Interview with Mel Baker, The Kind Cook
LW: You’re the creator of popular food blog / website: The Kind Cook. What inspired it, and why that particular name?
MB: Whilst learning how to cook without animal products, I discovered an insatiable appetite to show others just how delicious, easy, diverse, nutritious and available plant-based foods can be. Originally I was sharing my experiments on my personal Facebook page but over time I figured I really needed a space where I could bang on about food as much as I desire without annoying others. As for the name, I just pondered what it was I was naming, what I wanted people to feel when they heard it and then played with a myriad of options. I wanted something that was inclusive too, because The Kind Cook is a place to share food. It’s not vegan food – it’s just food. I want everyone who visits The Kind Cook website to feel welcome and to use my recipes no matter who they are and who they are cooking for.
LW: You’re a professionally trained chef, but say you were “barely even exposed to vegetarian food” during training.
MB: Yeah there was none. In fact as a chef I was groomed to despise vegetarians. I don’t think the word vegan was ever raised. I recall not feeling particularly passionate about food when I used to cook professionally, except when I was on the larder section doing petits fours or cakes. Looking back I think that may have been the inception of my awareness of cooking as an art. I remember wishing I had done a pastry apprenticeship so I could be cooking creations as opposed to churning out to the masses. I really hope that one-day apprentice chefs can choose to do their training on plant foods exclusively.
LW: How’s it feel to be a pioneer of a whole nouvelle cuisine?
MB: I certainly can’t accept the flattering label of “pioneer”, there are so many stunning vegan cook books available these days. However I feel really proud to be a part of the stream of cooks busily playing with new creations in their kitchen every other day. It’s satisfying too. As The Kind Cook grows I get more and more feedback from people that my recipes have/are helping them though. This is one of the main reasons I know do what I do.
LW: So how do husband Dean and son Hunter cope with all the gourmet tucker!?
MB: There is a lot more love coming to The Kind Cook online than there is at home I tell you! My son is an excruciatingly fussy eater since hitting toddlerhood, and refuses to eat dinner. My husband is THE pickiest critic I have. He gets incensed at the constant trail of measuring cups, pots, pans, ingredients and dishes in the kitchen, but then every now and then he will come in the door from work and yell out that “something smells nice” and love what I have made. My passion for vegan cooking has meant obvious exposure for him too, and on occasion this has inspired him to play in the kitchen and come up with some gorgeous stuff himself. I often take food to events, friends’ and work and I get great feedback there though. Hmm (rubs chin) … or maybe they are just being nice?!
LW: What made you go vegan in the first place?
MB: Learning the details of the suffering that is involved in the dairy industry was the definitive moment for me. To this day I feel incredibly ashamed and ignorant that I did not know that we systematically killed ‘bobby’ calves by the hundreds of thousands each year in Australia alone. That we impregnate females just so that they will lactate, force them into giving birth to only then remove and then kill their babies at only a few days old, year after year. In return, once her milk starts to dry up and her broken body breaks under the strain, we send her to slaughter?
Once I learnt that, I immediately researched the other animal products that I ate, wore and used, and became what I still call an “involuntary vegan”.‘ Involuntary’ because it was never a choice. For me, once I learnt what was done to animals – for products I did not even need – staying the same was just not a choice. There is a saying that resonates with me now: “If we could live a happy and healthy life without harming others, why wouldn’t we?”
For some reason at about the age of 14 I started to turn off meat. My first memory of actually being repulsed by meat was when I came home and mum was cooking a lamb roast. I found the smell nauseating. That was my first awareness that meat was maybe something I was not comfortable with. As I hit my 30s the meats I would eat remained limited so, as I started my own family and was doing all the cooking, I started making some vegetarian meals for variety.
One day in 2010 I Googled “interesting vegetarian recipes”. One site caught my eye. It contained quotes by famous people about vegetarianism so I started to read those and look around the site wondering where the recipes were … and I stumbled on a section that discussed the cruelty in the dairy industry. I had no idea that any animals were killed for dairy so I was shocked. I emailed the site enquiring why the dairy industry was cruel and asked if they could explain it to me in a non-graphic way. I had an almost immediate response with links and information on dairy. We exchanged a number of emails and that was the start of my education. The proverbial door had been opened.
Then a couple of weeks later I was walking through Melbourne with my husband and my then one year old son. It was Mother’s Day, and a stranger leaned forward and handed me a pamphlet. It had a picture of a baby cow with the caption of ‘Happy Mother’s Day’. I turned it over and the pamphlet explained that this was not a Happy Mother’s day for all species and it went on to explain the standard practices of the dairy industry. I recall turning to my husband, showing him the pamphlet and asking why this was happening to me. How could I be 38 years old and not know all this? How in the space of two weeks, two very coincidental, random incidences take place bringing me the same information on the same subject? That “door” stayed open from that moment. I changed that moment. My life would never be the same.
LW: Going vegan can be bittersweet: high feel-good factor / high misfit factor. Has this been your experience?
MB: Veganism is like no other belief – in that most everyone holds the values of veganism – in essence non violence and the act of avoiding inflicting unnecessary suffering onto others. (I don’t know anyone who does not feel that way). But that is where the belief or at least the “act” ends for most people, because most everything our society does, eats, wears and uses inflicts unnecessary suffering onto others. We are programmed and conditioned from birth that it is normal, natural and our right. So our society thinks violence is wrong, but views people that reject actions of violence as extreme? This reaction and hypocrisy perplexes me to the point of madness, even years later. Enter the “misfit” factor.
It is a constant and shifting battle for me to find balance with how, when and where I do or don’t share what I have learnt. An ongoing lesson to not scream, rant and cry about the suffering animals endure. Some days I still get this balance so completely wrong, some I just don’t care how I sound, and others I know this is not about me and I force myself to find a better way to communicate.
The feel-good is feeling that you are trying to do your best to illustrate what kind of world we could all live in. I am not perfect and do not profess to be. Being vegan in a non-vegan world, you will never have to look far to find hypocrisy in my life. I just believe very strongly that there is a way of vastly minimising harm to others and eliminating unnecessary harm is our duty to those we share this plant with. Knowing you may not change the world but that you are being an integral part of a movement that is creating change is an incredible feeling. I walk through this life feeling very different to others now, which is lonely at times, but at the same time it feels right and I feel strong. I also often remind myself of a favourite quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
LW: Has connecting with other vegans (in the flesh as well as online) been helpful?
MB: Immeasurably. We all need to connect with people that hold the same values, beliefs and morals we hold. Meeting others who have chosen to become vegan and reshape their lives so that they can attempt to cause less harm is cathartic because they see what you see; feel what you feel; know what you know; and want what you want. Having these relationships brings normalcy back into a world which feels inexplicably violent. In a world where everyone you have always known and/or loved seems to either not want to know, or will themselves to keep their eyes wide shut. At the same time just having veganism in common isn’t always the platform for a close friendship. I still very much appreciate and adore my non-vegan friends and the time I spend with them. Do I wish with every cell in my body that they knew what I knew and would “hear me”. Don’t we all?
LW: I loved a story you recounted recently, about an encounter with a stranger in a supermarket who’d overheard you and Hunter discussing biscuits. (Read it here) Are you planning a vegan parenting section in the hotly-anticipated Kind Cook e-book?
MB: Great question. I plan on my first book being a compilation of all the “favourites so far” – my own personal favourites and recipes that have had a strong positive response from Kind Cook followers. I would love to do a recipe book just for kids at some point. I have also started to play with some recipes such as gingerbread and plan to look at veg egg nog and the like because I want to master all the traditional fare people consume each year at Xmas and Easter.
Food, like music, embeds such great happiness and can evoke magical memories years later. I want to give that to my son. We already listen to jazz and have baking Sundays. When I am angry he tells me to “put on some jazz because it will make you happy Mummy”. I want to teach him that it’s these simple things in life that mean everything at the end of the day. Not how many toys he owns but how much he is loved, how simple joys are often free and the ones that stay with us. I want to start our own traditions of what we make, how we make it and have my son in the kitchen with his little apron on and his hands and face covered in messy chocolaty experiments. I want us to create mess and amazing memories in the kitchen and listen to jazz.
LW: What’s your dream?
MB: For The Kind Cook and food? I have so many. A list might be best or we will be here all day:
To help others / For plant-based nutrition to be recognised by maternal child health nurses, GPs and included in their studies / Plant-based dietetic studies that are professionally recognised and to see practising vegan dieticians / Plant-based cooking apprenticeships / For more people to start their own food blog. The more the better! / For vegan food to become so mainstream that there are aisles and aisles of cruelty-free options in every store / That there is an explosion of vegan eateries (although we are a little spoilt here in Melbourne) / To get that first e-book off the ground / To publish a cook book / To never stop learning. / To find balance and equable division of my time between my passion for cooking, photography, travel, my son, reading, learning, shopping for eclectic crockery and of course family and friends. / Oh and down time. Mel time
There’s a couple more personal acquisitions The Kind Cook has in mind but if I tell you I will have to kill you.
LW: Your ideal dinner party. Who would you invite (living or deceased), and what would you serve?
MB: Ideal dinner party? One that would involve me as a guest – not the one cooking
If I was cooking though I would want my guests to be some of the many people that I am thankful for, who inspire me, whom I miss, and a couple of my harshest critics and/or avid meat eaters who are convinced that vegan food tastes like crap. An ideal dinner party would also include any well recognised chefs who believe that vegan food can’t compete with food laden with animal products. The list would definitely include yourself and a small handful of other kindred spirits I am forever thankful for having met online. Also Patty Mark from Animal Liberation Victoria who has been a great support of The Kind Cook, and whose efforts have particularly inspired me. And my late and dear grandmother. She was always in the kitchen. Almost all my memories of her are food related .. of a kind face, a floral apron, soft hands and recycled ice cream containers filled with short breads and caramel slices….home grown rhubarb from her and Pappy’s veggie patch. I wish I could have shared this journey with her. Wish she could see my passion for cooking now. I miss her every day …. What would I serve? Well I don’t like people to go hungry, so:
- Platters of creamy dips, fragrant dukkah, crusty breads, stirling olive oils and scented marinated olives
- A degustation of miniature tastings of a number of my favourite recipes
- Sharing platters of mini-replicas of many of my desserts
- Fair trade coffee and rich Mayan hot chocolate and decadent chocolate truffles
All recipe links are listed below: