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May 20, 2010

The 'Simple Tenets of Good Cooking'

An interview with Field Roast founder David Lee

  • Field Roast founder David Lee began his food career cooking for men and women at Seattle-area homeless shelters. Field Roast

David Lee got his start in the food business in 1986, when he founded a Seattle-area nonprofit to provide food to homeless shelters and people with AIDS; he also taught homeless men and women “how to cook and how to work,” he says.

While working at a food manufacturing company in the mid-1990s, he got the idea to make a line of vegetarian meat products using the leftover substance formed when starch is rinsed from wheat dough. In 1997, Field Roast Grain Meat Co. was born; today the company offers a full line of sausages, deli slices, and meatloaves available at grocery stores and natural food stores nationwide. In this edited interview with All Animals writer Ruthanne Johnson, Lee shares his thoughts on cooking and his company.

Tell us about your products.

As a culinary artist, a chef, I try to give my products a point of view so they have a clear direction they are going in. We always title our products with the flavor and the ingredient that provides the flavor. So lentil sage would be an example—the earthy lentil flavor with lots of sage. Or a smoked tomato [sausage] has a smoky note with tomatoes. The wild mushroom has porcini and shitake mushrooms with balsamic vinegar and kind of a rich dark note to it. Smoked apple sage is sweet, and it’s smoked and its sage-y.

The Italian sausage obviously does not fit that because it’s just Italian. But it has lots of fennel in it and red wine that we get from a local vineyard here in Washington State. The Mexican chipotle has lots of chipotle peppers in it and our chile de arbol peppers as well.

When you go home at night and cook, you are probably going to use a nice oil and maybe some garlic, and hopefully some fresh vegetables and lemon juice, and those are the kinds of things in my meats. So they are all made with the simple tenets of good cooking.

Do you come from a restaurant and chef background?

Yes. I am almost 52 years old and I’ve been working with food for my whole life, since I was 18. When I was 28, I dedicated my life to my work with food and decided I would do something creative and on my own terms.

But also I decided to do something that would alleviate suffering. There is a lot of suffering around food, not just with the animals that are killed for it but with the people who do the work who are not respected. Besides the chef culture, which is kind of a new thing in our country, food preparation has been considered domestic work and it’s undervalued.

I consider food to be where the action is. We are the arbiters from the field to the fork, especially when you are the manufacturer. We are buying ingredients from growers and then fashioning them into something and shipping them across the country and people are eating them. I find great meaning in that. The choices we make with food [are] ultimately how we relate to the greater part of creation. And so with that awareness, I guess that’s why I have pursued my work with food.

Do you ever not know what you’re going to have for dinner and just toss some things together from your cabinets and refrigerator?

Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I do. That’s what I advocate, is commodity cooking. I cook enough rice for two or three days and I prepare my own salad greens. Or I might roast some vegetables and have a soup available, or roast nuts. I make my own muesli and I have all those ingredients that I can just use. So at night, I don’t have to think about what I’m going to cook or go to the grocery store. I can just pull out a recipe and throw something together. It’s a far simpler way of cooking. There is no certain day that I set aside to cook all the base ingredients. It’s really not that complicated. That’s what I want to teach people, is to go their own way and figure it out.

Check out Chef David Lee's recipes for Italian Sausage Rigatoni and Grilled Mexican Chipotle Sausage with Fresh Pineapple Salsa.

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