Out Chef April Stamm on the Rise of Vegan Cuisine

by Merryn Johns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday March 14, 2021
Originally published on March 5, 2021

Chef April Stamm
Chef April Stamm  (Source:Lifted Film | Music, Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy)

Locked out of our favorite restaurants for the past year, many of us have turned to meal delivery kits and home cooking as a way of staying healthy — and sane. The pandemic has brought out the home chef in all of us, and we're dabbling in everything from baking bread to juicing. For those looking to elevate their culinary skills or shift careers, a new culinary school is about to make its mark. But you won't find a porterhouse steak on the menu at the Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy.

Vegetarian and vegan diets have become so mainstream, in 2019, the total retail market for plant foods was worth nearly $5 billion. Last year, Beyond Meat made inroads into China, and even McDonald's will unwrap its "McPlant" this year. When we are finally allowed to dine in our favorite establishments, it will be interesting to see if the plant based boom will make it into the kitchens and onto the menus as analysts predict.

April Stamm, a classically trained chef with more than two decades of cooking experience under her toque, believes our newfound appetite for plants is here to stay. The out urbanite was a longtime instructor at the famed International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute) in New York City, which ceased operation due to the pandemic's economic fallout.

Stamm represents a growing number of LGBTQ chefs gaining recognition on the culinary landscape. Melissa King won last season's "Top Chef: All-Stars LA" while past contestants like Arnold Myint (aka drag queen Suzy Wong) and Kristen Kish have amassed thousands of social media fans.

But Stamm proves you don't have to be a queer culinary influencer to make your mark. The chef traded skyscrapers for mountain views, earning a coveted spot alongside Vegan Fusion Academy's director, legendary vegan chef and cookbook author Mark Reinfeld at the brand new Boulder, Colorado, teaching facility.

Dispelling Vegan Myths

Chef April Stamm
Chef April Stamm  (Source: Lifted Film | Music, Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy)

Like most professional culinary schools, the Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy will give its students what they need to graduate with the skills to work in a professional kitchen but with one key addition: "They will learn the techniques and ingredient knowledge specific to vegan cooking, which includes making and working with analogues (vegan meat and dairy substitutes) and building flavor without relying on animal products," says Stamm.

Up until fairly recently, animal protein was the main attraction on a plate, even though the Culinary Institute of America has been encouraging the restaurant industry to do a "protein flip" and use more plant based protein.

If prepared well, Stamm emphasizes that vegan cuisine can deliver the five tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (the savory profile we associate with animal protein) that we most crave.

"There is a whole world of cooking styles that can accomplish without using animal products — from deep-fried vegan delicacies to comforting soups, stews, and braises, to raw-centric dishes," says Stamm. Students in the Aspiring Chef program will learn classic French techniques like taillage (knife cuts), sauce work including vegan versions of mother sauces, cooking methods like sautéeing, grilling, braising, searing, steaming and stewing, and culinary tech techniques like sous vide (circulator cooking), spherification, making foams, and deconstruction, which busts the myth that vegan food lacks presentation.

A Professional Passion for Plants

School Director and Chef Instructor Mark Reinfeld
School Director and Chef Instructor Mark Reinfeld  (Source: Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy)

In this new phase of her career, Stamm has rediscovered an appetite for working with plant based foods.

"The world of plant based proteins and dairy has changed drastically in the last five years," she says. "There are some delicious products on the market made by both small and large companies. Those are a bit of revelation." She says even cravings for a hamburger, hot dog or cheese can be satisfied with some "gateway products that taste like the 'real' thing."

With growing consumer interest for plant based meal kits and groceries, restaurants offering elevated vegan experiences will be in demand, and Chef Stamm hopes to train the next generation of kitchen confidentials.

"Flavor is dependent on knowing your ingredients, knowing your cooking techniques, and using them to get the best out of everything," says Stamm. "Something as simple as a properly cooked and seasoned green bean can blow people's minds, truly."

Stamm hopes to pass onto her students a mindset that any professional cook needs: "Come to work with passion every day and put that passion into what you make. We are not trying to create a legion of vegan police at this school. What we do want is to teach and inspire our students to go out into the world and make food that speaks to them any way it can."

Stamm, Reinfeld and a team of chef-instructors will teach students how to make vegan products like tofu, seitan, tempeh and vegan cheese from scratch, along with raw food preparation, vegan breads and pastries, and even wine and beer pairings. Guest experts Fran Costigan (vegan pastry), Ron Pickarski (vegan cooking pioneer), and James Sant (raw cuisine), along with professional development from vegan luminaries Ocean Robbins and Steve Prussack (The Juice Guru), will reinforce the philosophies and techniques taught by full-time instructors.

For those increasingly drawn to plant based diets for health, longevity and beauty, the course includes an eight-part food as Medicine series run by Dr. Ashley Boudet, a naturopathic doctor who co-authored Reinfeld's eighth book, "The Ultimate Age-Defying Plan."

Veganism is no longer based on the idea of restrictive diets but on a bounty that is good for people and the planet. "People are starting to open up their minds, kitchens, and appetites to a different way of thinking about and producing food, and plant-based cooking and eating are at the heart of that. That's one reason this kind of school is so important right now. There are so many new careers opening up in the plant-based world, and we are excited to teach students to be prepared to go out and take that world by storm."

Veg Out

"He brings with him such a breadth of knowledge about vegan cooking and vegan activism. He's incredibly down to earth and supportive, and just as interested in learning as he is in teaching," says Stamm of Reinfeld's impact on the food industry. "He is a rock star in the industry for sure."

Of course, even one of the country's top vegan chefs doesn't always want to eat his own cooking. EDGE asked Reinfeld to recommend some of his favorite vegan restaurants:

Arlo's Curb Side, Austin — Casual comfort is the name of the game at this Austin hotspot, known for its vegan burgers and tacos.

HanGawi, New York City — Don't miss the Emperor's Tasting Menu, a four-course tasting inspired by the seasons.

Full Bloom, Miami — An eclectic menu brings Miami's vibrancy to life with dishes like tempeh carne asada, Morrocan tagine and black ravioli with cashew cream sauce.

Crossroads, Los Angeles — Chef and cookbook author Tal Ronnen elevates vegan cuisine in a stylish setting and exquisite plating.

Quan Yin , Houston — Located in the heart of Bellaire, expect large portions and artfully prepared meat alternatives to Peking duck and other classic Chinese dishes.

Merryn Johns is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is also a public speaker on ethical travel and a consultant on marketing to the LGBT community.