Article by Sima Morrison and Karli Quinn
Michael Falso is a name that most foodies in the Los Angeles/New York scene perk up to. That’s because he is one of the most prestigious plant-based chefs in the country. He has the eye for plating scrumptious raw foods and executing the most diverse innovative dishes. Michael is an award winning and classically trained chef who is consistently coming up with cutting edge mind-blowing recipes. We had the pleasure to find out more about his culinary life, his inspirations and his favorite foods and ingredients. Enjoy.
Describe your outlook on food, your journey, and what it means to you to be a plant-based chef.
While I was working for Mario Batali at Del Posto right out of culinary school, I was eager to eat at all the legendary high-end restaurants in New York that I’d heard about for years. I started eating out all the time and food became the center of my world. I wanted to know (and eat) everything I could. At first, I started to gain a little bit of weight here and there but I was always encouraged that this was normal for a chef - the adage implied in this industry is, after all, “never trust a skinny cook.” After about a year of continuously gaining weight, I started to have some serious health issues that I could not ignore and that appeared out of nowhere. I was soon diagnosed with high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and I was considered to be “pre-diabetic” all within a month’s time. I was constantly struggling with a state of pure exhaustion and fatigue, frequent migraines and dangerously bloody noses—which I thought was a result from hard work in the restaurant industry but I started to realize that “something” else was very wrong. The problem was I had no clue where to begin.
There was a hot yoga studio across from my apartment and I started doing hot yoga, almost religiously 5 days a week determined to get better and get my weight under control. In the hot room I couldn’t last for more than 3 minutes standing up. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and really disappointed in myself. In the hot yoga room, you are always encouraged to look at yourself in the mirror. And I had realized at this point that it was the first time in my adult life that I was looking at myself - into my own eyes - and seeing who I was, clearly. I didn’t like what I saw. During yoga classes, I would watch myself and sometimes cry—watching my oversized-self struggle to get into the poses. Instead of shame, the yoga teachers were compassionate and encouraging—even if stern at times. They would go out of their way to make sure that I was taken care of and that I wouldn’t just give up. After about 6 months of struggling through the 90 minute yoga class, I was able to complete the entire class for the first time. I lost a little weight at first but I was still eating the Standard American Diet. While waiting in line for class one day, I overheard two people talking about this restaurant Pure Food and Wine…and that they would go get green juices before class. I had never had a green juice at this point.
As a little bit more time passed, I began doing my own research about nutrition and started reading books on my way to work…I was averaging 10-12 books a month consuming all I could about “healthy” eating and nutrition—an endless sea of confusing and conflicting information—but the one thread that was the same throughout was the importance of fruit and vegetables. One of the most profound books was “Green Smoothie Revolution” by Victoria Boutenko that was the impetus to get me to buy a vitamix and start drinking green smoothies—primarily to lose weight, and I started drinking 3 smoothies a day, even bringing them to work at the restaurant. For 2 weeks I drank only smoothies and the most peculiar thing started to happen. At first I was starving and miserable, but then I started to crave them. I lost 15 pounds that very week but I also felt I had more energy, I was sleeping better, and I was much happier and cheerier—and I had a hard time believing it was the smoothies alone.
After about 4 weeks of only drinking 3 huge smoothies a day, I was asked by a friend to actually dine at Pure Food and Wine. I knew that it claimed to be a raw restaurant, and I really had no idea what that meant or what it would come to mean to me. I just assumed it was vegetable plates and pickles. I planned on only having a smoothie but I was so taken by the menu, the presentation, the ingredients, and the fact that the restaurant was jam-packed on a Tuesday night that I thought I had to try out some of the food. I didn’t expect anything special, and perhaps that is why I had such a strong reaction to it. There I was, working in a newly minted 4-star restaurant by the New York Times, having graduated from The Culinary Institute of America - it probably was the first time I’d ever been at a vegan restaurant. I ordered the Heirloom Tomato Lasagna and after my first bite I was so overcome that I couldn’t speak. I remember the explosion of flavors were so intense, yet so balanced, refreshing, and stunningly simple. I then had a great epiphany—if food that isn’t cooked can taste this good, and this satisfying, why bother cooking food at all? I wanted to know how this was possible. How could it be possible? These questions rattled through my mind as I continued to work at Del Posto and I would taste (and spit out rich sauces, meats, and fish) as it was part of my job to ensure things were cooked and seasoned properly. I didn’t want anyone at work to know that I was only drinking smoothies—and nothing else—because I feared they wouldn’t understand. Something had shifted that night and there was no going back. Within about a week’s time, I had quit Del Posto and started working at Pure Food and Wine as a line cook—it’s the best decision I’ve ever made in my life. I just needed to know, to understand how created this amazing raw food. Everything—raw ice creams, cheesecakes, crackers, cheeses - it was an entirely new world for me. Today I am not as strict as I used to be in terms of diet, but there were many years that I was very strict. I’ve learned that as a chef I have to have balance and I have to create that balance for myself.
No one in my life was happy about my decision—at first. My friends, my family, my co-workers didn’t understand why I was giving up my career (as they said) to work at an unknown restaurant that served raw food. After having dined at Pure that night, I literally became vegan overnight and for the first time I considered myself as vegan because there was no way I was ever going back to my old way of eating - there was only going forward. I ended up losing over 100 pounds in about 6 months. My entire life started to shift drastically and lots of things started fall into place—so much so that I even decided to switch coasts and come live in LA without any hesitation.
Where is your favorite place to dine out in Los Angeles and New York?
My favorite place to eat out in Los Angeles is an Ethiopian restaurant called Meals by Genet. It’s not vegan, but the chef Genet is vegan and takes special care with her veggie options, it’s absolutely delicious. It’s food that is designed to be shared and eaten with your hands. I normally don’t eat tofu—not for any other reason than I just don’t seem to consume it all that much, but her tofu “tibs” would easily please any die-hard carnivore.
In New York, one of my favorite places to eat is in Little India and it’s called Saravana Bhavan. It’s a chain restaurant that has locations all over the world, however it’s my favorite place to eat dosas. Every single time that I am in New York I eat there. I’ve been going for over 10 years and it seems like nothing has changed at all.
What one ingredient would you say you use the most in the kitchen?
The one ingredient I use most in the kitchen is truly cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. It's the one ingredient that I will reach for every single day - whether cooking or making raw foods and salad dressings. One of the myths circulating in nutrition circles has been that you should not cook or saute at all with olive oil, and even more fragile extra virgin oil, because its fragile to heat. The truth is that olive oil is extremely durable and mostly made of mono-unsaturated fat that don't as easily oxidize by heating as polyunsaturated oils like corn or sunflower oils--which should not be heated at all. Olive oil contains many antioxidants (many, many more in extra virgin oil) that prevent the oil from degrading while its being heated, but this protection can only go so far. Olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil, does not degrade until it comes close to the temperature of 392F (200C) - which is well above its smoking point. The smoke that any oil gives off is toxic and the oil itself becomes carcinogenic when it reaches this point - the same as with any oil. However, olive oil has been used for thousands of years as a primary oil for good reason.
Name a few staples that you keep on hand in the kitchen.
I always have cinnamon, maca, lucuma, vanilla powder, and pink Himalayan salt. These are the first things that I buy when I’m moving. I often use them in combination or alone—whether in a nut milk, tonic, or smoothie.
You have opened some of the most successful plant based restaurants in Los Angeles, where do you get inspiration from to create your recipes?
Thank you! Well, honestly, I get inspiration from everywhere—even very unrelated disciplines and experiences. However, I think of recipe testing and creation very much like solving a puzzle, trying to get certain pieces to fit together. Sometimes it’s fast and obvious, other times it takes much, much longer. I really feel that everything that I make is some interpretation or representation of something I had or experienced previously.
I jokingly say that the ingredients tell me what to do with themselves—and I’m only half joking. I say half because, of course, ingredients are not literally speaking to me. Something reverberates within me and I just intuitively know how much to use, in what amounts, and in specific combinations. It doesn’t always happen that simply or all at one time, but in steps and missteps. It can take one time to make a great recipe or twenty-five times; it’s all very relative. But the commonality at the end of the process is that when looking at the completed recipe, everything seems so obvious. It’s almost like there’s a moment where you say to yourself, “duh” and it all makes sense and becomes obvious in the process. That’s usually an indication to me that the process is complete and I can stop tinkering for the time being, because ultimately, I never stop tinkering or editing.
I suppose it’s like writing a poem. You have an idea, you start writing out the lines and adding them up. Usually, the words are ultimately trimmed down to their most essential points and to me that is when the collection of words becomes an actual poem. A poem that can be understood in different ways and interpreted without necessarily revealing the why’s and how’s of everything. Somehow each part functions for the completion of the whole revealing some universal truth or experience or feeling. That is much like a recipe and the process of editing is a very big part of that process.
What has been one of your biggest challenges in your career, especially living in a city that is very tapped into health and wellness?
Having gone to culinary school, I thought I knew a lot about food. Working with raw food forced me to question and re-examine everything that I thought I knew and see it through a different set of standards. My good friends from culinary school were very upset with me and thought that I was crazy. They would argue with me and get quite mad. My family, and more particularly, my mom, was concerned I was becoming anorexic because she thought that I wasn’t eating. Friends would try to take me to restaurants and order for me, and then actually have fights with me when I wouldn’t. They just couldn’t understand what I was doing, why I was doing it, and they thought it was just a passing phase and a fad. Maybe at one time I did, too, but there was something more there. After a few months, the tensions calmed and my friends started accepting that I would only eat vegan food that happened to be raw. I would make them salads and small items to persuade them to try and they were all usually shocked at how flavorful everything was—but as impressed as they were, they always thought of it as “just” a salad—even if it was delicious. They didn’t see what I made as respectable “food.”
In a lot of ways I felt like I had to completely start over. I had to re-learn food, what it means, what it is, and what purpose it served in my life. This was the first time I made the connection that the food you eat is directly related to health and how you feel in general. I bought a dehydrator and started to learn how to soak and sprout, how to manipulate nuts, how to blend textures and use them in strange new ways, how to use sea weeds, chia seeds, how to ferment, how to pickle—the list can go on and on and on. These things were familiar to me, but new at the same time because I never looked at them in terms of nutrition. Some of my culinary friends that are still working in traditional high-end restaurants don’t know how to make their own mustard, which I think is a shame. I think it’s these little details that makes my food different. Today there seems to be a lot more open-mindedness about eating healthier and things like flaxseeds, chia seeds, and nutritional yeast are starting to pop up everywhere, even in places like Walmart. That was not the case ten years ago. Now, people are more willing to try foods of all types and varieties. It was a huge challenge to get people to realize eating healthy doesn’t have to be flavorless, boring, and unsatisfying. In Los Angeles, we are lucky because healthy eating is chic and a part of the culture, so naturally, there is always a vegan, paleo, gluten and/or dairy free option wherever you go to eat. In New York, this type of thinking has started to take root but it doesn’t compare to Los Angeles.
What is your ideal working environment?
My ideal working environment is one that encourages constant growth and exploration. I am always asking questions and wondering why. I’m always tinkering. I like to watch things change and evolve. It keeps things interesting and you are always on your toes!
What do you do to decompress after a workday?
I like to read to decompress. Sometimes it’s about food, but other times I like to check out completely and get lost in a book that has nothing to do with food. I speak French fluently, so I am usually trying to read classical French literature in order to maintain my fluency. It takes me to a different place quite literally and in my mind, using a different part of my brain altogether. Other times, I like to read about astrophysics—it sounds funny and pretentious, but it’s really not. I just find the fact that most of the minerals on Earth come from outer space—we are truly made of stars—and that the earth has 40,000 storms a day—with lightning striking every second. How is that not fascinating? And thankfully I can read about it without having to do any calculus or math!
In your opinion, what is one of the most nutrient-dense foods that someone with a plant based diet should get in his or her system on the daily?
Interesting question. I don’t think that there is one miraculous food, superfood or ingredient that people should consume. It’s more of an overall approach to eating fresher. I think people should try to avoid eating anything that comes out of a box and that has been highly processed. Even cartons of almond milk are misleading. They are often mostly water and maybe 1 to 2 almonds thickened with stabilizers and preservatives. If you make your own home made nut milk even once, it’s hard to go back to the store bought kind. Those kinds of little changes will have a big effect. The one thing that I do honestly believe everyone should take is a mineral supplement. A lot of people don’t realize you can all the vitamins in the world but without minerals, your body cannot use vitamins. Most people don’t know about minerals or think about them very often, but they are so vital to overall health yet largely disregarded.
Tell us about your favorite juice or milk creation and its benefits
One of my favorite milks that I’ve made is my favorite for a couple of reasons. It’s called Black Magic Milk. First, I love it because it’s a creamy black/charcoal color, which I love seeing in my food, and second, because of the many health benefits it offers. The flavor is very peculiar to most people and I love it. The base is a rich, sprouted black sesame milk. It’s lightly sweetened with dates and enhanced with shilajit, he shou wu, cistanche, vanilla powder, a tiny splash of toasted sesame (to round out the flavors), and pink salt. The salt, I think, I absolutely necessary for this drink. It’s totally different from anything that I’ve ever tasted.
Black sesame seeds are a great natural remedy for greying hair and contain the highest oil content of any seed. One tablespoon of sesame has significantly more calcium than a glass of milk, around eight times the quantity. Also, due to high iron content, it can alleviate anemia, contains tryptophan and assists in regulating mood and sleep. Black sesame is also reputed to help improve fertility.
Shilajit is extremely powerful and mineralizing. It supports fertility, improves energy production at the cellular level, and protects the heart due to high antioxidant activity while improving memory due to high fulvic acid content among many, many other things.
He Shou Wu, like black sesame, also prevents hair loss and premature greying, supports the functions of the internal organs, nourishes the reproductive system and helps balance blood pressure.
Cistanche is an excellent mood supporting herb and has gained the reputation of being a serious libido enhancer, but also as the same time a very potent physical energy enhancer for much the same reason. It is powerful, yet gentle, enhancing immune function and possessing strong anti-aging, antioxidant, and neuroprotective properties.
What is one thing you wish you could change about our food system?
This is a loaded question for me that has many parts. I would like nothing more than to change the way we look at the food system in terms of quality and waste. Our soils are very depleted and overworked. Factory farming is unavoidable but it doesn’t have to be such a toxic cesspool of mediocrity. Eating more locally and seasonally has a lot to do with eating the better quality and more nutritious foods. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach, but visiting farmers markets is really a great way to get fresh, vibrant food—and you also get the ability to know your farmer personally, which isn’t so common in our high-tech digital world.
For example, strawberries are available year round yet the most sumptuous strawberries only seem to appear during summer. I would bet that these delicious summer berries are much, much more nutrient dense than the out of season, astringent, barely red berries. Fruits and vegetables are not allowed to ripen as long as they need in order to get the longest shelf life and to survive shipping. Not only is the flavor and texture completely compromised but the nutritional value also suffers as well. In the restaurant industry there is an excessive amount of daily waste. Most people outside the industry don’t know and those in the industry are desensitized because we are conditioned to think it is a normal part of the process. It’s really staggering to see how much food—a lot of it still perfectly good—goes straight into the trash every week.