Epic Vegan | Dustin Harder
Wild and Over-The-Top Plant-Based Recipes
By Dustin Harder
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table, talking to cookbook authors.
Dustin Harder: I'm Dustin Harder. My latest book, Epic Vegan: Wild and Over-the-Top Plant-Based Recipes, is available now everywhere books are sold.
Suzy Chase: It was so fun meeting you last night at your book party. [crosstalk 00:00:31] The burger, oh my God. It was so much fun. I have to talk about the burger. It was over-the-top fantastic. I have a photo of it on my Instagram, but can you describe it?
Dustin Harder: Yes. Oh, of course. Last night, we had at the launch party the bacon macaroni and cheese barbecue blue burger, and I partnered with Beyond Meat who's being doing lots of great stuff lately, so we used them for the plant-based patty, and it was a double-decker burger, so you had the burger, blue cheese dressing, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickles, and then bacon macaroni and cheese, which is basically mac and cheese with my quinoa bacon bits from the book mixed into it, some pickles on the burger, as well, and then top that with a little barbecue sauce.
Suzy Chase: And it looked like it would be heavy, but it wasn't. It doesn't just like sit in your stomach. It was super light.
Dustin Harder: I'm happy to hear that. It was interesting. I ended up having one at the end of the night. There was like two left, and I was like, "Can you please hold one for me?" And I was so excited, and I ate it, too, and I felt the same way. I was so happy. I was like, "Oh my gosh. I don't feel like stuffed. I feel satisfied."
Suzy Chase: So, I even saw Chloe Coscarelli.
Dustin Harder: Yeah, that's my girl. I love her so much.
Suzy Chase: And I heard somewhere that you started out as her intern.
Dustin Harder: I did. So we both went to the Natural Gourmet Institute, and at the end of your ... And she went several years before me, and at the end of the chef's training program there, there was a hundred-hour internship period, and I started working with her. I recipe-tested as an intern with her, lots of stuff for her restaurant endeavors, and then I also did for the last two cookbooks, I recipe tested stuff with her. Yeah, and she's been the most supportive, beautiful light in my life ever since. She's always been very encouraging and has become a great friend that I'm very grateful for.
Suzy Chase: First off, give me the back story of your decision to go vegan and how long have you been living a plant-based lifestyle?
Dustin Harder: Yeah, it's been 10 years, and I essentially did it because I was, I mean, I just grew up in the Midwest, and food was just a way of, you know, all the things. Like all the fast food restaurants and all that stuff like that, and as I was getting older, I was like, "I want to maintain my weight. What's another way maybe?" And I started reading, and when I started realizing, "Oh, I could like switch this out with that," you know, plant-based products for that, I started just trying things, sort of trial and error.
Dustin Harder: And I noticed I started losing a little bit of weight, so then I, I went full-plant based, and definitely saw a difference, not just in my weight, but in how I felt and how I was sleeping. All of the things everybody talks about, it all became true. My skin looked better, everything. And I was just like, whoa, there's really something to this. And then, I got into cooking with it because I got obsessed with sort of veganizing comfort foods that everyone goes, "Oh, well, if I go vegan, I can't have cheese. I can't have macaroni and cheese. I can't have pizza." Everyone says, "I can't, can't, can't." And I was sort of determined when I went vegan to be like, "No, that's not the case." Like we can still have all of the delicious food. So that's how it spiraled into the cooking arena.
Suzy Chase: So talking about comfort food, Epic Vegan is all about comfort food. Where did you get the inspiration to write an over-the-top vegan cookbook?
Dustin Harder: Well, there's two ... There's different variations. The main thing that happened was I started looking ... It goes back on saying, "Oh, well, people can still have these foods that they don't think they can have." So that's always been inspiring, to sort of like create foods that people think that they can't have. Because in the book, there's also some recreations of like, the Doritos Locos Tacos, so like the fast food sort of arena. There's a recipe for Cray-Cray Bread, which is the Little Caesar's Crazy Bread, essentially.
Dustin Harder: So recreating some things that I knew people thought they couldn't have anymore was some inspiration for it, but then also, that crazy big boom of over-the-top milkshakes happened like a year or two ago, and I always look at those, and I'm like, "Well, this is ridiculous." Like you can't eat this milkshake. There's a cake and a brownie, and, you know, a volcano of stuff sitting on top of it. Like, how does someone even tackle that? And I was like, "Well, what if we create something that like still looks sort of big, but then people can actually eat, as well?" And that sort of, the milkshake sort of pushed this along. And then, truth be told, I was pushing this proposal idea around with my literary agent, and I got on a flight one day about a year and a half ago, I guess, and there was a big article about over-the-top milkshakes on the inflight magazine, and I was like, "Okay, this is a sign." I'm going to take this as a sign. I'm going to move forward with this.
Dustin Harder: So I did it. And I still have that magazine to this day. I look at it. I'm like, "Look what you did, you crazy milkshake."
Suzy Chase: And you had one last night at the party.
Dustin Harder: Yeah, we definitely ... It's one of those things where it's, you know, it had to have a milkshake that night, and I just had to choose which one. I was like, "Oh my gosh, which milkshake are we going to do, though?" But, you know, it was the ultimate caramel cookie brownie milkshake we did last night, and everyone's always happy with salted caramel milkshakes and brownies and cookies, so we went for it.
Suzy Chase: Tell me about your original series called The Vegan Roadie.
Dustin Harder: Oh, my baby. That was born out of, so my background's in theater. And I took a break from theater, and after I did a Broadway show and I went to culinary school, the whole time going, why am I here? Knowing I was going back out on the road in six months from then. And then, as the job was coming up to on the road, I was like, "I'm going to mash the two together. I'm going to put food and then create this series when I'm on the road that's the vegan version of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives."
Dustin Harder: So that's sort of how The Vegan Roadie was born. And it was all with, there's this stigma around vegatism ... vegatism-
Suzy Chase: Vegatism.
Dustin Harder: Vegatism! Stigma around being vegan, especially at the time. And it happened to me when I first went vegan, you know. A lot of people judge vegans and the vegan community tend to be judgemental on how you're going vegan and you're doing it for the wrong reasons, and oh, but you're still doing this, so you're not fully vegan, and like, the fact is, people are going to go at their own pace, and people are going to try things when we're nice to them. So I thought, "How can I create something that is accessible and welcoming and tells anybody if they just try a meatless meal that, like, hey, they're making a choice to try something meatless, and that's positive." You know, regardless of anything else they're doing, like that's a positive step.
Dustin Harder: So I wanted to highlight the cuisine that was coming up in America. I mean, now it's exploded even more, but at the time in 2014 when I started, there were all these fantastic restaurants, and most of them are mom and pop owned, which is so cool to see. And it's all people creating these businesses with amazing plant-based food that just want to see change in the world and be part of the change and create something better for people to eat. And so I set out on this path to create this series. And meeting the people and eating the food was amazing, but we did three seasons. Two seasons in North America, and the third season we did in Italy. So it's all up on YouTube for people to watch for free.
Suzy Chase: You even found lots of vegan food in my hometown, Kansas City. I was shocked!
Dustin Harder: Oh my gosh, we did! Do you know ... What's been interesting about filming something like that, though, is in some cities, some things have closed. But I will say, and in Kansas City, like two of the restaurants we filmed in, they closed. But now more other ones have opened. So what used to happen back in the day was a vegan place would close and everybody would go, "Oh, shame. Nobody's ready for it." Now one closes, and it's like the vegan army rallies and like, they're like, "No, no. We're ready. We want this. Let's do more." And people come. So there's more stuff opening in Kansas City now, so it keeps going, no matter what.
Suzy Chase: So in every episode, you also do a five-ingredient challenge. I thought that was so clever.
Dustin Harder: Thank you. That was ... That goes again with my main mission to bridge the gap between vegans and non-vegans and show that vegan eating is fun but also accessible. So it wasn't, my point was never, "Hey, I can cook with five ingredients in my hotel room. You should cook in your hotel room." It was like, "If I'm doing this in my hotel room, you can definitely do it at home." Like you can get five ingredients and make something super delicious that's plant-based, as well.
Suzy Chase: Talk a little bit about stunt foods and what they are.
Dustin Harder: So Epic Vegan is full of stunt foods. And if you think of, like, well, so, one perfect example I already brought up is the Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell. So that's a combination of the Dorito shell from Dorito brand and Taco Bell taco, essentially. So that's a stunt food. In the book, I think I compare it to stunt casting on Broadway, when you know, I'm always mashing my two worlds together. But like, when you know, if a musical were to bring in, I don't know, back in the day, like if they were to bring in someone like Paris Hilton, who's clearly not that talented. Sorry, Paris. But is going to bring in a draw of tickets from her reality show and stuff like that. That's stunt casting.
Dustin Harder: So I always sort of relate it to that. And in these foods, it's like, "We're going to sell more tacos at Taco Bell by bringing in the Doritos shell." So those are super fun and popular and people love them, and it heightens interest. And I wanted to create something, a way for people to do it at home. So it shouldn't just always be at the restaurant. I think it's fun to get in the kitchen with people and say, "How can we make this big, over-the-top thing?" You know, one of the craziest ones in the book ... Because it's about crazy ideas, too, not just always bringing Paris Hilton into the mix, you know.
Suzy Chase: Thank God.
Dustin Harder: Right. Right? But there's a bacon cinnamon roll peanut butter burger in there. Like things like that. So it became like, "Okay, how do I combine like the craziest things?" So that's sort of what a stunt food is, too. Combining sweet and savories together. There's a pad thai cupcake in there. All that sort of stuff like that. There's a French onion pasta bake instead of a French onion soup. So sort of looking at recipes and deconstructing them and saying, "Okay, we love these like really hearty robust onion flavors." How can we transfer that into something else someone loves besides just soup, you know, and putting it into a pasta. All that sort of thing like that. Just like really sort of taking things outside of the box, deconstructing them, and putting them back together in a different way.
Suzy Chase: So this cookbook is a choose-your-own-adventure sort of good time. Talk a little bit about that.
Dustin Harder: Yeah! Well, that's my favorite part. I was so nervous about creating a book that had, okay, well, you've got to like layer this on top of this on top of this. So it was important for me, again, my firs book's called Simply Vegan, and it's full of recipes you can make in like 30 minutes, right? So great, that book's been done. It's out there. I'm not the only one. Lots of people have done it. But I knew I had to do that before I went on to this book.
Dustin Harder: But in this book, it was still important for me to create some recipes that made it accessible, easy no matter what. So there's two ways you can choose your own adventure. You can either go to one of the first three chapters and make like just the Philly cheesesteak. So you can make a delicious Philly cheesesteak sandwich that you can make in about 25 minutes, maybe. Or you can take it further and you can make some pizza dough and make a Philly cheesesteak pizza. Or you can make, there's a bowl in there for a Philly cheesesteak baked potato bowl, which is this delicious bowl of kale and baked potato and the cheese sauce and the Philly cheesesteak filling.
Dustin Harder: So you can choose your own adventure by either, you know, hey, I'm just going to make this Philly cheesesteak tonight or you're going to make one of the epic options. Or you can also go the store-bought route. For example, like the book, the burger that we talked about already that we served last night and was on the cover, the bacon macaroni barbecue blue burger. It's got the burger. It's got the mac and cheese. It's got the bacon. It's got all that stuff. It's got barbecue from scratch, blue cheese from scratch. Guess what? All that stuff is now available, vegan versions, in stores. So you can either make all of those things from scratch from the book, or you can choose your own adventure, and I applaud this just as much as I do making things from scratch, especially in the vegan world. Go into the supermarket, get a burger, get the vegan blue cheese dressing, get the barbecue sauce, get the vegan boxed mac and cheese, get the vegan bacon, and then you can make it all that way, as well.
Dustin Harder: So you have options in terms of like how involved you actually want to get. You can choose your own adventure.
Suzy Chase: That's so smart. And last night, when I was waiting in line for this burger, I was looking at everything that the Orchard Grocer had, and they have so many great options now that I don't think were around like maybe even one or two years ago. Like I saw caviar.
Dustin Harder: Yeah. It just keeps, the vegan world just keeps exploding with options for everybody, and it's the coolest thing to sort of watch. Since I'd started, you know, 10 years ago vegan, but you know, 2014 I started Vegan Roadie, and I've gotten to know all of these businesses and companies sort of producing all these wonderful things, and not only do they keep making their products better, other people keep popping up.
Dustin Harder: And there's a great sense in this vegan community of like, community versus competition. Like we're not here trying to squeeze you out. We're here trying to lift each other up. Like I've met owners of two different cheese brands who promote each other, and they're like, "Oh, you may like theirs, but you may like mine better. But at least like we've got this plant-based version available for you."
Dustin Harder: So there's this sort of love that's in all of those products, too, that you can't really, you know ... It's not out there in just your run-of-the-mill products that you're getting at the grocery store, you know?
Suzy Chase: You're a mac and cheese crazy person.
Dustin Harder: Yes.
Suzy Chase: What is the key to creamy, delicious vegan mac and cheese? I feel like it's hard to make. Drum roll, please.
Dustin Harder: Yeah. It can be. I think for me, I need to have ... I always need to have that little sharp quality in my mac and cheese. And that's something that I've always sort of been trying to find. I mean, the cheese sauce in this book has been through the ringer in terms of testing, and I've had so many people try it, and I'm grateful. I feel like this one ... I have lots that I love, even in the first book, I have another one that I love, but this one really, really came out to what I like, and my secret is actually there's sauerkraut, and it adds this sort of like zest and this little punch to it, and then also Dijon mustard.
Dustin Harder: But then you want to get like a little bit of a sweet flavor in there and a salty flavor in there, so it's really balancing all of those flavors to get like a nice, smooth, robust sort of cheesy flavor at the end.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk about jackfruit.
Dustin Harder: I love that you're like, "Okay, now. We're going to bring this down. We're going to talk about jackfruit." Let's do it. Let's talk about it.
Suzy Chase: Okay. So I had it for the first time a few weeks ago at a place called Urban Vegan Kitchen here in the West Village.
Dustin Harder: Yes, yes.
Suzy Chase: And it was so good in the quesadilla. But, wait. You don't like it. How come?
Dustin Harder: Well, I actually, I have grown to like it. It depends on how it's prepared. I actually haven't had the one there, but I do love their stuff there, so I have no doubt it's delicious. If you get it from the actual fruit, to me, sometimes it tends to be a little too mushy. I need there to be texture to it. And this is ... Again, this is why I always say to people in the beginning when you're trying, not even beginning. As you go through it, like trial and error.
Dustin Harder: Vegan food is just like normal food. You're not going to like all of it. So people who are not vegan sometimes try vegan food, and they're like, "Oh, well, I didn't like that, so I can't like vegan food." And I'm like, "No, just try something else." So for me, it was the same thing with jackfruit. I was like, "Oh, it's terrible. I can't stand it." But I kept going back to it, and eventually, there was a place in Kansas City where I had a barbecue jackfruit sandwich. She was like, "You have to have it. It's the best one you'll ever have." She's like, "We invented the jackfruit."
Dustin Harder: And I'm like, "I don't know if that's true, but I'll certainly try it."
Suzy Chase: I know. I saw, I saw the episode, and I saw her say that, and I was like, "Mmm, I'm not sure."
Dustin Harder: But it's a pretty big claim, right?
Suzy Chase: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Dustin Harder: And I was like, but then I had it, and it was absolutely delicious. And the trick that I think I learned in that is that, for me, when I make it now, I always make it from the can. It's been in brine. And I sear it up in the saucepan so that it gets some texture and crispiness to it. And then sometimes, I'll also put in some mushrooms with it to give it just a little bit of a heartier texture, as well.
Dustin Harder: So I don't, I no longer dislike it. I'm just, I'm a little picky about it, I guess you could say. I'm a little jackfruit finnicky.
Suzy Chase: What's a vegan trend that may not be on our radar yet?
Dustin Harder: Oh my goodness. I don't even know. That's a very good question.
Suzy Chase: I think it's the caviar that I saw last night.
Dustin Harder: Oh, well, I mean, there are so many things. Absolutely. The caviar. I just feel like there's got to be more that I can think of that's not like, you know ... The big ones are like yogurt and cheese. Those have been exploding and obviously, the meat alternatives have been bananas. There is a new burger coming out called Uncut, and it is delicious. I just tried it at the Plant-Based Expo a month or so ago, and it was ... It might have been better than the Impossible and Beyond Burger. And I don't know if they're going to do just service or if it's going to be available in stores, but it's so, so good.
Dustin Harder: What I would like to see more of, and there were a couple ... The one I saw went off the shelves, and I know it sounds silly because it's cheese, but I would like a ready available, like vegan cheese sauce that I can just use with like everything and that I can pick up at the store. They have them, but they're few and far between.
Suzy Chase: It's summertime. And we're all about lobster rolls. What is your trick to a good vegan lobster roll?
Dustin Harder: So that one we've got one in the book, and again, just like the cheese sauce, that one went through the ringer. It almost, there were times I pulled it out, because I was like, "I just don't feel good about this yet." With, I say, I use the dulse in it, which is like a seaweed, but I would ... You have to let the flavors set to marinate. If you can let that sucker sit overnight, it's going to be so much better for it the next day. And that's kind of for any sort of, when you're trying to mimic any sort of seafoody thing like that, I feel like. Where you can't like, it has to be marinated for some time, you know?
Dustin Harder: So you can enjoy that lobster roll in the book like right after you make it or a few hours after, but if you're able to let it sit overnight in all of those spices ... Old Bay is always a great one, and all of that seafoody stuff. Then you can, the flavors really meld together overnight and it's delicious.
Suzy Chase: Do you have a favorite recipe out of this cookbook?
Dustin Harder: Oh, and I also just want to say to toast your buns. When you're making anything-
Suzy Chase: Toast your buns!
Dustin Harder: Toast your buns, boo! You've got to toast your buns for your burgers. Toast your buns for your lobster rolls. Put a little vegan butter on there or a little spritz of canola oil and toast that sucker. It makes any sandwich 500 times better. And I'm sorry, that was my sidetrack. What was the question you were asking?
Suzy Chase: That's going to be the name of my next novel. Toast Your Buns.
Dustin Harder: That's good. It'll sell.
Suzy Chase: What's your favorite recipe in this cookbook, if you have one? The tough questions.
Dustin Harder: I do. It's called the Almost Famous Buffalo Chicken Lasagna. And it is exactly ... It's like a buffalo chicken dip in lasagna form. So it's got a tofu blue cheese ricotta, seitan chicken in it, and then the buffalo sauce from the buffalo cauliflower bites. Just in it and delicious and baked and then with vegan mozzarella cheese. It's so, so good, and it's not too spicy. It just has like a little bit of kick, so you're getting like some sweet in there, savory, and then a little bit of spice. It's one of my favorites.
Dustin Harder: And then a second one is actually, if I may, another pasta dish. And when we filmed in Italy, my fiance David was with me, and we were obsessed with the carbonara. We had it like two or three different places, vegan carbonara. Everyone was very proud of their vegan carbonara. So when we got home, we tried really hard to recreate it. So it's called David's Carby Carbonara in the book. So that's two of my favorites are the pasta ones, but I really do, I love them all.
Suzy Chase: Okay, are you going back on Broadway any time soon?
Dustin Harder: No. No, no, no. So I was an actor for a long time, and then I worked with rescue animals with Bill Berloni, who does all animal training for like Broadway, film, and television. And so that was sort of my last ... I did that for about six years, and I was acting and doing the dogs. And now, I love it. I want to, we're moving to Atlanta, actually. And I'm thinking when I get back to ... So I don't say no in a bad way. I say more so that like, when I get to Atlanta, I'm thinking I might, like, dip my toe back in the theater world a little bit, just because in New York, the stakes always feel so high. So I'm wondering if in Atlanta, it might not feel so much like a pressure cooker, if I'm auditioning and stuff.
Dustin Harder: I used to get really high anxiety with auditioning and everything, so I'm not saying theater's ever done, because it's definitely a part of everything I do. It's part of the books. It's part of the series, you know. But definitely not auditioning to be on the Great White Way any time soon.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Dustin Harder: Okay. It's going to sound so basic, but it's where I live. I would have like the most delicious slice of vegan cheese pizza.
Suzy Chase: Would you make it, or would you get it somewhere?
Dustin Harder: I would make it. I would absolutely make it. I want to say mac and cheese. You know I want to say mac and cheese. So now I'm struggling with, well, do I do the, like the macaroni and cheese. There's a macaroni and cheese pizza in the book. So maybe I do that so I can have both. Let's just say both so that I feel a little calmer about this answer. We're going to say the macaroni and cheese pizza, which is a franks and, franks and mac pizza, basically, is the hot dogs and macaroni and cheese on pizza, basically.
Suzy Chase: Final answer?
Dustin Harder: Final answer. Franks ‘n Mac Pizza from Epic Vegan.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Dustin Harder: Yes, please! You can find me at VeganRoadie.com, and I'm going out on a book tour, so there's lots of dates there over the summer. It's under the book tour tab. And then on social media, on everywhere, @TheVeganRoadie.
Suzy Chase: When it's all said and done, cooking is about joy. And I'm so thrilled that you came on Cookery By the Book podcast. Thanks so much.
Dustin Harder: Oh my gosh. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Outro: Follow Suzy Chase on Instagram @CookeryByTheBook, and subscribe at CookeryByTheBook.com or in Apple podcasts. Thanks for listening to Cookery By the Book podcast, the only podcast devoted to cookbooks since 2015.