lots of fancy chickens laying lots of colorful eggs. I don’t want to think about where those chickens come from. I have evolved beyond that recipe. She can have it.
OI: How do you think veganism is perceived in the media?
FP: Well, I think it has become somewhat trendy and cool, which is great. I mean, that’s not really the point, but when high profile vegan celebrities speak about the health benefits and how great they feel (and look), this all helps advance the cause. But it’s not just movie stars. Some of our nation’s biggest thinkers, like Twitter founder Biz Stone, are outspoken about their vegan diets. Recently Bill Gates has made the case for plant-based alternatives to meat because the earth simply cannot keep supplying all these edible animals. The energy that goes into producing meat – and the CO2 that comes out of it – are far more destructive than all of the world’s automobiles. This is a fact, and it is unsustainable. And thanks to the many articles being written on the topic the more informed meat-eaters are making changes. Many people I know jump start their days with fruit and vegetable packed juices and smoothies, rather than egg sandwiches and muffins.
Frank with one of the elephant orphans at the Ithumba Unit of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust,
in Tsavo East, Kenya
OI: What do you feel is the biggest misconception about the vegan lifestyle?
FP: People are learning that it’s healthier for their bodies and better for the environment. But for many it remains a mystery. For example, most people still believe that you need to eat animal products to get enough protein. This is just not true. And there are those who think it means giving up sweets and cheese, but as a chef, I have learned that the possibilities of cruelty free baked goods, made without eggs and dairy, are endless – and more healthful. Nut cheeses are delicious and nutritious replacements for dairy cheeses. My latest cooking obsession is culturing cashews to make “cheeses” that are sliceable, spreadable and meltable. There are amazing dairy free options. I enjoy teaching people new ways of looking at cuisine and nutrition. But it is difficult to overcome the brainwashing we all endure from the moment we are born. I wish everyone would watch the movie Forks over Knives – it is enlightening. The United States is burdened with a health crisis: obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Everybody is medicated. But all of these can be reversed by switching to a plant-based diet.
OI: How is your clientele as a vegan chef?
FP: I have been cooking professionally for about 25 years. When I started my catering business a decade ago I cooked everything – braised meats, osso bucco, that floating island – but as I have increased my own knowledge and evolved, so has my clientele. I cook for pretty forward thinking people. They and their guests appreciate healthful home cooking, served elegantly, with beautiful flowers, all cruelty free. My message now is veganism. Not to be a flower child vegetarian of the 70s, but rather a modern, mindful, responsible person who thinks about where his food comes from and how it is prepared. Many of my clients are not vegan, but they all appreciate the health benefits and delicious flavors of my cooking. Many cannot eat dairy or gluten or eggs. This is where having a chef who specializes in these issues makes entertaining possible.
OI: Do you think veganism is a lifestyle everyone can adopt?
FP: It is challenging, and our culture does not make it easy. I admit, a vegan lifestyle is a lot more convenient in Los Angeles and New York City than in a small town in the Midwest, where many still view it as elitist or a hippie fringe element. And sadly, it is much cheaper and easier to go to McDonald’s than the local farmers market. It takes a lot of self-education, effort and responsibility. Anyone certainly can do it, but many people are afraid or mystified, and don’t know where to begin. Veganism is not for the lazy, fast food seeker. But it becomes easier the longer you do it. I love to show people that even small changes add up to big differences. I am a big promoter of Meatless Mondays. Certainly everybody can avoid meat one day a week.
OI: How do you replace protein, iron, zinc, calcium and vitamin B-12 typically found in meats, fish, eggs and dairy?
FP: Other than B-12, all of these nutrients are found in plants. I take a great omega-3 supplement that is loaded with DHA and EPA fatty acids. It comes from algae. I alternate among three different raw vegan protein powders, and I love tofu, tempeh, quinoa – all complete protein foods that contain all of the essential amino acids and none of the trans-fats and cholesterol found in animal proteins. Beans and lentils are other great sources of protein. They are low in fat and high in fiber. I admit I am not a huge fan of the “fake meats.” Processed food is processed food whether it’s vegan or not. I have a green smoothie every day. Kale and leafy greens are full of calcium and iron – I also use a cast iron skillet for cooking. I take a high potency daily vitamin with B-12, and my almond milk is fortified with calcium and B-12. Also, nutritional yeast often has added B-12. At my last physical I had my B-12 levels checked and they were through the roof. The bottom line is that if you are informed and diligent, plant-based nutrients can fulfill all of your requirements. They are more healthful to you and the planet, and of course the animals.
OI: You’re training for your first triathlon. Do you find it difficult to train given the restrictions in your diet?
FP: No. First of all, I do not look at my diet as having restrictions. My diet is probably more varied than most people’s. I have tons of energy. I work out six or seven days a week. I lift weights and train for endurance, and recover better and faster than before I went vegan. Believe me, I was one of those people who was hung up on his protein intake. I used to eat six egg whites after every workout. I’m only half joking when I say I was slightly traumatized when I first committed to not eating any more eggs. But I immediately felt better without them. Not only are many top endurance athletes vegan, but there are vegan bodybuilders and elite Martial Arts competitors.
OI: As a triathlete, what are your thoughts about the Boston Marathon tragedy?
FP: It was a horrible tragedy that might make you feel unsafe everywhere – if you let it. These were destructive, desensitized people who lack empathy, causing pain and suffering. We see this every day in our treatment of animals.
OI: What causes are you passionate about?
FP: I have always been affected by the exploitation of the innocent and defenseless among us. All life is equally valuable. This notion that human beings are somehow set apart or above the rest of the natural world is harmful not only to the ones we share this planet with, but also to ourselves. I am passionate about all animal welfare. I feel responsible to speak for the ones who have no voice; for the ones born in factory farms and puppy mills, into lives of misery and suffering. I foster six baby elephant orphans in Kenya at The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. You can foster an elephant in someone else’s name as a gift to them. Today ivory poaching is at epidemic levels, with tens of thousands of elephants being hunted annually for their tusks. It is such a cruel, ignorant waste. Elephants have been exploited for centuries. They are highly intelligent and form deep family bonds. They communicate on a level that we are only beginning to understand. They are among just a few living creatures who, like us, possess self-awareness. And they mourn their dead. The tiny elephants who witness the brutal slaughter of their mothers are highly traumatized. The ones who are lucky enough to be rescued by the Trust will hopefully recover and one day be reintroduced back into the wild. Last year I visited the orphans and their keepers in Nairobi and Tsavo East. It was something I wish everyone could experience. It was life changing.
OI: What’s next for you that you’d like to share with our readers?
FP: I am working tirelessly on my vegan lifestyle cookbook, and am looking forward to sharing my world of plant-based, healthful, stylish entertaining.
Want a recipe from Frank Picchione to try? Check out Frank’s recipe on how to make delicious Mixed Bean & Quinoa Burgers with Smoked Papika Sauce and Lentil & Quinoa Burgers with Chipped Avocado on OutImpact.com!