Chef Michael Qandah knows food. As a child whose parents who owned a restaurant, he grew up around food and cooking for most of his life. Now he’s opened his own business, Little Rock, Arkansas-based Happy Bear Cooking, where Michael is no longer just passionate about sharing beautiful, delicious food with people. He’s now passionate about sharing beautiful, delicious vegan food. And he’s doing it quite well…just take a look at the food he’s creating over on his Instagram feed. We dare you not to drool.
Thanks to an upcoming generation of chefs like Michael who are embracing the concepts of living a healthier lifestyle and contributing positively to the future of our planet, people who might not have much knowledge around what it even means to eat vegan or plant based are being introduced to this concept.
And it’s Michael’s goal to help bridge the gap between those who are die-hard meat eaters, and those who wouldn’t dream of touching it. Thanks to Michael, more people are opening up to a conversation about exactly what plant based eating looks like, how it can benefit both them and our planet and also how in the world it’s possible to make it taste good. And Michael assures us it’s more than possible.
Read on for our interview with Chef Michael Qandah…
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN AN ADVOCATE OF PLANT BASED EATING, AND HOW DID IT COME INTO YOUR LIFE?
It’s a funny way how I have come to advocate plant based diets. I’ve been a butcher for most of my adult life, about seven years now. I originally got into butchery because I believed all animals deserve a good life. By working with local farmers and promoting humanely raised meat, I started my journey towards that. Then I met my girlfriend, Stephanie Parsley, who is a passionate vegan and I love cooking for her. We don’t allow any animal products in the house, so I eat about an 80% plant based diet because I still do consume animal products very occasionally, mainly at work.
TALK A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY WITH LIVING A HEALTHY LIFESTYLE…
I think my “healthy lifestyle” started early. My family always ate together every night. Eating out wasn’t a thing. My mom always had a home cooked meal for us. Also being half Arabic, my family never cooked with a lot of meat. I actually had a lot of vegan and vegetarian food growing up and never realized it. When I was 18, I moved to south Florida and started working in an all-organic market/cafe, and this is where I really started to get into healthy food. After that, I’ve continued to try and work with natural and local foods at places like Whole Foods, Butcher and Public, Kent Walker, Arkansas Fresh, Porcellinos and Brave New Restaurant.
AND YOU GREW UP AROUND RESTAURANTS, YES?
My family owned a BBQ restaurant in central Arkansas for my whole life, so since I’ve been able to walk, I’ve been in a kitchen. Cooking was also something that connected my family.
WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ARE THE BIGGEST BENEFITS OF EATING MORE PLANT BASED?
I’m sure we all can agree that plants are healthy for us, so eating plant based to have better health is a huge benefit. I try to stay in tune with my body and listen to it, and I’ve noticed that having a primarily plant based diet has kept me at a healthy weight. It also gives me more energy. Aside from feeling better, I know eating plant based is the best thing we can do to help the environment. Eating meat at the rate humans are is destroying the planet and I don’t want to contribute to that at all.
ONE OF YOUR MAIN GOALS IS TO BRIDGE THE GAP BETWEEN VEGANS AND MEAT EATERS. WHY DO YOU THINK PEOPLE FEEL THEY HAVE TO CHOOSE A “TEAM”, WHY DO YOU THINK THERE’S SUCH A DIVIDE?
I feel like vegan food has a mostly bad reputation for some reason. Chefs tend to stay away from it because they aren’t vegan themselves, and likewise, most vegans aren’t chefs. So there is this void where vegan food lies. I find that I thrive in this middle ground because I’m not afraid of vegan food, I have a good amount of experience cooking, and since I eat a conventional diet I know exactly what all food should taste like. I think there’s also a divide because people tend to look at vegan food in a way that it’s not enough for them. The common misconception is that vegans don’t get enough protein, which simply isn’t true. Animals get their protein from plants and we get protein when we eat animals. By eliminating animal consumption in a plant based diet, we could get rid of the middle man and get protein from the same source as most animals do, from plants.
YOU HOST VEGAN COOKING CLASSES AND ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT TEACHING OTHER PEOPLE TO EAT AND COOK THIS WAY. WHAT ARE A FEW MAIN CONCEPTS THAT YOU INTRODUCE TO PEOPLE WHO ARE NEW TO EATING PLANT BASED, OR PEOPLE WHO ARE LOOKING TO START MAKING A TRANSITION?
The concepts that I want people to come away with from my classes is that vegan cooking isn’t hard at all. In fact, with most of the meals a meat eater would eat, there is actually a vegan option for it that would pretty much taste the exact same, if not better, since your taste buds would have a new flavor to experience. I know transitioning can be hard because you’re thinking, “Where do I start?!” And I want my cooking classes to be a way for people to see that it’s much easier than they might have thought. For example, with mashed potatoes, you’d replace the milk and butter with almond milk and vegan butter and it tastes exactly the same.
ON YOUR INSTAGRAM, YOU MENTION THAT HOSTED DINNERS ARE COMING SOON AND ALSO THAT YOU’RE AVAILABLE FOR PRIVATE CHEF WORK. TELL US ABOUT WHERE YOU’RE HEADED WITH HAPPY BEAR COOKING, WHAT’S COMING FOR YOU AND WHAT YOU’RE REALLY EXCITED TO SHARE WITH YOUR COMMUNITY?
In June we are planning to really start stepping up production. That means more take home meals, more classes, more dinner parties and more cakes! We started Happy Bear in February with the idea of keeping an open mind about where it could go. It has grown so much faster than we expected! We have long-term plans as well that we will announce as they become more concrete.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE HEALTHY, SIMPLE, WEEKNIGHT MEAL?
My favorite recipe go-to isn’t actually even my own recipe, it’s my girlfriend’s. I work nights a lot so when I get off she usually has what we call potato dinner ready for us. Potato dinner is two boiled red potatoes topped with scallions and a little bit of vegan butter, plus a side of beans and a salad with a vinaigrette.
FRIDGE AND PANTRY STAPLES YOU ALWAYS KEEP ON HAND?
We always have mushrooms, beans and potatoes. Vinegars, soy, miso and nutritional yeast are also essential.
WHAT’S THE ONE INGREDIENT THAT MAKES ANY DISH TASTE BETTER?
Soy sauce. I seriously try to put it on everything! I haven’t been able to work it into a dessert…yet!
WHAT’S THE YUMMIEST DISH YOU MAKE THAT A PERSON WOULD HAVE NO IDEA IS EVEN VEGAN, IF YOU DIDN’T TELL THEM?
I think I could fool a good number of people with my vegan ricotta. I’ve also been told my vegan cakes taste better than any non-vegan cake!