In Conversation with Max La Manna (@eatingwithmax)
On a cold evening in February, Zoya called up zero-waste vegan chef Max La Manna to discuss how he got started, his challenges, and his insights, as well as some great recipes.
Z: So, you're both a vegan and a zero-waste chef; did one of those interests come first, or did it all come together? Is there anything in particular that set you on that path?
M: I guess it all came together simultaneously, but my first interest in zero-waste started when I was a kid. My mother's a French-Italian woman, she's very passionate about everything! And she would always ask "Max, why is there so much trash on the side of the road?" And so that really opened my eyes at a young age to be able to understand that we buy things but then we don't know where are trash is going: where is away, you know? Where is that going? And so I've always practiced mindfully trying to do my best, you know? I take short showers and don't run the water when I'm brushing my teeth and just be really mindful with the resources we have. And then the veganism came in in 2012, I was on a holiday trip to Hawaii and I met some incredible people that introduced the idea to me and I went cold-turkey right then and there.
M: Yeah, what they told me it was like… It was all meant to be, it all came to me at the right time. That's not to say it was easy, it definitely has challenges along the way. So when I started instagram — I was off instagram for about a year, I was living in Australia and had a lot of time alone and away from everything, and I just really got to see my life from a different perspective than through a phone — and when I got back onto instagram I was like "alright what am I doing, and what do I want to do for the rest of my life? What's my life's work, what's my passion, what drives me?" And I made a list of ten things that really inspired me and I was passionate about, and I'm living and breathing that right now. So really the zero-waste and veganism all came together for instagram, it wasn't like "I'm vegan first and then the zero waste concept came in," it all came together at the same time.
Z: What is the biggest challenge you've faced since you began doing this professionally?
M: Having conversations with people who are open to the idea, but then they're battling with me, because they see what I'm doing and — these are friends, these are relatives, these are people that I meet on a day-to-day basis — and they're open to the idea, they go "oh, yeah, I can do that" but then you check in with that person down the road or even in that moment and they're like "yeah but I never will" because people are comfortable living in their own comfort zone.
Z: They have the capability —
M: Yeah, they have the capacity to change, it's about whether you have the desire to or not! And so the challenge I face is just… listening. Listening to these people say "yeah I can do it, but I won't." I can't force anyone to change who they are, they have to make that decision. And I'm very passionate about what I do so I'm like "can I hold your hand? Just come with me and let's do this together!" but I can't do that. And that's the challenge, really: knowing that people agree to it, but then they just don't want to make the change.
Z: It's the difference between ideology and practice, basically.
M: Yeah, yes! So, are you practicing zero waste, are you living that way?
Z: Well, not entirely…
M: But you seem mindful.
Z: Yeah and actually one of the important things about Stay With Me for me in particular is that we really care about acknowledging that there are a lot of things in people's lives that produce waste that you can't just cut out. I have a mental health issue that I take medication for daily, and the medication comes in all this laminated cardboard and plastic and foil and I can't just stop taking it and reduce that waste and it just adds up every month. It's important to me to recognize that there are things you can't get rid of and can't change on your own, and change the things that you can do something about. Is there anything like that in your life that you can't cut out entirely?
M: I'm really good with going to the store, and I have my canvas bags… but I do have a sweet tooth. And sometimes I just need some chocolate peanut butter cups, you know like those Reese's peanut butter cups? But I'm making my own version now and that's no waste. But you know, when I see something that's new, like a brand new product that just hits all the points: it's organic! It was made by a monk! You know, something along those lines and you're just like "I wanna try this!" but it's wrapped in plastic, and sometimes I just go "I'll pass."
Z: You're standing there asking yourself "is it really worth it?"
M: Yeah, like, I can make this same thing. And I don't go out to eat that often, so when I do it's a pleasure, it's a treat, a celebration. But I love cooking my own meals. Yeah when there's a new product that hits the market that really speaks to me, but it's wrapped in plastic… Like, beyond meat, it's a burger patty that's entirely vegan, and I bought it the other day, but I don't think I'll ever have that burger again unless the CEO and president of beyond meat invites me to their headquarters and we cook some burgers right then and there so… I'll wait for my invite.
Z: Let me know how that goes!
M: Absolutely! Maybe he'll read this interview.
Z: Maybe! On your website, you talk about your parents being very into food and that your dad is a chef. What would you say is the most important thing you learned about food from your parents? Are there any places where your and your parents' values about food aren't exactly the same?
M: My father was a chef, he's still connected to the restaurant and food scene, but he left a couple years ago. He's still very passionate about it and we still share stories. I grew up in a restaurant as a kid and I remember this one moment, I saw somebody stealing something from the refrigerator… A customer came in and was stealing something and I told my dad, I was like six years old, and I saw my dad handle it like… well, like a boss. He was just so cool and suave about the whole situation. Getting back to the question… the most important thing I learned about food and cooking from my parents is that it's a celebration, and to never eat food alone. I always love sharing the food I make, and I have roommates here in New York, and I'm constantly asking them if they're here in the apartment if they'd love to have any food, and "could you just taste this, see what I need?" I like to hear what other people have to say about food, everyone's been doing it since they were born, food is very important. And we spend so much time, if you think about it, three meals a day, and each one takes about thirty minutes, maybe even longer. And I think that definitely Americans forget that food is a blessing, and it's a celebration, we take it for granted….
Z: It's not just the nutrients to make your body go, it's more than that.
M: Definitely, it's about coming together. I love sharing my food and I love having that moment so I think my parents taught me that at a young age. We'd all come to the dinner table and I grew up in a big family, and having everyone sit down at the table, we bless our food, and then we jump right into it. And then we're laughing and sharing stories and everyone has a chance to speak but we're still enjoying the food and we revert back to the food and we're like "oh, I love this!" And my dad will go "ah, can you guess the spices in this sauce today?" and he'd give us a test, it was interactive too. And I guess a place where my parents and I don't see eye-to-eye… I guess, they're not vegan, but they're open to the whole ideology of it and they practice it whenever I'm around and about once a week I get food pics from my parents saying "oh today I had a vegan pizza!" So I think I definitely have impacted them on this journey. As well as with composting and zero-waste. My father told me "I haven't gone through a roll of paper towels in over two weeks!" So that's great, he was like "I used to go through a roll of paper towels once a day, and now it's been two weeks and I've cut back on my waste!"
Z: That's really cool.
M: It's really cool to see an older generation who… I don't think my parents grew up with this, not really, it wasn't really at the forefront. And now, to be able to teach them the way I think and see that change in their daily habits is remarkable.
Z: In another interview, you were described as a "no-stress vegan…"
M: Oh, wow.
Z: Is this accurate? And if so, what does it mean to you?
M: Well, cooking's not stressful for me. Whereas other people find it, I think, intimidating to cook delicious meals, whether you're trying to impress someone or just make something right and you're doing it for the first time. I allow myself to mess up, I allow myself to make mistakes because if you make mistakes you're able to grow and learn from that and I don't stress about it because I know that it won't be the same the next time. And I allow myself to be really present in the moment and I think that just comes from being mindful and conscious of how I'm preparing my food in the kitchen. No one needs stress! You can leave stress at the door!
Z: Exactly! The way that I read that originally though was more about flexibility, like… So, I've been vegetarian for eleven years, and my mom has been vegan for most of that time, but my mom even makes exceptions for things, like she puts honey in her tea and cooks with honey because we have access to good local beekeepers and if you look at the alternatives, like agave has a much bigger negative ecological impact than honey does! So do you have any exceptions that you make, or are you… all the way?
M: No, I'm all the way vegan, but I know what you mean. In the beginning of the transition of going vegan, I really stressed myself out, I put myself in a box. And I don't think you really need to do that, it's not like it's this way or no way, but you know, I live that way. But I don't allow myself to put myself in a box, I put myself in a circle so there's room to go around. You can't beat yourself up about it. Recently I went to a restaurant and I told the waitress, instead of saying I was vegan, I should have said "I have a severe allergy to dairy, I have a severe allergy to meat…" But I didn't say that, I just told her I was vegan, so "no cheese, no meat," and the salad came out and there was cheese in there and there were anchovies.
M: And yeah, I didn't eat the anchovies, but I noticed there was cheese in it after I ate it and I was like "ahhhh." But I didn't stress myself out about it, it wasn't like "I've gotta start from square one again," because it's a process. And I think everyone, if people wanna make the change and the transition towards living this lifestyle, they can but don't beat yourself up about it, it's gonna take time!
Z: And also, not eating something just because it has cheese on it is gonna lead to more food waste, so it's… a little bit of a dilemma.
M: Yeah, and I ended up sharing the salad after I had the first bite, I tasted it and was like "oh that's a familiar taste" and so I just ended up passing it to my uncle who I was having dinner with, and he asked "Oh, what's wrong with it?" and I told him it had cheese and he went "ah, okay."
Z: Another benefit of eating with people! So, you're probably aware of the fact that a lot of students have a hard time making time to eat breakfast? Do you have a favorite go-to quick and easy breakfast?
M: Absolutely! Really simple, really quick and easy, you do this right before you go to bed. Put it in a bowl, in a mason jar… Just half a cup of rolled oats, put some water in it, or your favorite nut milk, and put some chia seeds in there as well and just let that soak overnight. So you literally just take your mason jar, fill it up, put it in the refrigerator, and it takes less than a minute. I've read that it's actually healthier and that the oats have more nutrients that way than just cooking them, but I don't have the source on hand for that, so…
Z: I can look after this to see if we can find some scientific evidence backing you up on that.
M: Yeah! I find that to be the most effective because you go to bed, the oats are doing their magic, then just add a banana, throw in some peanut butter or almond butter, throw more fruits in there and then you can just take it with you to class!
Z: Yeah, I've actually done that a few times. With some cacao nibs too?
M: Yeah, definitely cacao nibs! You definitely will be able to eat with people too because now you're in class so you're not eating alone. I met this woman who climbed Mount Everest a couple times, and she made me this oatmeal. And I tasted this oatmeal and I was like "what is this?" There was nothing on it, just plain oats, and she said "I can't tell you."
Z: A secret Himalayan oat recipe?
M: My friends were there as well, and they had this oatmeal. And a year went by, and I remember calling my friend, freaking out, because throughout the year we kept talking about it, "oh, do you remember that oatmeal?" So I called my friend, saying "hey, do you remember that oatmeal we had from that woman who climbed Mount Everest?" Because she had been eating this oatmeal on the mountain. And so I said "I think I figured it out, I think I have the recipe to make the perfect oatmeal." And she said "you're kidding me, come over right now." And so I went over and… I'm a very big fan of oats.
Z: When you're travelling, do you have any tips on how to stay committed to zero-waste on the road?
M: Yeah, definitely. I have my stainless steel containers, and those are great. Especially because they're portion-controlled too, so you can't over-fill them. My canvas bags, my produce bags, I bring that all with me. Even my wooden fork and spoon and knife. Just bring it all with you. But also going back to the whole no-stress thing, and also what you said before, sometimes you can't avoid it. So you just do what you can, and you can't beat yourself up about it, and as long as your mindful of the actions that you make, you're doing the right thing. As long as you're doing your best, I think.
Z: I agree completely!
M: You can't go into it thinking that you've gotta be perfect, because there's no such thing as perfect.
Z: Has anything especially surprising come to your attention in the past year about being either vegan or zero-waste or both? Like, did you have any sort of revelation, where you hadn't thought about something, and then all of a sudden…
M: Oh, yeah… a revelation. Palm oil, definitely. And then also, a lot of products, a lot of plastic items aren't recyclable. And looking at everything that's in packaging if you're gonna purchase something in packaging and noticing if it's recyclable or not, or compostable. It just takes another second or two to look and see what's going on, and read the label. But then just the impact that palm oil has on the environment, and what it's doing to the rainforests, and the ecology, animals and wildlife… Yeah, that opened my eyes. And this way of life has consumed me, and my friends joke with me that like "oh man, you can't date anyone that's not vegan or zero-waste because you're just gonna go crazy." And the I thought about it, like, "would I ever date someone that eats meat or is a… trash person?"
Z: A trash person? "Those people and their trash."
M: Well, they joke around like that but, yeah. I noticed that I haven't gone shopping in a while. I wear the same clothes, I find ways to creatively change my clothes and mix and match. I haven't purchased any clothes in months.
Z: So, I have a vegan pancake recipe that is really really good, and I have made it for so many people and every time they're like "what? This is vegan? How did you do it?" Like they think it's magic: do you have a favorite recipe that you like to wow non-vegans with?
M: Well, first of all, you have to send me that pancake recipe. A go-to of mine is pizza, hands-down. I also make my cheese out of nuts, so I'll have an almond cheese or a cashew cheese, and they know the difference, they can texturally tell, but in terms of flavor they're like "this is a cheese." Pizza and I are best friends. I remember my first slice of pizza, my very first job after I wasn't working under my father was in a pizza restaurant. I was the actual dough boy, I made the dough, I rolled out the dough, I tossed the dough… I was hands-on with everything. I just love making pizza. That's my go-to, I shock people with pizza.
Z: Have you read any interesting books recently?
M: Let's see… I'm finishing right now Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, which is taking me forever. And I'm re-reading the Tao De Ching, I have that in my backpack so I read it on the train. Oh! And Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse? I just finished that, and that was beautiful.
Z: Thank you so much for your time!
M: Oh, thank you!
Zoya is very busy writing a thesis but promises to get back to everyone on the health characteristics of overnight oats versus traditional oatmeal as soon as she can. You can find Max on instagram and on his website.