We chat with the most amazing vegan chef, presenter, and author Keith Squires!
Tell us about your own vegan journey
I always liked animals and part of me never felt comfortable eating meat. Growing up in the 1970’s being vegan was unusual and there wasn’t much information about it.
Once on a school trip walking through the South Downs and we came across a group of people shooting pheasants. I was really upset by this and was ready to run into the field to stop them. The teacher held me back as it wasn’t a good idea to rush towards people with guns but also explained something quite important. That it would be hypocritical to demonstrate if you eat meat.
A few years later I was at a party eating a chicken drumstick and a vegetarian was there and just pointed out what I was eating an animals leg. I looked at it and something clicked. I dropped it in disgust and by the time it hit the ground I had given up eating meat.
Luckily it was about the same time that some amazing cook books had just come out. The Cranks books and ‘Bean Cuisine’ by Rose Elliot. Also the idea that it wasn’t missing out on something important as I had believed, but actually a healthier lifestyle and much more ecological
Soon after I was lucky enough to get into Bangor University and there I had complete control of my food and went through each new vegan book as it came out recipe by recipe. During this time I got involved with Dru Yoga. There it was all vegetarian or vegan food so suddenly I was normal again.
One day I went into the kitchen but no one was there. It was as empty as my stomach. I had a choice either just make some food for myself or cook a meal for everyone. I chose the latter and got started. They must have liked it because I ended up doing it every day.
I started cooking for more and more people as the centre grew. It seemed to double every few months. At first I was cooking for 6 people then 12 and soon 24. Before I knew it we had conferences for 100 these grew too and we ended up feeding hundreds of people.
Everyone wanted to know the recipes so I started writing recipe booklets and running classes and workshops.
How did you learn to cook great vegan food?
The first place I started cooking for groups was at the Dru Health Food Store in Bangor now called ‘Dimensions’. At that time we sold mainly fruits and vegetables. Every day there was a box of random vegetables that needed to be used up, so it was my job to make use of these. The last celery in the box, a slightly limp lettuce or misshaped carrot etc.
It was a bit like ready steady cook every day! I had my box of veg and a limited time to make the food. The shop was busy so as soon as the food was ready I had to cover everyone’s lunch break. It was fun being creative and making up my own recipes from what was available.
I soon learned that presentation and confidence were important too. I put the food out nicely and garnished it with some herbs or vegetables. Then told everyone how delicious it was. I found this enthusiasm was contagious and people did enjoy it more. It’s no coincidence that great chefs are passionate and love their own food.
There is no place for false modesty and shyness. If you think it is great it will be, if you love it they will too!
How would you describe your own signature style?
It’s not really a signature it’s more like graffiti or a beautiful mural. Because it’s a huge style of cooking that I would love everyone to know about copy and use.
I have really learned that the best and healthiest food is simple rustic style of vegan cooking. I call it frugal cooking and this comes from the Latin word fruges or frux which the word fruit comes from. So frugal cooking is about using the fruits of the earth and is basically vegan.
A good example is the Italian ‘Cucina Povera’ style of cooking. This was the poor food where people lived off the fruits of the land and meat was a luxury so it was mainly vegetarian. Now it quite trendy or artisan so you can pay a lot to eat like these people did when they had no money.
Almost everywhere has their version of this healthy rustic food. In Wales it is called Cawl, originally it was a hearty stew with lots of different vegetables that were available. There was no set recipe. It was an economical dish with little or no meat and could be made with beans for extra protein.
What is your signature dish?
I love making hearty stews in the colder months. My favourite is Scotch Broth if you are a Scot though you may not recognise it! I start off sautéing some seasonal vegetables like onion, celery, carrot, neaps (swede) and tatties (potatoes) then add some stock, barley and lentils. I cook this for about 15 minutes then add some kale or green cabbage. This is then stewed until everything is tender.
Another favourite is kitcheri this is with lentils or split mung with rice with Indian spices.
How did you create the menu at the Dru Yoga Centre?
The menu changes everyday and our chefs put a lot of their creativity and passion into it. We have a guideline to have lots of fresh vegetable dishes in every meal, like steamed, stir-fry or as salad. So that’s about a third the meal that can be easily prepared. Then there must be a dish with protein, this is often a pulse based one with beans or lentils. Also a filling dish like quinoa, rice or potatoes. To go with that a nice saucy savoury dish like a vegetable curry or something like that.
Our own ‘Cooking with Love’ is full of all our well tried recipes. I have a special version for our cooks in larger quantities for catering. So that is like our bible with well-read pages. Splashed with sauce and full of magazine cuttings and recipes we have been given. Apart from that we give our chefs freedom to create new recipes, and try things out. Our team are incredibly enthusiastic and creative and every day we have something different.
When it’s my turn I love to go to the market and see what is fresh this week and make something from that. I often do a meal just before the new delivery comes in. I end up with a random box of produce. I love bringing it back to life in an amazing creation. It is very satisfying for me and the guests.
What do you think is the future of vegan food?
When I first became vegan nearly 35 years ago everyone thought you needed meat to survive. Since then it’s become clear that vegans and vegetarians are healthier than people who eat a lot of meat! So this argument has almost disappeared. It is now fairly mainstream that eating less meat more fruit vegetables is beneficial.
Up to now veganism has been held as a belief but now I feel the argument is shifting. Being vegan is very logical, its healthy, ecological, tasty and doesn’t involve cruelty and suffering to animals. So it is really eating meat that is becoming a belief rather than the norm that everyone takes for granted.
It is great to see so many young people recognising this and deciding to become vegan. Also there is a huge rise in people eating more vegan meals or being flexitarian. My experience is that it is a big jump for a lot of people go vegan overnight. They are not sure how to cook the food and have other family members to consider. Or they just don’t have time or energy to make a big change.
But lots of people are willing to experiment and try making vegan meals. We find after a course at the Dru Yoga Centre our guests are surprised how much they enjoy the vegan food and they haven’t missed meat at all! They thought they would be hungry all weekend but instead they are left with an appetite to try more at home.
I love sharing recipes and encouraging them to try more vegan food. After a couple of years of visiting us, eating the food and trying it at home. They come to me and share ‘I never thought I would say this but I am going to be vegan!’
For me being Vegan is part of the yoga concept of ahimsa or non harming. It goes further than not harming animals or other people.
It also means not harming yourself. So eating healthy food is ahimsa and even vegan junk food is not as it harms your own body. That is why we developed Ayurvegan this is the ayurvedic way of being vegan that is as healthy as it is ethical.
To find out more about Keith check out https://keithonfood.com