Meet The Hyper-Local Vegan Chef Who Can Powerlift More Than You

Chef Aaron Adams of Farm Spirit in PDX considers the state of things.

July 5, 2016 ● 4 min read

In Portland, Oregon, on a leafy strip of SE Morrison, there's a restaurant. It's small — 660 square feet all told — and serves a "plant-based, locally-sourced modernist" coursed menu to 14 seats along a chef's counter. Farm Spirit, the one-year-old heart and soul of Chef Aaron Adams, also happens to be a vegan restaurant, but that's almost a footnote compared to its main objective: to epitomize the cuisine of Cascadia. In the way that Rene Redzepi has made hyper-localism a legitimate creative constraint, Adams and his crew encourage diners to reconsider what makes a meal — if it's not native, you won't find it. 

We don't serve coffee, and we don't use lemons, or almonds.

No matter what image we like to project as chefs, most of my generation grew out of the craptastic food culture of the 80s and 90s. When I started getting into cooking, everyone was so over the top and ridiculous and just so confusing. Wasabi beurre blanc with soba noodles, sesame-crusted tuna, shit like that.

So to me, the idea of developing a food culture centered around an area, of limiting ourselves to what we have available and trying to find creativity within that, is really attractive. Cascadian cuisine is remarkably similar to a lot of the new Nordic stuff, because our bioregion supports a lot of the same types of agriculture. As a vegan restaurant without any solid fats or animal products available to us, we have to change the way that we make things.

People ask questions like, "But, how do you get lemon flavor?" We don't.

Listen, if we're going to be a standout restaurant, if we're going to do something that's different, then we need to be creative and create things that are new. Being vegan is not enough; frankly, we have to work harder to make our restaurant better, because we're not competing with other vegan restaurants. We're competing with all the restaurants.

People say they’ve tried “vegan food” and it was terrible. How many shitty vegan meals have you had? Maybe a couple? How many shitty omnivorous meals have you had? Hundreds, thousands, and you're going to say, “Fuck omnivorous cuisine, that shit's over”? It doesn't make sense to say that. It's a prejudice that you have. When it comes to vegan stuff, people have a preconceived notion about who or what we are. I'm 280 pounds and I powerlift. I've been vegan for eleven years. 

While I am an animal rights vegan, I don't politicize this restaurant. I'm not under any sort of illusion that we're saving lives, or even changing minds. If we can have a viable business where I can pay my staff really well and everyone feels respected and honored, and I can have a life and pay my rent, and we can do that while also not bending on my ethics and values, then that's a win.

When I first started going vegan, I stepped out of cooking and started working as a machinist. Then I started working in an anarchist café. I wasn’t following my little dream of doing fine dining, because it was exclusive and inaccessible to a lot of people. There's people that are starving on the streets and meanwhile we're making really dainty little pretty food? But at the end of the day, this is my one life, and I want to do some cool shit while I'm here — and try not to be a creep otherwise.

The biggest thing for us at Farm Spirit is the development of textures, and the use of modernist technique to make something that is not overtly modernist. One of the big breakthroughs for us was telling ourselves we are not beholden to making replacement cuisines. It’s not a vegan version of x, y, or z. Let's create our own repertoire. Last Tuesday, I worked on an artichoke custard for eight hours, just making it over and over again until it was velvety and melted in the mouth and didn’t have that feeling that a lot of plant-based custards have where it breaks and is chewy. Or you look at a green strawberry and you stop thinking about it as a strawberry and it's more like citrus, or more like a tomato, or as a really pleasant acid. That's the kind of stuff that excites me now. 

It's not like I'm against killing things; things kill each other all the time. It’s just weird to me that we’ve accelerated to a place with a highly-mechanized abattoir that's so impersonal and opaque, and we just show up at the market to neatly cut pieces of flesh, and are just like, No problems here, everything's totally tight. I have a kid who works for me who used to work at a fishery up in Alaska. He said they're pulling out a million pounds of fish a day out of the water. At one fishery. That’s nuts.  

In time, it all ends. And that's the reality that people just don't want to deal with.

We live in a place heading towards calamity and we're getting yelled at about it every single day. We're draining the oceans of fish; there's too much methane from cows; the workers in all these industries are treated like garbage. I just hope we’re evolving to a point in our lives where can be more thoughtful about this whole subject. Once you work on a farm and you pick fava beans in 95-degree heat, you know that’s hard work. When you've done that, and then you go clean fava beans in the kitchen, it's not just a product. If you're doing meat, go to a slaughterhouse. Go to a ranch. When you see a cow coming in alive and coming out in two split halves 30 minutes later, you’re not going to burn that filet.

I used to butcher. I used to be a saucier. I'd roast 500 pounds of veal bones a week. I used to get live rabbits and slice their heads off and make ballotines. I get it. I get why people want to do it, why they want to connect to rich tradition and culture and be a part of something, but it's difficult. I don't feel like I'm very connected to the culinary community because our politics make people uncomfortable.

For cooks, cooking is a combination of connection to the past, moving forward to the future, being part of legacy, and making people feel wonderful. Those values are not mutually exclusive from my values. If we're talking about place and time in food, and we are in a time where we can live more compassionately, then let's give it a shot.

And if we fail, we fail. No big deal. I'm not scared of failure anymore.

As told to Cassandra Landry | Condensed and edited for clarity | Collage by ChefsFeed; original images via Farm Spirit and Sarah Robbins