He’s got more than 191k Instagram followers; 18k Facebook likes and 330k+ YouTube subscribers. Rosie Jenkinson chatted to 25-year-old Gaz Oakley (aka Avant Garde Vegan) who’s wowing the web with his vegan cooking – and has recently released his debut cookbook.
Many people might just see Gaz as a home-taught cook with a flair for the camera, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“When I left school at 16 I became a fulltime chef and worked my way around some of Cardiff’s nicest restaurants, learning as much as I could,” explains Gaz.
“I wanted to go to Paris and learn the proper way and it was my dream to get a Michelin star.”
However, after a few years of the chef life, the long hours started to take their toll and Gaz decided to leave the industry.
“I went into a different job in a sales role and in my free time got back into sports,” says Gaz, who started weight training at the gym every night.
“I was on that sort of typical high protein bodybuilding/weightlifting diet, which was basically just chicken, rice and vegetables and I felt really bad. I thought I looked good but I felt really bad on the inside.
“I did a lot of research and my initial thoughts were, ‘I’m going to look into a vegan diet’ as I felt that it would be a lot healthier. But after I watched some activist speeches on YouTube it gave me sort of an awakening about how that meat gets to our plates and the shocking cruelty behind it that no one really wants to talk about. There was one in particular that I watched and then overnight I went vegan.”
PASSION FOR COOKING
Gaz Oakley says his main reasons for going vegan overnight were his health, the environment and for animals, and doing so reignited his love of cooking.
“I was experimenting every day and coming up with flavours that I thought wouldn’t be possible. I was trying all different things.
“What I try to do is rediscover those nostalgic flavours that I miss, and that I used to eat before I was vegan, and try to make them vegan; in my own words ‘vegan-ise’ it. There are some things that you don’t expect can be made vegan, but most of the time it tastes a lot better.”
Some of his most popular YouTube videos are of dishes that he has ‘veganised’. “My main drive was to show people how easy it is to do, so that people will hopefully choose to cook the vegan option rather than the non-vegan option,” he explains.
“Unfortunately there aren’t really any celebrated vegan chefs,” Gaz Oakley says. “There are many amazing vegan chefs but there’s no-one like Jamie Oliver out there, so I haven’t really been able to look up to someone in terms of inspiration for recipes. However, just being able to come up with vegan options for those classic dishes is great, and that’s inspiration for me to keep on going and to keep trying to get people eating vegan as much as possible to save as many animals as I can.”
Sometimes vegan food is often equated with a long shopping list of hard-to-buy, expensive ingredients, but Gaz insists that’s not the case.
“Veganism for me is so cheap because the most expensive ingredient I used to buy prior to going vegan was meat.”
“As soon as you take that out of the shopping trolley, your cost is a lot cheaper. The only thing that I find quite expensive to buy is nuts, and I eat a lot of nuts. If you think about it, things like vegetables, grains, pulses, pasta, and rice are the cheapest ingredients on the planet and they’re all vegan.
“Sometimes you will see on my YouTube channel or in my book that the list of ingredients may be long, but that’s just down to me wanting to inject as much flavour as I can into the dishes. I want to get rid of the stereotype that vegan food is bland.”
To ensure the dishes taste their best, he suggests a good store cupboard of dried herbs, spices and seasonings. “I’d like to push that vegan food is amazingly tasty and it’s easy to put together. It’s hearty, it’s healthy and the main thing is that it’s tasty. And I just want to show people how tasty it can be.”
SOCIAL MEDIA SUPERSTAR
This attitude to how easy vegan food can be to cook from scratch seems to resonate with a lot of people. Gaz Oakley started an Instagram account to show his friends what he was eating as “they couldn’t believe that I had gone vegan.” Now he has more than 191k followers.
YouTube followed next. “When I got my first few videos that I had filmed back, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t for me. I could never be a YouTuber, I’m so shy.’ I was so nervous on camera. But I invested in it and I kept going and got better and better each time, and it’s now grown to be my biggest platform.”
STILL A CHEF
“I do get called a blogger now and then,” says Gaz. “I don’t mind it too much as I guess that’s what I’m doing. I hope when people see me cooking on YouTube that they see that I’ve done this for a living and this is what I do every single day now.
“I’m not a home cook, I’m a chef. I still do pop-up nights, I recently did one in Harvey Nichols and I cooked for 50 people. Five courses, fine dining. That’s something I love to do. If I could open a restaurant tomorrow I would, but for now I think I’ll keep the YouTube going until I’ve got enough money to open one.
“I hope that the graft that I put in when I was a chef and learning all those techniques is helping draw a new audience, as I’m showing people proper techniques.
“I know how tough the restaurant industry is, so I’m going to be patient and make sure I’ve got all the right elements in place and I’m at a stage where I can do it financially, and come up with a restaurant that is new and exciting.”
Photography © Adam Laycock
Why not try one of these amazing vegan recipes from Gaz’s debut cookbook?