Dustin Harder may just be relentlessly positive. So positive that he shares his meals with meat-eating friends in hopes of gently nudging them toward healthier diets. So positive that when he’s in a restaurant with no or few vegan options, the personal chef becomes a waiter whisperer and helps servers figure out what he can eat with a smile, a dose of nutritional information, and no drama.
It's that attitude that Harder brings to his The Vegan Roadie web series, broadcast on YouTube and a website of the same name. Now in its second season, Vegan Roadie crisscrosses the country exploring vegan restaurants in cities such as Seattle and San Antonio. The show, which consists of 40 five-minute episodes that debut each Thursday, was Harder's brainchild after years of acting and serving as an animal handler for traveling Broadway shows, such as Annie.
With grueling schedules and stops in middle America where he occasionally had to cobble together meals out of convenience-store fare, Harder found himself struggling to eat well without animal products. Refusing to be daunted, he began visiting plant-based restaurants, cooking in hotel rooms and taping his adventures to show that being a vegan doesn’t mean deprivation or a future without fettuccine Alfredo.
Paste Food talked to Harder just after he wrapped up three months of filming in locations such as Asheville, North Carolina and New Orleans.
Paste: You became a vegan in 2009. So why did you start living la vida vegan?
Dustin Harder: It all started with health, and I noticed the differences almost immediately when I switched over completely to a plant-based diet. I felt better, and I was able to maintain my weight easier. And I think if anyone is a compassionate and good human being and they start to do their own research, they can see there are a million different reasons to be vegan. I'm on my own personal journey with that, and everyone has to find their own balance.
Paste: Why didn't you make the transition sooner?
DH: I never thought I could. And I was also intimidated by vegans. I had only seen the
kind of aggressive side of the activism, with people sort of yelling at other people for eating meat. And that was very confusing to me because I thought this was about living a compassionate lifestyle, and we can’t be compassionate to the animals without being compassionate to each other. I would think, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” And then I would be tempted by cheese and then I'd eat cheese.
DH: But then I met different people in the community, and things shifted. It’s now been seven years, and there are lot of people who get it, that in order to talk to people and answer questions they’re curious about, it’s not our job to judge them. I try to remember what it was like when I was not vegan.
Paste: What’s really the most challenging thing about eating a plant-based diet when you're traveling?
DH: It’s really a roller coaster. Now, you go through cities that have so many options and you’e like “Oh, my god, how can I fit all this in the three days I'm here?" Then you go through places on the road where you don’t have options. And options are everything. But you have to learn how to facilitate what you need in any given situation. When I do presentations at vegan festivals, I tell them that you need to do N.E.R.P. You need to be Nice to people [so you can explain your needs], you need to be Excited because there’s a lot of new stuff there. You need to do your Research and be Prepared. You don’t have anybody to blame if you’re in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have anything to eat.
Paste: What's in your essential travel pantry or survival kit?
DH: I always have trail mix when I&’m on the road, and I always try to make something, whether it’s a baked good to satiate my sweet tooth. I can have a little stockpile of my own that I can eat and offer other people, even people who aren’t vegan and are just hungry. I can offer them something when we’re on the road and say, “By the way, this is vegan."
Then, in my hotel room, I’ve always got my NutriBullet with me. People make fun of me because it’s a little heavy. But there are different lightweight travel blenders out there. I love that because I can create sauces or dressing, or I can make a green smoothie in the morning, so I can get my vegetables when I’m on the road, which is difficult for everybody. Sometimes, that’s breakfast, and you don’t need to go to a specialty health food store for that. You can just go to a grocery store and grab some fruit and greens.
Paste: There was not a lot of breakfast on your show last season. Is breakfast a more difficult meal to make, though there's carrot bacon and similar things on the market?
DH: Once I embraced a vegan lifestyle, it became a challenge and exciting to “veganize” staples that I love. I don’t love just any tofu scramble, but I’ve come up a recipe I absolutely love and make for all my omnivore friends. Biscuits and gravy are so doable as a vegan. Pancakes are doable, waffles are doable, and it’s usually eggs and milk that are missing. But you can replace them. Bacon is a difficult one, I’m not going to lie. Tempeh bacon is not like “real” bacon, but there’s all kinds of bacon. I personally love shiitake bacon; I’m a personal chef when I’m here in New York, and it’s one of the favorite things of a client who only eats vegan when he eats my food.
Paste: You just tantalized me with the idea of biscuits and gravy. How can you make a lovely gravy to go with biscuits?
DH: First, let me give a shoutout to a book called The Homemade Vegan Pantry by Miyoko Schinner, which has amaaaazing biscuits. And there’;s a blogger called the Minimalist Baker, who has a biscuit recipe I’ve used over and over again. For biscuits and gravy, you can Google any sausage gravy and easily substitute the milk with a nondairy milk and the butter with a vegan butter. And I’ll take a vegan Italian sausage and crumble it. It’s not the healthiest option, but it’s a more healthful option. You can also take Beyond Meat crumbles and spice it up with chili powder.
Paste: Obviously, the show focuses on all-vegan eateries, but what do you do if you are at an eatery that also prepares animal products?
DH: I’m a huge proponent of going to restaurants that have something for everyone. If we got to a place that has two vegan dishes and 20 non-vegan options, I’m going to go there, so everyone can eat if I’m in a group. I get people who are mad at me for doing that, but it’s important for me to do that because these businesses consciously put a vegan entree on their menu. So it’s my responsibility as a plant-based consumer to go into that establishment. Maybe they will put more options on the menu. And maybe a meat option will fall off the menu. You can’t boycott a place for offering something for everyone, but we can applaud them for offering vegan options.
If there’s nothing on the menu, if I can find some spinach, mashed potatoes, and maybe they put tofu on a salad, I can negotiate to make my own little plate. I talk to the server like we're part of a team. If I can help them create something on the menu, they’ll be better prepared when the next vegan comes in.
Paste: You've confessed a love for macaroni and cheese. What's the best you've had?
DH: I’ve had so many delicious ones now. People are really pulling out the stops. They’re using cheese alternatives, they’re using squash, they’re using red peppers. they’re using cashews. There’s a really simple one at a place called FüD (pronounced like “food”) in Kansas City, and she makes it with cashew cheese and spiral noodles. It literally tastes like the Kraft mac and cheese from the box I used to eat as a kid. For a more deluxe one, Sublime in Fort Lauderdale serves up a nice one [with a Dijon-bechamel sauce].
Paste: You talk about nutritional yeast as if it's a magic ingredient. Tell me more.
DH: To me, nutritional yeast is a nice substitute for Parmesan cheese. I’ll grind it up with almonds and a little maple syrup in a food processor, and I'll use that as Parmesan cheese crumble. A lot of people use it in their cheese sauces. On episode two of season one, I used it with a firm tofu to make a “feta.” It’s versatile, but it can add that salty, nutty, cheese-like texture and flavor. Like many Americans, I used to have a shaker of Parmesan in the refrigerator, and the nutritional yeast has replaced that.
Paste: What are you looking for when you visit a vegan restaurant?
DH: The American staples: mac and cheese, pizza, enchiladas, things that you would find at a standard restaurant. But I don’t consider myself a foodie at all. There’s kind of a pretentious feel to that. I consider myself a chef who loves food. But when a menu has the staples, and they’re paired with creative offerings as well, I’m definitely turned on by that. I want to see that mac and cheese, but I also want to see the chef experimenting with that wasabi-encrusted tofu that can drive you crazy. That’s one of the things I love about veganism — it gives chefs the chance to step outside the box and use ingredients that may have been considered unusual in the past.
Paste: Speaking of another form of travel where you may not have total control over what you eat, how do you navigate holiday or family meals?
DH: I always bring something that I can eat and share. A lot of times, I bring Chef Chloe's chocolate chip cookie dough truffles. There are never any left.
Paste: You've probably heard about the $80 million vegan "burger that bleeds," developed and recently unveiled by David Chang of Momofuku and investors. What message does that send — that veganism is expensive or elitist?
DH: Personally, I don’t need a burger that bleeds. But if that’s going to reach more people in the bigger picture and get them more comfortable with omitting animals from their diets, I support that and think it’s a good approach. If it makes change on a bigger scale, I’m for it. The funny thing is the veggie patty has been around for a long time, and unfortunately, they’ve gotten a bad rap. They were around to facilitate a cause in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, and the vegan burger has taken on a whole new form in the last five years. And different companies like Gardein and [sponsor] Field Roast are making great meat-alternatives.
So the pace of change is speeding up, though plant-based diets have been around about as long as people have. But food TV isn’t moving quite as fast when it comes to having vegan content. A lot of people eat my food or see the show and ask “Why isn’t that on TV?”And the reason is advertisers. A lot of them are [promoters of] meat, dairy, egg. And it’s hard to get a plant-based show on the air, or at least that’s been my feeling when I’ve talked to people from different networks. But it’s happening; there was the Cooking Channel show called How to Live to 100. The host said it was canceled because advertisers want burgers, bacon and beer. In my brain, I think, “Let’s give them vegan pizza and burgers.” I can’t get someone to go from eating a Big Mac to drinking green smoothies every day, but maybe I can get them to try a vegan burger and not that Big Mac. Some shows are so health-centric, but we need to talk to the heart. I’m hoping that Netflix or Amazon will start adding more vegan content to their original content.
Paste: And I have to ask you this: Have you made a sandwich or hot dish with the hotel-room iron?
DH: Funny you asked that. I have my own version of this that will be shown in an upcoming San Antonio episode. When I was traveling as an actor, the curtain would go down, we'd finish up at 10:30 and everyone would want food, but often all that was open was a pizza place with no vegan options. I'd get upset, so I came up with a "pizzadilla" with some sauce, some Daiya cheese, and whatever toppings. And I used the tortilla and and aluminum foil with the iron.