Plant-Based Cooking spoke with Heather Raymond-McFadden, a plant-based personal chef from suburban Boston. Heather shared her story of plant-based health and career success with us. Be sure to check out her two recipes at the end of the interview.
What led you to a whole food plant-based diet?
When I was 27 – I’m 40 now – I was diagnosed with a slew of food allergies: cow protein, shellfish, soy, gluten. It was alarming and eye-opening, and I left my doctor’s office crying because I didn’t know what to do with myself. For awhile I played around with different animal products that weren’t “cow-related”, like goat and sheep cheese, but nothing worked. I was in a box, to be honest, lost in the world of eating. I didn’t really know what worked with my body and I was trying what I thought I should be eating.
Of course, everyone Googles and Facebooks – so at one point I just typed in “food allergies.” I connected with some people online and a couple asked if I had thought about trying a vegan diet. And I was like, “Well, is that vegetarian?” I didn’t know! And they said, “No, it means no animal anything.”
I read all these rave reviews from plant-based people who cured illness, lost weight or just had this overall sense of well-being. I thought it over and I was like, “Well, why not? I think I’ve tried everything else!” I gave it all up and decided to go plant-based. I was 31 at the time. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I started to feel better, I think in about a week.
What was it like for you at the beginning?
When I finally made the decision, I wouldn’t say it was scary, but it was definitely a big moment. I had eaten the same way my entire life, and here I was embarking on this journey and had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know if it would make me sick, and then I read about vitamin deficiencies.
I went into it blind, but I would never turn back. No one in my life was vegan or plant-based and they all made fun of me – which is fine (laughter). I was kind of on my own in the beginning although my husband joined in with me. He’s not fully plant-based, but he eats everything that I make for him and does his best. I’ve had him in my corner all these years, but it was tricky, very tricky.
I started taking out cookbooks from the library. I had a lot of fun in the kitchen, discovering flavors and combinations that I never knew existed. And I felt amazing. And then it turned into so much more. It turned into ethical reasons, and environmental, and over the course of almost a decade, it’s been such a whirlwind. Had I known then what I know now, I would have done this from birth.
I would never go back. And now I’m a plant-based personal chef as well, I turned it into a career. I share my knowledge and my love of plant-based foods with anyone who wants to join in with me!
What was most difficult about your transition to plant-based? How did you handle being made fun of?
I honestly thought to myself that I wasn’t going to let them get me down about my decisions for my overall health and well-being. It is my life, it is my body, and it’s my decision. The hardest thing was going out to eat in the beginning and ordering. I would just get a salad and everyone would be like, “Oh, have your rabbit food!”
So you started talking to chefs about your plant-based diet?
I wanted to overcome the eating out situation, so I started talking to chefs at restaurants. Instead of just ordering a salad and playing the safe card, I would ask to speak to the head chef. And some would come out, and some wouldn’t.
But the ones that came out, they would wind up thanking me and saying, “Wow! I didn’t know I could put that together. Thanks for alerting me that if somebody else comes in with the same dietary restrictions, I can put that together for them.”
That was another thing that was inspiring to me – in addition to becoming a chef myself. There are so many uneducated chefs out there. I’m sure they’ve all had wonderful schooling or however they got to where they are, but most of them don’t know much about vegan plant-based eating. And it’s great when I can talk to a chef and open their eyes a little bit about foods that they can put together.
What tips do you have for plant-based dining out?
Don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t eat just salad! I’ve always made fun of myself with the servers. Instead of just saying that I’m plant-based, I’ll say, “Oh, I’m allergic to life,” (laughter) because I do have food allergies. Just be honest, be lighthearted about it. My grandmother used to say that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.
There was one restaurant where I wasn’t offered anything, and that was a challenging moment. It was only one time, but I’ll never forget it. My husband stood up for me and said, “You’re not going to offer her even a salad?” And the server talked on about the cheese and this and that and cross-contamination and so on.
Did you have enough recipes when you started out?
For about a year I checked out one to three cookbooks from the library every couple weeks. The running joke with the librarians was that I wasn’t done yet. They couldn’t believe how many vegetable-based cookbooks they had in their library!
I finally made it through all the cookbooks – there were a lot more than I expected. I thought maybe there would be ten to twenty cookbooks. Over the course of that year, I copied recipes out of all of them and created my own cookbook. Every recipe that I have now, as I said, has a base of where it came from. I relied on my own knowing about what flavors go with what.
It’s been such an amazing, fun, flavorful journey. Don’t get me wrong, though, there was some really bad stuff at the beginning! (laughter)
How many cookbooks do you think you took out in that one year?
At least 40 to 50 cookbooks between two fabulous libraries. I learned over time how to substitute the stuff that was in the vegetarian cookbook. That’s another thing for people who are starting to go plant-based: Learn the subs and then play around with everything and have fun! Learning about flax eggs was one of the most groundbreaking things in my plant-based world.
Do you have any cooking tips?
Learn what pairs well with what. That’s a basic statement, but that’s what got me really into it in the beginning – was playing around in the kitchen, having fun, making mistakes, and really getting to enjoy the plant-based food. I don’t do soy or gluten either, so that was another challenging aspect because those were my allergies. I couldn’t do tofu, seitan, or tempeh.
I had to really pull out all the stops so that’s where the cookbooks came in handy. Whenever I told people at the beginning, “Oh, y’know, I’m vegan, soy-free and gluten-free,” they were like, “Well, what do you eat? Rice cakes?” (laughter)
Now I’m blowing everybody away with my culinary skills that I’ve built up over the years, it’s amazing.
What do you substitute for soy or gluten?
Well, there are quite a few great gluten-free products out there now. I also make some gluten-free things myself, like my flax seed bagel. I use that as not only as a bagel but as a burger bun or as a sandwich bread. It’s very simple and it’s very tasty.
Have you noticed any health changes since going plant-based?
I have not been on an antibiotic the entire time. I can count on one hand the amount of times that I have been sick, and that is only three, which is amazing. My energy level is always awesome and I maintain a healthy weight.
How do you and your husband make it work?
My husband eats plant-based about 99% of the time. The only time he doesn’t is when we’re outside of the home, he’ll get a Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger if it’s there. Sometimes he’ll eat a regular burger or regular pizza, and that’s his choice, although he knows that he doesn’t feel great afterwards. I’ve never asked him about it.
I don’t know if it’s a social thing, I have no idea. But he’s 99% on board with me. He’s been a huge supporter, I mean I can’t ask for much more. There are a lot of people who are in my position with significant others who are not on board with them, I can understand how challenging it is.
How do you deal with other family members?
I just refuse to have any animal products in the house. I remember one Thanksgiving my older brother didn’t want to come because I wasn’t going to have a turkey here. So, he brought his own turkey! I told him he had to cook it elsewhere. I want no part of it, I won’t have it on my plate. And I have three stepchildren.
When they’re here, they’re plant-based. That was tricky in the beginning, but over the years I’ve discovered what they like, and that’s what we eat on the weekends that they’re here. They love my tacos, they love my buffalo dip, they love my hummus.
How do you deal with everyday social situations?
I proudly bring my lunch box everywhere. I try not to let anybody get me down for my choices, but I can understand how some people can. I would just have to say stay true to yourself and explain why you wanted to go plant-based, whether that’s allergies, other health issues, ethical reasons, or you just want to.
What inspired you to become a plant-based chef?
I used to work as a nanny. But over the years I’ve hosted many people at my dinner table. They’re amazed that they’re eating something that’s plant-based and so delicious, and they would encourage me to cook for other people. I heard that so much and finally decided to give it a whirl.
I made a Facebook page, posted some food photos and just went for it. Within 20 minutes a friend who’s a yoga instructor told me to get in touch with the owner of SLS Fitness in Lowell, Massachusetts, where she worked. My friend said that the owner wanted someone in house to cook for members, to talk to them about plant-based, to give them a little boost when it comes to their health.
I’ve been there for almost two years now and I also do in-home private things for my clients such as dinner parties, cooking classes, basically anything that anybody wants in that area. Some of my clients just get condiments!
My business is called Live, Love, Eat.
Do you cook with soy and gluten for your clients who want that?
All my food is gluten and soy-free. It’s funny how many people – I’d have to say 99.9% of my clients – are not even plant-based. They’re making healthy choices throughout their week and they love the fact that it’s the cleanest eating. There was one person who I did inspire to go plant-based, gluten-free and soy-free. And there’s a few people I’ve inspired to go plant-based a couple times a week. Any small steps that I can help anybody with is a big step for me.
How do you attract your plant-based clients?
Pictures really do speak a thousand words. When people go onto my page and see all these beautiful pictures of the dishes I make, it catches their eye and it’s intriguing. They wonder, “How does she create that out of plants? What does she use? Why is it not tofu?” They are so open to sitting and chatting about it and learning about healthy plant-based eating.
I teach cooking classes at the fitness club. And this past weekend I did one where I made my raw walnut taco. I could see their taste buds exploding just from the expressions on their faces. And then they go home and make these things. And they come back and tell me, “Oh, I got my son to eat this, I got my husband to eat this.” They send me pictures and they write their testimonials and it’s so rewarding.
Some clients come through the fitness club and some come through my pages online. I’m on a bunch of “Mom” pages, I’m on some vegan pages. Someone will ask a question about healthy meal prep. So, I’ll just throw my business name out there and my page. They’ll take a look and get in touch with me. Then I do a consultation where we sit down and we create a meal that works for them.
Do you still have food allergies?
I don’t know if my allergies are still there because I haven’t tried those foods out, nor do I ever want to. This is the way that I’m going to live for the rest of my life. And if those allergies are still there, so be it. I couldn’t have been handed anything better. Actually, I’m glad I got food allergies because it led me to plant-based.
What is it about soy and gluten that you don’t like?
The soy that we have here in the United States isn’t in the purest form, it’s very processed. I suppose if it’s edamame (whole fresh soybeans) it’s OK. I like to keep things as minimally processed as possible. People can make their own homemade tofu, tempeh, and seitan. I’ve made tofu out of chickpea flour before and it’s really good. It’s a soy-free version and you can do anything with it that you can do with regular tofu. I found that online.
My gluten issues weren’t celiac. It was an intolerance and I was overcompensating in the beginning with my food allergies. I was eating more things with gluten in it even though I knew I had the intolerance and it was making me feel not great. Gluten was literally weighing me down, I would feel like I ate a brick when I had a regular piece of bread or pasta. So, I gave that up too.
What do you eat? What are the staples of your soy-free, gluten-free, animal product-free diet?
Well, for lunch today I had a little bit of a chickpea-based “un-tuna” salad over some lettuce with cucumbers and a drizzle of sriracha.
For breakfast, I had a flax seed bagel with some cashew cream cheese. I made the cashew cream cheese myself. Cashews are a dream. I make Caesar dressing, ranch dressing, ricotta, cream cheese, alfredo sauce, queso dip, and so many other things from cashews. I just made a cauliflower queso dip with cashews last night.
How do you feel about using oil?
I limit my oil, but I don’t omit it completely. I don’t fry anything, really. I saute a little bit and have an air fryer which I love. I use coconut oil and avocado oil for cooking. I use olive oil as a base for vinaigrettes, but I don’t cook with olive oil. At a certain heat level, olive oil goes rancid.
Do you have any tips for bringing a spouse or partner along on the plant-based journey?
I’m very blessed that my husband and I have one of those kinds of loves that you read about it. He was just naturally on board because he wants what’s best for my well-being.
But I know that not everybody has that great of a support system, which can be really challenging. I’ve read quite a few stories on some vegan Facebook and I felt bad for them. Sometimes there’s not much that you can do except hold true to yourself. I see people who have holidays where everyone’s eating something that’s meat-related, dairy-related, and they have to bring their own food.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I do love sharing my story.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have chosen this lifestyle a long time ago. Turning 40 last year, I’ve never felt younger and I think a lot of it has to do with plant-based. I feel younger, I look younger.
Power to the plants! I say it all the time!
Chef Heather’s “Crab” Cakes
Makes about 4 regular cakes or 6 mini cakes
- 1 can Hearts of Palm
- ¼ Veganaise (soy-free)*
- 1 cup gluten-free oats
- 1 flax “egg” ( tbsp ground flaxseed and 3 tbsp water,
let sit for a few minutes to thicken)
- ½ tbsp garlic powder
- ½ tbsp onion powder
- Dash of Himalayan pink salt and black pepper
Lemon Parsley Sauce
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 1 tbsp agave
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 ½ tsp parsley
- Dash of Himalayan pink salt
- Drain and rinse the hearts of palm. Roughly chop and put in a large mixing bowl. Add all other ingredients and combine well with hands. You can use a mixing spoon but I’ve found better results getting my hands in there.
- Let mixture stand for about 5 minutes. Heat 1 tsp coconut oil in a non-stick skillet on medium heat.
- Form cakes to the size of your liking but not too big as they don’t cook as evenly. Add to pan and cook for about 4 minutes then gently flip and cook another 4 minutes. Repeat once or twice until it reaches the crispiness you desire. I usually do it 3 times because I like them really crispy.
- These can also be baked, 350 degrees for about 20 min. Gently flip and bake another 20 minutes.
- While your cakes are cooking whisk together all sauce ingredients and set aside.
- You can plate these on top of spinach, salad greens, pasta or quinoa.
Chef Heather’s Raw Walnut Taco Filling
Makes 10-12 tacos
- 1 bag raw walnuts
Taco seasoning (premade seasoning works but here is mine if you’d like to try it )
- 1 tbsp chili powder
- 1 tsp garlic/onion powder
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- Himalayan salt and pepper to taste
- I also taste and adjust if I want of a certain spice to pop
Pulse ingredients in a food processor until it resembles crumbled “meat”
- 1-2 ripe avocados
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1/2 tsp garlic/onion powder
- 1 -2 tbsp fresh cilantro chopped (if you don’t have, basil is a good sub)
- next ingredients to taste or not add at all
- 1 tbsp diced red onion
- 1/2 diced Roma tomato
- 1 tsp fresh diced jalapeno
Mash avocado and add the other ingredients in a bowl. Mix and taste, adjusting seasoning if needed or wanted.
- 3 Roma tomatoes diced
- 1 generous tbsp chopped red onion
- 1 tbsp chopped cilantro
- 1 tsp fresh jalapeno (or not if you don’t want )
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp garlic/onion powder
- Himalayan salt and pepper to taste
Combine all of the salsa ingredients in a bowl.
- After you’ve prepared each component separately, you can assemble them layered in a taco shell or on top of a salad, nachos or quinoa.