Who can get Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, Liv Tyler, Jenny McCarthy, Daryl Hannah, Gus Van Sant, Michael Cera and twenty or so others of Hollywood’s cool list together for a meal of tofu, quinoa and tempeh? Only Makini Howell, chef and co-owner of Plum Bistro in Seattle, WA.
A small woman with a giant smile, Makini cooked for a ridiculously star-studded Earth Day party hosted by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix and planned by Simone Le Blanc, at the home of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner in Pacific Palisades. EcoStiletto’s Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff joined the party to nab an exclusive interview with the chef, who might just do for vegan food what Alice Waters did for organic.
Guests ranged from hard-core vegans—like Mike White, who was wearing a “vegan mafia” shirt made especially for the occasion, and Skinny Bitch’s Kim Barnouin—to admitted carnivores. All were curious about Makini’s innovative cuisine—what she calls “bridging the gap between carnivores and plant eaters”—which brought fans Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix on board as investors to launch Plum Bistro LA this fall in Los Feliz.
A lifelong vegan, Makini represents the third generation of a nearly 40-year-old family business. “I don’t believe animals are made for food,” she said. “Violence begets violence…veganism feeds a vision of peace.” She and her family own four vegan restaurants in Seattle, all of which serve certified organic food and are operated with environmental consciousness in mind. Plum Bistro LA boasts a partner in Graham Baba Architects, who specialize in sustainably rehabbing and reusing existing building materials to create spaces that are at once vintage and modern.
For Makini, veganism is a natural progression of environmentalism. “You have to see the big picture of veganism and sustainability and how it affects the planet,” she said. “By the mere act of being vegan you reduce your carbon footprint.” Her stance is backed up by facts: Livestock production is now responsible for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions—that’s more than all modes of transportation combined. And last year, the U.N. went on record to recommend that people cut down on meat consumption in order to combat global warming.
Veganism is also about health: As the federal government exposes slaughterhouse practices that result in salmonella in chicken and feces in beef scandals, data on vegetarianism finds lowered cancer rates and rates of obesity.
But back to the food: This is not your mother’s tempeh. Makini served up mouth-watering dishes like her signature “mac and yease,” cornmeal-encrusted seitan sliders and ricotta tofu served with pears as examples of what she calls “rustic, vegan, American food.” After introducing the finale—a coconut-lime cheesecake with a chocolate cookie crust—Makini concluded, “We want to make sure you don’t miss the meat.”
With Makini in town, not likely.
Plum Bistro doesn’t look like what you’d think of as a vegan restaurant. It looks like a beautiful, elegant, upscale restaurant—that just happens not to serve meat. I feel like it’s kind of what we’re doing with EcoStiletto in a way—writing about fashion and beauty, but it just happens to be organic and sustainable.
I think it’s more effective than going around throwing paint on people. It’s hard to change people’s minds that way.
Why vegan food? Is it just about avoiding cruelty to animals?
Yes, it’s about that. But I was raised vegan. I want to bring a plant-based diet to people. I want to build a bridge between carnivores and vegans. People don’t realize how good vegan food is. I want to create a space where it’s not viewed in a negative light, where people realize how important it is to have a plant-based diet as part of our lives.
When my brother was born, my mom went to the pediatrician and said that she was going to raise him vegan. The doctor threatened to call child-protective services.
But the health benefits are incredible. When you put meat into your body it basically rots in your intestines. When you don’t eat meat you’re stronger, faster and your brain moves quicker.
Do you think veganism is a natural extension of environmentalism?
I do. You have to see the big picture of veganism and sustainability and how it affects the planet. By the mere act of being vegan you reduce your carbon footprint.
I don’t believe animals are made for food. Violence begets violence; cruelty begets cruelty. When you kill an animal, all the violence that the animal feels goes into its body and you ingest it. Veganism feeds a vision of peace.
But it’s a process. It’s hard to go from carnivore to vegan. It’s a process of elimination. I don’t expect people to go completely vegan immediately because your body will go into shock.
But what about vegans who don’t act sustainably—not eating a hamburger but buying PVC shoes?
Some vegans are purists and don’t even get into cars with leather seats; some say buy used leather because you don’t want to contribute to the death of another animal. I think we all have to do the best that we can. But if you can buy better shoes that’s something easy.
And there are so many new vegan designers popping up! When we grew up, there were no vegan shoes. We wore cotton—never synthetic fabrics or dyed.
And now we know that cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in the world.
At the time, there was nothing. Growing up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that was the best choice we had. Now there’s a lot of more. People are making clothes out of hemp; I just saw on the “Today” show that H&M’s entire spring collection is green.
Isn’t that amazing? Although I am concerned about H&M’s big picture in terms of sustainability—where they make their clothes, for example, and for what wages—but I do feel like if we sell out capsule eco-collections at these giant retailers, maybe next year they’ll stock organic cotton when it’s not Earth Day!
It’s a good start. And I think that people have to realize that you can’t be so super judgmental. You have to create a bridge. You can’t expect people to jump from one thing to another when they don’t have a road map to get there. You have to come up with something that works.
Vegans have this reputation for being harsh and judgmental, Birkenstock wearing people—
That is so not you!
It’s a preconceived notion. It’s hard to get around it. So how can be help people who want to be more environmentally conscious? How can we help them eat better, feel better and do more? What’s our part? The food is a big one.
Can you be sustainable and still eat meat?
Currently, no, because of the way that meat is farmed today.
What about free range, organically fed animals?
I hear that it’s a bit of a kinder way of raising animals, but I think that our society as a whole is so addicted to meat that I don’t know if it will gain a foothold. Most people who are aware of what’s going on go vegan, versus going to smaller farms and grass-fed cows. Once people realize what’s happening they’re so turned off by it that they stop altogether.
You’re a second-generation vegan. What made your parents stop eating meat?
My parents didn’t like what happened to animals when you killed them for food. They’ve been vegan for 35 years.
Were they chefs?
No, they’re entrepreneurs. They’re forward-thinking people. Extremely far ahead of their time. It just didn’t make sense to them to kill an animal to feed it to your child, or take cow’s milk to feed it to your child. That milk is for the calf!
What’s the biggest green change you’d like to make in your life—even if it’s impossible right now?
I’d like to bring a plant-based diet to schools, so children can learn how to eat better. I think kids are largely overweight because they eat too much processed food. Kids don’t know what carrots taste like—not canned carrots, carrots! If we can’t teach children how to eat, how are we going to raise a generation of adults who know how to eat?
What’s your favorite eco-friendly tip our readers should know about?
Give veganism a try—for a week. It’s not all sprouts and Birkenstocks!
Who’s your eco-idol and why?
I think people like Summer [Casey Affleck’s wife]. It says to me that there are other people out there who are like-minded, who are life-long vegans. It makes me feel like there’s a group out there who get where I’m coming from. Until I met Summer, I had never met another lifelong vegan. I asked her, “Why did your parents raise you vegan?” And she said they were crazy hippies. And I was like, “Mine too!”
What’s your worst eco-sin?
The shower. I never want to get out, but I know I’m wasting water.
What’s the best green advice you ever received—and who gave it to you?
I would have to say my mom, and her whole stance on violence and killing animals. That stays with you. The violence of killing something to eat, and how afraid that animals is when you eat it—you ingest the fear. You eat everything that that animal is, and then that becomes a part of you. It becomes part of your makeup. It you can take control over your makeup, do it!
P.S. We scored Makini’s secret recipe for Orange-Balsamic Tempeh with Ginger Yams and Sauteed Greens! Ready?
For the tempeh:
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon avocado oil
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
2 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh basil
1 teaspoon finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
24 ounces tempeh, cut into four six-ounce slices
2 bunches kale or collards, rinsed well with stems trimmed, left whole
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Combine orange juice, vinegar, oil, soy sauce, garlic, basil and parsley in a baking pan. Arrange tempeh slices in the mixture and marinade for 15 minutes on each side.
Remove Tempeh from marinade and sauté on either side until golden brown
Take remaining marinade and reduce for 7 minutes in a sauté pan for a glaze.
2 tablespoons organic brown sugar
2 teaspoons fresh chopped ginger
2 teaspoons fresh chopped garlic
2 1/4 pounds yams (red-skinned sweet potatoes; about 3 medium)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) vegan butter
Cut yams lengthwise in half; drizzle with olive oil and bake for 20 minutes or until super soft. Sauté ginger and garlic together in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add vegan butter; mash with sautéed ginger and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
For sautéed greens:
2 bunches kale or collards, rinsed well, stems trimmed, roughly chopped.
2 teaspoons fresh chopped garlic.
Lightly coat the bottom of a 10” saute pan with with olive oil, add garlic and brown lightly, then toss in greens, season with salt and pepper cook for two minutes.
To plate your entrée:
Pile a generous scoop of yams on plate, then top with tempeh and a side of sautéed greens. Drizzle glaze on top of tempeh and garnish with fresh orange slices.