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A chat with Chef Na, World Vegan Day's queen of Thai produce

Leading the way when it comes to everything green.

What is your business? How long have you been running it? We are called Chef Na’s Plant-Based Kitchen. The thought behind making organic/vegan Thai products began three years ago. We started this process because we, as consumers, were really disappointed that no one had made the effort to start making vegan Thai products, and the ones that are accidentally vegan usually contain excessive amounts of MSG and too much oil, which we refuse to use. We wanted to lead the way, rather than wait and follow some other company that may not have their heart and soul in their products.
 
Are you vegan yourself? Yes, both Chef Na and Frankie (co-founder and director) have been living a vegan lifestyle for eight to nine years. Ultimately we both chose to live a vegan lifestyle primarily for the animals, and out of respect for the environment. However, the health benefits also become apparent when such a positive shift is made in one’s life.
 
What is veganism about to you? Being vegan, beyond the label, means being responsible – responsible enough to omit something from one’s diet for the sake of another being’s life. It’s not about the “life-or-death” scenario that is often thrown at vegans by non-vegans, because farming is also costing us the earth. Being vegan is an honour, and we feel that it’s also a duty. We are not going to propagate the old paradigm where everything is meant to be murdered for a quick and inappropriate meal. Being vegan is like a peaceful call-to-arms, for something is not right and we are here to lead the way toward a compassionate future where food is also medicine, and other forms of consciousness are respected as living entities with a right to live right alongside us, and not for us. Most people adhere to some form of moral particularism, and they’ll cherry-pick ideals and philosophical concepts to live by, if it suits their current paradigm. Vegans are willing to go against the grain, and will make massive changes to their diet and lifestyle choices simply for the benefit of exploited beings, for sustainability and to lessen our environmental impact so that we are not an embarrassing example in the history books of future generations.
 
Is there anything you miss from before you became vegan? Most things, now, can be easily made into a vegan version of the original. Often the result tastes even better and we realise that it’s the memories that we are missing, not the animal products. What we do miss, is the convenience of getting a beverage or a bite to eat anytime, anywhere. We don’t live near any specialty boutique stores that sell primarily organic and vegan products so we always have to travel far, and it’s just become something we’ve had to accept for now. We know that a shift is occurring, and there’s a promising permanence about it that has made these nine or so years worthwhile. 
 
What do you enjoy most about cooking? Chef Na considers cooking an artform that’s conducive to bringing people together, sharing sacred space with others, have conversations and making beautiful memories; for her, cooking is a constant in every culture, therefore cooking is able to bring all cultures together and it can be accomplished without enforcing animal cruelty, without the negative impact of conventional agriculture, and without sacrificing taste and health. 
 
Was it difficult to switch to using vegan ingredients in your dishes? The difficulty was in maintaining authentic Thai flavours – as these usually rely heavily on fish sauce, shrimp paste and MSG. Chef Na was able to not only recreate Thai favourites (Red, Green and Yellow Curry paste, Pad Thai sauce, Tom Yum sauce, Massaman Curry paste) but enhance their flavours with her deep understanding and love of the art that is Thai cuisine. 
 
What are some of the biggest challenges you find when using vegan ingredients in dishes designed for meat? Usually texture is a problem, however this seems to only be a problem for those making a recent transition, for vegans enjoy a wider variety of cuisines, textures and flavours. After some years as a vegan, one has no interest in mock-meat products, or in recreating an animal-based dish of any kind.
 
Is your business also sustainably-minded? (eg. no plastic straws, wooden cutlery, recyclable plates etc.) Yes, we use recycled glass and use minimal plastics. The plastics we do have are not a permanent design, they are temporarily used until we can source something more aligned with our philosophy.
 
What is the vegan chef community like? The vegan chef community is close-knit, and everyone knows everyone else, whether they have been formally introduced or not. It forms an unseen bond that unites all vegan chefs, and each vegan chef brings something new and exciting to the vegan community – vegans truly experience a culinary experience that non-vegans misjudge as lettuce and tomato salad. The creativity amongst this community is mind-blowing.
 
How do non-vegan chefs who make the same cuisine as you do react to your vegan versions of dishes? They usually have a hard time comprehending that something without animal ingredients and/or products could taste nice. We’ve come across such an example countless times, and when they do try the vegan version of a popular dish, they will gladly admit that it tastes great, however, they are determined to stick to using animal products. Their reasons for this usually include culture and tradition, closely followed by concerns about how they can live, breathe and function without meat and “nutrition”. 

World Vegan Day Melbourne will take place at Melbourne Showgrounds on Sunday October 14 from 10am.