Jean-Philippe Cyr, the Canadian blogger and cookbook author known as the Buddhist Chef, has heard it all when it comes to the reasons people don’t want to follow a vegan diet. It’s expensive, it doesn’t lead to instant weight loss, it angers family members. Recently, someone complained that vegan recipes create too many dishes to wash. Cyr accepted this with a laugh, as he is wont to do, knowing full well that people will always find excuses. “But when you have the why, the how becomes very easy,” the classically trained chef says of his decision to become vegan after returning from his first meditation retreat. Extending compassion to all beings was the logical next step for him when he decided to become Buddhist.
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In French we say the tree that doesn’t bend breaks.”
Still, he knows his path isn’t for everyone, and he supports a middle way for those who aren’t fully sold on the vegan lifestyle. “The tree that doesn’t bend breaks,” he says. If everyone simply ate a little less meat, so many animals would be saved, he says, and he’s in favor of getting there however we can. As a food blogger and cookbook author, he works toward that goal by developing recipes that, as he says, seduce meat eaters—familiar dishes like shepherd’s pie, lobster rolls, and flaky apple tart. After the 2019 release of his first book, The Buddhist Chef: 100 Simple, Feel-Good Vegan Recipes: A Cookbook, he doubled down on the hearty, comforting recipes with his just-released The Buddhist Chef’s Homestyle Cooking: Simple, Satisfying Vegan Recipes for Sharing.
Tricycle caught up with Cyr to learn more about his new book, how his Buddhist practice informed his decision to change the way he cooks and eats, and how he navigates nonvegan family members.
When did you first learn about Buddhism? Seven years ago, I attended a Vipassana meditation retreat in Montebello, [Quebec]. It’s a nice center, and I’ve been back there a lot of times now to cook for people that are on retreat. When you go there for a retreat, you don’t get to know people because it’s silent. But when you go back there and cook and work with people, you realize that people are wounded. You don’t go to the doctor if you’re not sick, you know?
What compelled you to go to the meditation retreat? I was suffering. I was selfish. I’m a pretty narcissistic person. I like to be recognized. I have to be honest. But you have to separate the public figure from the person, otherwise you’ll think you’re perfect. If they say you’re the best or the worst, they’re both wrong.
When did you become vegan? I was on the verge of becoming vegan [when I attended the meditation retreat]. I had read a couple of books about veganism and the health implications of a plant-based diet, but I hadn’t made the connection between the animal and the plate yet. So I attended this retreat, and I was driving back with a woman, and we stopped at a fast-food chain. She said she was having the vegetarian burger, and I said, “I’m gonna have the regular burger.” She was shocked. She was like, “Aren’t you vegan? We just spent ten days meditating on compassion!” Her reaction made me think, maybe I should be. At this point, I was still working as a cook, because I’m a classically trained chef, and the irony is that I specialized in cooking meat. A few weeks later, I was asked to cook lamb for 400 people at a banquet that was taking place at a funeral home, and that’s when it clicked. When I saw all the meat for 400 people, and some people didn’t even touch their plates, I thought, those animals are dead for nothing. They gave their lives for nothing. At that point, I made the connection and became vegan, and I’ve been vegan ever since.
What does your practice look like today? I practice Vipassana meditation in the morning. But my practice is more about following the principles. That’s the hardest thing, because Buddhism is not about becoming a better person for yourself. It’s about becoming a better person for everybody else. So I just try to create no harm. My wife is a doctor, and the first principle is always do no harm. That’s basic. If everybody would follow this principle, the world would be better.
Do you follow a particular teacher? I follow the teachings of [Satya Narayan] Goenka, the founder of Vipassana here in the West. He passed away a few years ago, but his teachings are still very available for everybody. What I like about the teaching of Goenka is that it’s free. Anyone can go on Goenka retreats anywhere around the world.
Let’s talk about your work as a blogger and cookbook author. When did you become “the Buddhist Chef”? I became vegan because of Buddhism. For the animals. Because Buddhism and veganism share a common value, which is compassion. It was after that first meditation retreat. So I called my blog The Buddhist Chef. And I’d do it again, even though I get a lot of hate. Just this morning someone in the US said, “I would prefer it if you were a Christian chef.” Some people say, “I’d love to buy your cookbook, but my family won’t let me because it’s Buddhist.” It’s strange. And you know, I have a sense of humor. Sometimes I publish a joke and people say, “That’s not very Buddhist!”
“When you have the why, the how becomes very easy.”
I wanted to ask you about your Instagram account, where you share memes and jokes. Why do you do it? I try to show people a vegan is not always a party pooper. It’s not always someone who is going to be radicalized and going to shame someone. You can have a sense of humor and be a normal person. You can be vegan and Buddhist and not take yourself too seriously.
People also think that being vegan is a restrictive lifestyle. How would you respond to that? It’s restrictive, but when you have the why, the how becomes very easy. When you shift your mindset from meat to animal, it’s easy. I don’t struggle. But people say things like, “I tried being vegan for a week and I didn’t lose weight.” Or, “My family got angry,” or, “I hate tofu.” “It’s complicated,” “It’s expensive.” The last one I heard is, “I don’t have time to wash so many dishes.” If you realize that an animal had to die for you to have a burger, you wouldn’t mind washing a few dishes. If you’re not eating vegan, it’s because you just don’t want to.
What would you say to someone who is interested in moderation? As in, not being fully vegan but being a little vegan? Do you think that’s a good thing, or do you think that’s stopping them from fully realizing compassion? I would always tell people, “Start where you are.” If you’re a hunter and you only eat meat, don’t try to quit meat altogether. Start with Meatless Monday, or one to two days a week. But, above all, start with recipes that are familiar. If you want your family to eat less meat, it has to be familiar and fun. It’s the same spaghetti sauce you like, but tonight, instead of meat, I swapped in tofu. Or if you like General Tso’s chicken, try General Tso’s tofu. One vegan meal a week is quite easy. Not everybody is going to be vegan. I’m not naive. But if everybody would cut their meat consumption just by half, it would be amazing.
Can you share a few ingredients that you use heavily in your vegan cooking that you didn’t use before? I use tofu a lot, a lot, a lot. It’s versatile, it’s rich in protein, nutrition, calcium, and it doesn’t contain any cholesterol. It’s cheap—half the price of ground beef. And it tastes like whatever you cook it in or season it with. I remember, when I was a kid, my mom would do tofu, and she would just marinate it in soy sauce. That was the recipe. But you can fry it in cornstarch, and change the texture. You can also marinate it or add spices and bake it in the oven. It’s pretty easy to cook.
Do you even grind it up and use it in place of ground meat? I use tempeh and seitan for that, but sometimes tofu too. I have tofu in my spaghetti sauce.
I notice a lot of your recipes call for cashew cream. Can you tell me about that? I buy the cashews and then I blend them. Every cream or vegetable soup, I put a cup of cashews in and blend it, and it gives this sweet and creamy taste, because cashews are a little bit sweet. People don’t realize it, but cream is sweet. So if you want to replace cream, you need to replace it with something sweet. I also love soy milk because it’s rich in protein, but I always add a couple of cashews here and there. It’s a secret ingredient. [See below for a Tuscan Soup recipe featuring cashew cream.]
My family loved your healthy oatmeal cookies, which you say have become one of your signature recipes. What’s another go-to recipe of yours that you always tell people to try? The trouble is you’re always trying to seduce meat eaters. Buffalo cauliflower wings, for example, are a big hit. You do always get the same feedback, though, like, “Why do vegans always try to imitate meat?” But I always say I didn’t stop eating meat because I didn’t like meat. I stopped eating meat because I love animals.
And you do use plant-based meat, like Impossible beef? I prefer to use seitan, which is made with real ingredients, but once in a while, in addition to lentils, for example, I do. If I do a shepherd’s pie, I put in celery, carrots, onion, mushrooms, lentils, and a little bit of Impossible burger.
How do you feel about cultivated meat, the meat they’re developing based on animal cells? I’m all for it, because if it means that it’s gonna save millions of animals, of course I’m for it. There are always those debates: Yesterday a girl wrote to me and said, “I thought you were vegan, but you use Impossible meat, which has been tested on animals.” Yeah, but how many animals are you going to save with those products? Some people want to be the only vegan. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In French we say the tree that doesn’t bend breaks.
You recently came out with your second cookbook, The Buddhist Chef’s Homestyle Cooking. Can you describe the vision for this cookbook and how it differs from the first? All of my cookbooks are inspired by my childhood favorites. In this cookbook, I have vegan lobster rolls, for example, which were inspired by camping trips to Gaspésie, [in eastern Quebec]. My bolognese sauce is inspired by my mom’s spaghetti sauce. We have a recipe in my family for pouding chômeur, or poor man’s pudding, which is a classic here. It’s a cake baked in a caramel sauce made of maple syrup and brown sugar. So it’s full of very hearty recipes. It’s not scary, it’s not salads and bowls. It’s desserts, vegan fried chicken, vegan fish and chips. It’s inspired by the time when people had a completely different vision of food. When people would just show up at your house. They don’t do it anymore—unfortunately or fortunately! But there were no cell phones, so you always had to be ready. My mom always had food, and people would just show up and stay for dinner. It’s another philosophy. Nowadays, it’s like, let’s order food. Let’s call in. Let’s meet somewhere.
How do you navigate serving your family members who maybe aren’t following a vegan diet? Do they mind eating vegan? They like it. They’re not against it. But they’re always surprised because they expect nothing! They’re like, “Wow! That’s vegan. It’s amazing that it tastes good!”
I notice you use a lot of maple in your recipes. I use maple, because when I traveled in Thailand and Cambodia, they always balanced the acidity with sugar. They don’t use maple syrup, of course, but this is where I learned to better balance the acidity, and I use it everywhere. Some people in France get mad at me because it’s like $20 an ounce, but we’re lucky here [in Canada]. I have a hard time using refined sugar. I prefer to use maple syrup. Every time I use refined sugar, I feel as if I just smoked a cigarette.
It seems like a big focus of yours is teaching people how to eat vegan. Do you ever teach people about Buddhism? I try to, but people are not very interested. They follow me for the food, and every time I try to talk about something else, they say, “Yeah, but we don’t follow you for that.” In the social media era, it’s very compartmentalized. But more and more people are getting interested, and they reach out and ask advice on where to start, or if they should attend a retreat. Some people come back from retreat very angry with me (laughs). But I like it because when you can have an influence on people, especially with something that’s going to change their life, it’s very rewarding, of course.
Buddhism has changed the way you eat and cook, but has it also impacted how you behave in the kitchen? I try to be more present. I try not to listen to podcasts. More and more, I try to live in silence. It’s tempting to walk the dog with your earbuds and your music, or to cook and have on the TV or a YouTube video, but I try not to do it. The first five minutes are the worst, but at some point, you get in the flow state, and you enjoy cooking and the silence.
And do you miss restaurant cooking? I miss the camaraderie. When you cook, it’s a very hard job, so usually you make a lot of jokes and talk with each other. When I cook at the meditation retreats, there are always some people, and we talk while we cook. You know, when you have guests over for dinner, they’re always in the kitchen. There’s a reason for that. Because when you prepare food, you talk, you share stories, and you share your state of mind.
Vegan Tuscan Soup Recipe
Serves 6 | Prep Time: 35 min | Cook Time: 40 min
Creamy, luxurious soups don’t always need to be pureed. This recipe still packs the same decadent punch, while also including nice hearty chunks of vegetables. The creamy texture from the cashew cream and the aroma from the fresh herbs make this soup an incredibly comforting dish.
1 cup (140 g) cashews
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 vegan sausages
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dried thyme
3 yellow-fleshed potatoes (about 15 oz/425 g), diced
6 cups (1.5 L) vegetable broth
4 cups (50 g) chopped kale
croutons to garnish
For the Cashew Cream:
- Soak the cashews in boiling water for 15 minutes. Drain.
- Add the soaked cashews, 1 cup (250 mL) water, and the yeast to a blender and blend until smooth. Set aside.
For the Tuscan Soup:
- In a large pot over medium heat, heat the oil, then add the sausages and break them up using a spatula. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes.
- Add the garlic and onions, lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes. Stir in the basil, oregano, thyme, and salt, then the potatoes and broth. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Stir in the cashew cream and kale, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Divide the soup among six bowls and garnish with croutons. Leftover soup can be stored in the fridge in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Reheat in a saucepan over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until hot.