Chef Jocelyn Ramirez talks plant-based cooking even an abuelita can love
Chef Jocelyn Ramirez’s first cookbook, La Vida Verde: Plant-Based Cooking With Authentic Mexican Flavor, is a godsend for those of us who practically grew up in la carnecería but are a little worried about our arteries. Based on the scrumptious meals she serves at her Los Angeles food truck and catering company Todo Verde, Ramirez’s plant-based takes on classic Mexican dishes focus on health but forsake none of the tradition of your abuelita’s kitchen. Her jackfruit carnitas, from her oft-published, deceptively simple recipe, are spiced so perfectly with cumin and orange juice that they’re practically indiscernible from a taco full of pork.
Chef Ramirez’s plant-based approach to cooking, though, is bigger than tantalizing flavors. In an interview, she spoke about focusing on sustainability, centering health issues of communities of color, and creating a space for other women chefs of color through her culinary hub and event series Across Our Kitchen Tables.
vegan food near me
This year, vegan food near me was a breakout search in the U.S.
A breakout search is one that has increased at least 5000%. It’s a big deal.
In your cookbook, you include a moving introduction about plant-based cooking and health issues within Latino communities. What inspired your approach?
Oftentimes, our communities will look at something like plant-based as a last-ditch effort to get healthy when they get diagnosed with something really scary. I want to try to get people to think more about food as an everyday lifestyle choice that still tastes good, that doesn’t feel like you’re missing out, and that doesn’t get us into these preventable health issues. How do we continue to evolve and reshape the way we think about cultural foods and traditional foods? People think if the backyard party doesn’t have carne asada, that’s not a traditional party; if the pozole doesn’t have pork or chicken, that’s not a traditional pozole.
That’s not true—that has been an evolution of “tradition.” It’s changing that mindset and thinking more of how we look at food ancestrally in a modern world. We’ve come so far post-colonization, so how do we can reclaim our health in a way that feels more sustainable, that feels more holistic? It doesn’t mean that we don’t eat those things anymore, but we see them more as a special occasion, an indulgence.
Meat is so ingrained in our Mexican culture. Did you encounter pushback?
If I go to an event and people are coming to our area because of the aroma or it looks great, and then we’re like, “Oh, it’s mushroom mole or jackfruit tinga or heart of palm ceviche,” people are like, “Oh, OK, interesting.” But I had one time where a staff member was like, “This is all vegan food.” And everybody’s like, “Oh no, oh no, I don’t even wanna look at it. It’s vegan; I’m not vegan.” And from that day forward, I was like, “We really can’t approach it in this way.” It just doesn’t have a positive connotation in our communities, and also it feels very binary. I want it to feel like you could live in these in-between worlds. This is also why I use the term “plant-based” more than “vegan”; it’s a little bit more flexible for some people, and I think a little bit more of a stepping stone of the direction that we all need to be headed in.
“In communities of color, it’s not just the food itself, it’s the experience.”
In the vegan community, I found that people can be pretty strict, and that, for me, just doesn’t make sense. I’ve had people say, “Oh, you’re trying to do healthy Mexican food, but you’re still using cooking oil and you’re serving agua fresca that’s sweetened with maple syrup—why don’t you serve wheatgrass juice or something healthier?” I’m just like, “Whoa, OK. Let’s break this down a little bit, you know?” It has to be something that still resonates with that person to make them feel like they’re still connected to the culture, and not stray too far away from that so they can get to that point eventually.
You’ve spoken about Indigenous ways of cooking and decolonization of our tables. How did you develop your philosophy?
I give a whole lot of credit to my mentor, Claudia Serrato, a food and cultural anthropologist. She really broke down Indigenous food waste and the fact that most Indigenous communities are not 100 percent vegan; there is still meat consumption around special occasions. It’s different than a modern society where we can eat meat at every single meal without really thinking twice about the animal in the cycle and how we’re all part of this ecosystem. The way her conversation tied feminism and veganism was a mind-click to me, and I decided to go plant-based literally that day.
We cofounded an organization called Across Our Kitchen Tables in 2017. We were like, “It would be really cool to have a space where women of color in food could just come together and just ask each other questions without feeling like ‘I’m being judged’ or ‘I don’t know enough.’” I’ve learned so much being a part of that group.
How do you think food can be restorative beyond physical nourishment?
I was on a panel with my friend Karla Vasquez of SalviSoul, and one of the things that she said that really struck me was like, “When I would sit around this table with my abuelita and mother and other family members, they were making not just food, but nourishment for us.” It was about the stories at the table, really caring for me and asking how my day was. It wasn’t just the food, it was the spirit. I think that’s something we have a lot of in communities of color; it’s the cometiendo, the experience. That, for me, is just as important as making sure that the plate of food tastes really delicious.