Q & A with Vegan Chef Mark Reinfeld

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Q & A with Vegan Chef Mark Reinfeld

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Maui
Mar 23, 2012

Last night, I whipped up a pseudo-creamy pot of corn soup. (“Pseudo” because the creaminess came from quinoa and almond milk rather than actual cream.) First, that’s unusual, because I’m not known to cook. Second, the act is even more extraordinary in that I had to make substitutions, and I did so with a wave of my hand, as if I was wafting the air for a better scent of the gardenias that are beginning to blossom around the island. The recipe called for green chilies, which we did not have. No matter, I told my husband. We’d roast a red pepper. That would add another layer of flavor, one that I might even like better.

After participating in a vegan cooking workshop on Maui last December, I seem to be a new woman--the kind who cooks. Now, don’t think that means I spend all day, every day in the kitchen. I still find myself sitting at my desk writing as the sun sets behind Kalalea, the mountain across the street. Many evenings, I return from a trek checking on Laysan albatrosses to find my husband has prepared a meal. 

My transformation—and it is that—is due to another man: Mark Reinfeld. He led the cooking workshop I attended last December on Maui. I’d known him for years. He was the co-owner of Blossoming Lotus, a vegan restaurant, now closed, on Kauai that received international accolades from the vegetarian community. His restaurant also won “Best Restaurant on Kauai” honors from the Honolulu Advertiser for the “all restaurants” category, meaning it beat out all the carnivorous and fishy places across the island.

Mark’s the real deal. He’s got the non-lamb-chops, so to speak. Last year, he won Vegan.com’s Recipe of the Year Award. His cookbook, Vegan Fusion, has won all kinds of awards. And I just heard he was offered the chef position for the upcoming North American Vegetarian Society’s 38th Annual Summerfest. What I liked was the garlic trick that Mark shared with us—worth the price of admission, he joked. He did this other thing with ginger that generated ooh’s and aah’s. But what resonates with me is the peace that Mark emanates in the kitchen. “Keeping it mellow,” he said. “That’s how I like to roll.”

A few weeks back, I ran into Mark in Kapaa—in between cooking workshops in Honolulu and Belize—and he was kind enough to answer a few questions of mine.

KIM: It seems like there’s a recent surge in eating vegan. What do you suppose has created this interest?

MARK: It is becoming more evident that the food we eat will affect our health. With the rise of the baby boomers, more people want to do everything they can to stay healthy. This trend will only continue to grow as people experience the amazing benefits and delicious flavors of vegan cuisine. 

KIM: Related to the above, a plant-based diet seems to be tied to a lifestyle choice, not just food choice.  In your 20+ years preparing and promoting vegan, how has adoption changed among people?  Not just for hippies anymore?  How/why is it entering mainstream consciousness?

MARK: Its definitely becoming more mainstream as celebrities, politicians, doctors, athletes and leaders of the business community begin to feel the benefits. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Russell Simmons, Mike Tyson and many others have all come out to affirm that making a change in our diet can produce a radical change in our health and sense of well being. 

KIM: Eating vegan requires thinking differently about meal preparation.  Not just shake-n-bake!  How do you coach would-be vegans away from familiar habits toward plant-friendly methods of food prep, menu planning, kid-friendly, etc.? In other words, what are the beginner steps?

MARK: Lots of food people already eat are actually vegan. Salsa, guacamole, hummus, salads and smoothies are all vegan by nature for the most part. I encourage people to get creative with salads as a starting point. Add beans, unique vegetables, grains such as rice or quinoa can all turn a simple salad into a gourmet experience.

KIM: How do “vegan” athletes adjust their plant-based diet to manage energy and health to perform as top competitors?

MARK: It’s different for every person. It’s very easy to get all of the protein, carbohydrates, fats etc. that athletes need to perform at peak levels with plants. Check out veganbodybuilding.com to see how even body builders can compete and succeed on a vegan diet.

KIM: What advice does you have for dealing with the sometimes conflict between ethnic foods/cultural dietary traditions and adopting a vegan diet?  Seafood, pork, poultry are very popular in local Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Hawaiian etc. dishes.  It is not just food, it is social convention and customs, too.

MARK: It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing change unless you want it to be. I recommend having as many vegan meals as possible in a way that feels balanced to each person. If you want to switch to all vegan, there are many plant based products that are available these days to replace the traditional animal products in these ethnic cuisines. 

KIM: Any tips on eating vegan on a budget.  What if you live in the city and don’t have a backyard for growing your own garden, composting, etc. MARK: Visit farmers markets, see if there are CSA or community supported agriculture programs available. Order bulk, if possible, at co-ops and natural foods stores. If its more than you can consume on your own, see if some friends will chip in to purchase bulk rice, nuts seeds etc. Cook as many meals as possible at home, or with friends, potlucks etc. as possible for maximum savings. 

KIM: Related, what about tips on eating vegan on vacation.

MARK: One, plan Ahead. This is a big step to take. Research the places you will be visiting to discover the veggie sanctuaries. Websites likeHappyCow.com provide a world-wide directory of veggie friendly restaurants and natural foods stores. This is invaluable in locating your dining destination. 

Two, think Survival. Stock up before your trip with as many vegan essentials as you are up to carting around. Superfood powders, energy bars, and superfood trail mixes (try goji berries, raw cacao nibs, and pumpkin seeds) can prove to be crucial when you find yourself in between veggie havens and on long train or bus rides. If you are able to locate an organic market, often called "Bio markets" in Europe, you will be able to stock up at these locations on almond butter, rice cakes, dark chocolate, fresh fruit and whatever travel foods suit your fancy. If you are not able to locate an organic market, most mainstream markets will carry some essentials such as peanut butter, olives, or packaged hummus. Pick up some bread and fresh fruit and veggies, and you are on your way.

Three, go Ethnic. Most towns and cities have at least a few ethnic restaurants in town. You can usually find some vegan options on the menu at Indian, Thai, Japanese, Mid Eastern, Italian, and Mexican Restaurants.

Perhaps the most important tip is to be a bit flexible with your standards when traveling. Those who prefer to eat only organically grown foods, may find themselves eating more commercially grown foods than they would at home. The same goes with those who are accustomed to eating a lot of raw foods, or even gluten-free foods. An important part of traveling is to go with the flow and absorb as much from your experience as possible. Relax into the wonder of the new cultures you are experiencing.  

At the Maui workshop, Mark said that he wanted to “create vegan rock star chefs” out of all of us. And maybe he is. I’m getting there. Sorta. 

Mark will be conducting a Vegan Fusion Teacher Training Workshop on Maui September 14 – 16


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