FOOD & HEALTH

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley Has the Recipe to Heal Us from Division

Inclusivity, positivity, aspiration: As one of the most inspiring personalities in veganism today, Gaz Oakley has been bringing a never-seen-before swagger to vegan food and to the subculture at large.

Interested in battling pandemic-induced division with delicious plant-based recipes and a healthy mindset?

Here’s Mr. Gaz Oakley for you.

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Berlin, December 3, 2021

Words & Photos - Eric Mirbach

The 28-year-old Welshman is veganism’s multi-purpose weapon for making plant-based food more attractive — the perfect gateway drug for a lot of the “flirts” out there, looking for an undogmatic, indulgence-based path into a more responsible way of eating.

Gaz Oakley, though a downright YouTube-celebrity at this point, isn’t your regular social media recipe-peddler. There’s a couple of reasons for that:

  • He received a formal, classic chef training
  • He’s got the personality (and the taste in sneakers) to pull people in who would likely keep a safe distance from veganism otherwise
  • He has the work ethic, the eye for detail and the aspiration to tell great stories and present his creations in the best light
  • It helps that he personifies the fitness goals of many, too

 

Demolishing Outdated Ideas of Masculinity

Gaz is lending a personality to veganism that it normally isn’t attributed with. And while doing that, he low-key helps demolish outdated ideas of masculinity along the way. Just watch him get super-excited on camera about a dish he created, right after lifting serious weights in his workout shed.

”A formal chef training meets a great taste in sneakers.“

”A formal chef training meets a great taste in sneakers.“

A shed that stands on his newly acquired land in Wales, where he recently relocated after Covid changed the life he had built for himself in London.

And so, as soon as restrictions allowed, we booked tickets to the lush landscape of this proud Welshman’s country for a home story with one of the most inspiring personalities in veganism out there today.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

After 2 hours by train from London, another 45 mins in the car through lush green Welsh landscapes await — with a side of plums picked on the side of the road.

Gaz, I asked you this years ago, and I wonder if your answer has changed: When you’re at a party and someone there doesn’t know who you are and what you do, how do you explain what your job is?

What is my job? I guess, I still say chef to this day. I think being a chef, learning the trade and being in the kitchen is one of those jobs that is not a job but a lifestyle. Being an office worker doesn’t have a huge identity to it but by being a chef you put the hours in, you don’t sleep well, your energy is all about your work.

So, I still say chef, even though I am not as much in the kitchen as I was. And then I would probably say “a chef that is now on YouTube”, as much as that makes me cringe.

Is it cringe-worthy because of the outside perception of what being a YouTuber means or do you yourself think that’s just a weird thing to say?

I always think back to the times where I was in the professional kitchens and the chefs in there, me included, would think of TV chefs and say, “they are not real chefs, they don’t put the hours in like us”. I’m sure there’s a lot of chefs in the kitchens now that think that way about me.

”It makes me cringe when I tell people that I'm a chef on YouTube.“

But everyone is probably a bit envious, too. I certainly was. When you are putting in so many hours, you’re always kind of wishing for an outlet, whether that is being a private chef, cooking 9 to 5 for a rich family or on a boat or something like that. Back then, that would have been the absolute dream. Or doing a cookbook, just working less hours, or cooking on TV — which is basically what I’m doing now, so I should be very appreciative of it.

”It makes me cringe when I tell people that I'm a chef on YouTube.“

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

On the way to his place, we stop at one of the many ancient castles the Welsh countryside has to offer. “They must think I’m such a weirdo,” Gaz tells us after we bought tickets, “I come here so often.”

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

It’s interesting, it seems like people are still in awe of linear television even though it feels like YouTube and Netflix have completely taken over. What’s your take on that?

I’m sorry, I always have to bring up The Office references but Michael Scott, the main character played by Steve Carrell, once says when they’re doing a comedy roast for the office: “I have to make sure that YouTube comes down to tape this”. That just makes me laugh.

I am a big boxing fan, and you just have to look at those YouTubers who are generating millions of views and dollars when they’re on these boxing nights. TV obviously doesn’t have that reach, at least not anymore.

”Being on TV feels like a backwards step. But it makes my parents proud, so I go.“

”Being on TV feels like a backwards step. But it makes my parents proud, so I go.“

When you’re a TV channel and you are appealing to a general audience in a designated timeframe, you can’t that be specific and “special interest” with the things you’re putting out. On YouTube, you can be very specific because you can just make stuff for your audience.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

The Welsh countryside has been a game changer for Gaz: “I feel so calm and amazing and I’m just so grateful for it.”

But I do think that the older generation still loves terrestrial TV. My parents, they love watching my YouTube videos and they love putting my videos on the TV when there’s Smart TVs, but they still love to tell their friends “Gaz is going to be on the BBC 8 o’ clock on Friday”.

It won’t get the views a YouTube video will but just the fact that it’s on a nation-wide channel and their friends can see it makes them so proud. So, when I have the opportunity to go on TV shows, I always take them, even though I feel like it’s a backwards step. It’s so old-school and it’s not going to get the viewership that YouTube’s potentially going to get. But it is something that will make my mom and dad proud.

That’s a good reason. So, how was the last year and a half for you? How have you been coping with the pandemic?

It was definitely challenging early on. I got caught up in this fear panic mode because you turn onto the news and then you get really scared. And then I was in isolation during lockdown in London on my own for a huge amount of time and that got to me. I didn’t enjoy that at all, but luckily, I’m healthy, my family is healthy, and I made it through it.

And then I moved from London back into the countryside, restarted my life here, created my own world, tried to live self-sufficiently so that I don’t have to rely on the government for things that I think are essential. No one is going to close my vegetable patch, no one is going to close my garage gym and I can do all the things that I want to do here.

The closure of, for example, my gym in London was something that really got to me. But now that I have everything that I need at my fingertips, it’s turning into something positive, and my mindset is more relaxed.

I’m more mature, I feel happier and more content. I guess this wouldn’t be the situation if we didn’t go through the lockdowns, this pandemic and all this adversity.

So, in a way, I actually feel like this changed me for the better.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

Your parents are about 45 minutes from here, you moved back to where you grew up. But you originally moved out to London to pursue your career, and to be closer to your production crew. Did London not work for you as you had planned?

I mean, London didn’t not work for me, I still enjoy going to London as a visitor. I actually like it better as a visitor. I enjoy the social aspect of being in London and I like that there is always something cool going on, but it’s only two hours away, so that’s good.

Coming back to a place that actually looks so much like Wales speaks to my being very proud to be Welsh. The hills, nature, green, sheep — I have all of that around me now. I’m in the countryside and I feel like I’m part of the land. I feel closer to nature, I actually feel like I belong here.

There’s a Welsh phrase, it roughly translates to “a place where the soul finds peace”. That resonates with me because I did find peace here. I feel so calm and collected and amazing and I’m just so grateful for it.

”Growing our own food is probably the most important and real thing we can do as humans.“

”Growing our own food is probably the most important and real thing we can do as humans.“

You have become a bit of a gardener. What was that journey like?

I always wanted to grow food. My dad has done it quite a lot during the summers, but I never really looked into it before. But that was a big reason for moving here. It not only benefits my cooking in terms of freshness and quality of produce — which is vital when you’re going for the best flavor — the nutrients of the products you just picked are the best, too. You can’t beat it.

But it is also the best hobby I ever picked up, just because it is so good for the mind. It’s calming, it’s therapeutic and you can just lose yourself in gardening. I also love planting a seed and nurturing it until it’s a full-grown plant and then you can eat it. It’s so natural.

The more I learn, the more I want to encourage younger people because I think it’s probably the most important and real thing we can do as humans — to grow our own food.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

Gaz in his garden, surrounded by homegrown veggies. “It’s calming, it’s therapeutic, you can lose yourself in gardening,” he told us.

Tell me a bit about your house. What’s the story of this place?

We found a very unique old town hall that the previous owners had already refurbished. The house is decent size — it’s still pretty humble, but it’s a unique property with high ceilings and a good feel. When I have my décor in here, it’s going to be the house of my dreams.

I’m going to build an extension which is all new and exciting for me and working with an architect for the first time has been amazing. I thought when I moved here that I could be here for a couple of years but now I feel maybe I could raise a family here, who knows?

But I do need sun, so maybe I’ll spend my winters abroad if I can.

”Society feels very divided right now. So, I've changed the way I explain that I'm vegan.“

”Society feels very divided right now. So, I've changed the way I explain that I'm vegan.“

We’ve talked about the change you feel in your connection to veganism as a subculture. Can you describe how you feel?

I think that the term “vegan” has become quite divisive. In a perfect world, I would like people to have open communication and respect for one another and there wouldn’t be so much separation. We are all human and we have so much more in common with one another than we think. And when we create these groups and sub-groups — whether it’s religion, dietary choice or country or whatever — we are just dividing ourselves and we are getting away from the fact that we are really very similar.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

A refurbished old town hall as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city of London. Gaz: “It’s still pretty humble, but unique and with a good feel.”

My thoughts on the whole vegan “title” have become a bit loser in my mind. I’m always going to be vegan, but the way I approach talking to new people and explaining that I’m vegan is a bit different now, because people jump to conclusions and society feels very divided right now.

I’ve learned that very often, people have already made up their mind about you as a person, before you have even shown them the content of your character.

”Yes, I only cook with plants — but that's just me trying to persuade you to choose a healthier lifestyle.“

”Yes, I only cook with plants — but that's just me trying to persuade you to choose a healthier lifestyle.“

For a long time, I was all about “Team Vegan” but often this would push people away. It would make the vegans proud, but I think it pushed the general population away. I just want to try to make it as open and inclusive as possible, showing that there’s not one type of vegan that looks a certain way.

Yes, I only cook with plants and my goal is to get people to eat plants, but that’s not me forcing you to be vegan. That’s just me trying to persuade you to choose a healthier lifestyle for yourself and the planet in a cruelty-free way.

I’ve witnessed the term “vegan” becoming more and more woke and divisive, particularly to the kind of friends I grew up with in school. I only have to look at the memes that I get sent. They don’t bother me in any way because I’m not that militant left-wing vegan, but they tell me how vegans as a group are seen from the outside.

But my perspective on how to do this in the best way has changed. It can feel like everyone’s at each other’s throats for having a slightly different opinion, especially on social media. When I post about a person that I’m particularly inspired by that may not be vegan, I will get messages with screenshots of them promoting meat or being anti-vegan.

How is that helping anyone? I’m not going to not like someone because they don’t eat the same diet as me. I also don’t dismiss someone if they have an opinion I don’t agree with, I won’t cancel them from the face of the earth.

”I'm not going to cancel someone from the face of the earth for having an opinion I don't agree with.“

”I'm not going to cancel someone from the face of the earth for having an opinion I don't agree with.“

Because if you just cancel them and don’t open a dialogue with them, then how will you explain to them the reasons as to why veganism might be a good idea?

It took me 24 years of my life to decide that I’m going to go vegan, but it took my parents 56 years of their life before they went vegan. So, who knows, just because this artist I’m posting about isn’t vegan at the time doesn’t mean that they will find out that they should have gone vegan way sooner when they’re 70.

Everyone’s path to a better lifestyle is at different rates.

You said that this change in attitude towards veganism as a subcultural movement is a recent development for you. What would you say triggered that?

It’s probably mainly the way social media works — and a bit about learning how people react to things.

When you first go vegan you get all this newfound information, and you just want to spout it out to everyone and anyone. Then you realize that people just put their blinders on and don’t want to know, so you need to explain it to them in a different way and I do that by showing them my food.

I managed to persuade probably millions of people to choose plant-based foods from time to time or even go vegan this way.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

Gaz’s #1 takeaway from the pandemic:
“I don’t want to rely on the government for things that are essential. No one is going to close my vegetable patch.”

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

Gaz’s #1 takeaway from the pandemic:
“I do’t want to rely on the government for things that are essential. No one is going to close my vegetable patch.”

How do you navigate this more heated environment on social media? Do you feel like you have a responsibility?

Yeah, this has been a tough journey for me. I used to share my opinion on particular issues in the past, and then when you don’t talk on a particular subject that you don’t know much about and that you don’t feel comfortable talking about, you may be called out for not talking about it.

So, I decided to not post my opinions on pretty much anything that isn’t food, vegan, gardening, anything non-positive on my social media. That has been great for me because I don’t have to stress, I’m also seen as a place for positivity and there’s no negativity ever really on my social media.

”Oh, I'm not fulfilling your expectations of me as an influencer? I couldn't care less.“

”Oh, I'm not fulfilling your expectations of me as an influencer? I couldn't care less.“

However, I had to unfollow everyone on my personal page because I was taking in so much negativity. Every single story I saw would be something political, it would be one thing after another. People think they are changing the world by posting something on their story — or they are doing it for virtue signaling. I think that sadly, it often is the latter.

I remember when Instagram was just a cool place to show off your creativity, I kind of miss that. Now everyone is trying to fight a fight they cannot win because these huge issues that we see in the world are not likely to be solved in an Instagram comment section.

And at the same time, I don’t give a fuck if anyone calls me out anymore. I’m sorry if I’m not fulfilling your expectations as an influencer, I couldn’t care less. I have good conversations and I feel like I do my fair share of good work in this world. I educate myself on issues around the world constantly and give to charities that I think need it.

But my social media from now on is a place that’s not divisive. I’m not taking sides and I post my positivity. I still have this feeling as an artist, if I have something cool, I want to take a picture and post it. So, I don’t have any strict guidelines on how much I show and how much time I spend because I do value the connection between me and my audience and I wouldn’t do what I do without them, so I like to show them what I’m up to.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

Gaz loves “planting a seed and nurturing it until it’s a full-grown plant” — and then eat it. And that’s what we did. Pumpkin stew home-grown and home-cooked by a master in the making.

But what I love to show is my food, I love to show my creativity, I love to show my gardening, my home improvements, and my fitness, because I think this is aspirational to people and it’s nothing bad. It’s all nice stuff that people can take positivity from.

With that changed outlook on veganism, what do you think is the role you can play in the outside perception of it now? What do you think you have achieved so far and what do you think might be next?

That’s a good question. I would like to continue to show people how great vegan food can be, how nutritious it is and how eating healthy and looking after yourself can change your life. I wish people would take more care with their nutrition, so that’s one thing that I want to inspire people with.

I also want to break down this stigma of men and being vegan, by running the London marathon, by doing challenges that I have planned. I hope I will weigh that stigma down. Because I feel fitter and stronger than ever before and have been for the last year and a half.

”I feel like I have a zest for life that my peers I grew up with have lost.“

”I feel like I have a zest for life that my peers I grew up with have lost.“

The stereotypical vegan is a frail, tired individual. And to be honest, I feel like I have a zest for life that maybe my peers that I have grown up with have lost.

What drives you, Gaz?

To make positive change in the world. To be happy, to make sure my family is looked after and they’re all happy. Same with my employees. To create my art; sharing it with my audience gives me so much joy. Keep doing new things. I always want to be different; I don’t like being the same. But yeah, happiness is the major theme.

Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021
Vegan Chef Gaz Oakley - Interview for Antagonist, Photos by Eric Mirbach, Wales 2021

“I want to show my love for food”, said Gaz. It’s pretty visible in this picture with Timothy’s little cousin. (If you know you know.)

So what’s next for Gaz Oakley?

I feel like in this day and age it’s gotten really hard to plan things. I had a worldwide restaurant pop-up tour planned for 2021, I thought the pandemic would be over by then. It wasn’t, so I couldn’t do that.

But plans for the future: I’m going to continue homing in on the skills in content production to potentially produce a pilot for a show that I would see on Netflix. My incredible production team — that’s basically my really good friends — has become incredible at what they do over the years. I couldn’t do what I do without them.

I’m also still constantly thinking about opening my own restaurant and it’s something that I will keep planning until the world goes back to some sense of real normality. Realizing how profitable it could be to have your own kitchen garden totally changed the landscape of where it could be located, though. I couldn’t open a restaurant with a kitchen garden next to it in London.

I’m really excited to learn more and grow as a human, less focused on what the next step for my business is but more as how I can grow as a human and pass on my knowledge to others.

Thank you, Gaz.

If you want more Gaz Oakley, find his excellent and entertaining content featuring vegan recipes and his new-found love for gardening on his YouTube channel Avantgarde Vegan.

Avantgarde Vegan on Instagram: @avantgardevegan
Gaz Oakley on Instagram: @gazoakley
www.avantgardevegan.com

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Eric Mirbach Content-specialist turned serial entrepreneur, Eric not only created Antagonist, but co-founded Berlin based branding & venture studio Very Good Looking, as well. The mission: Change the perception of veganism for good.
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Loved this interview! Gaz is so cool, and his gorgeous content on youtube continues to inspire me to become a better cook every day. Thank you for this.

That was a great read! Gaz has been my favorite vegan chef since many years and now i feel i know him even more . He is such an inspiration!

Gaz is amazing. I have been following his YouTube for a while now and he is so creative. I look forward to the day when I can visit and dine at his restaurant.

Did I miss the part if he’s single? 😍😝

Great interview with Gaz. He’s an amazing person. I’ve watched his YouTube channel for years and have all his books (3) After seeing all that he’s done and all the places he’s been and that he’s only just 28. Fantastic.

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