Derek Sarno is a busy man – he’s co-founder of the successful brand, Wicked Healthy, developer of the Wicked Kitchen vegan food range, and chef and director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco. Passionate about cooking and veganism, Derek works hard to make the movement appeal to the masses. The chef chats to us about the importance of showing compassion, and why we all need a little bit of ‘Wicked’ in our lives.
Tell us about your love of food and journey to veganism.
Persistence and training is what cooking is for me, a way to the heart through the stomach. The act of cooking is a constant state of learning and playing with food in every aspect possible – this is what I love and a large part of the crazy in me.
Cooking is a service to others and is big on my list of ‘loves’, the bigger impact food has on the planet and environment only amplifies the feeling. I’ve been lucky enough to experience vegetable farming, study meditation from masters and learn what real healthy diets are from top doctors – and that is plant-based.
A large part of me likes to take risks and challenge the status quo. I’ve started, owned and sold several food services, including catering and restaurant businesses in my early days. I’ve made lots of mistakes and focused on learning to master the basics of cooking before ever beginning to get creative.
When it comes to veganism, I prefer to relate it more to practicing compassion – compassion is at the root of veganism, and it’s inclusive to all beings. The turning point came about when I spent time living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. My brother, Chad, also had a big influence on me becoming vegan.
How did Wicked Healthy (WH), co-created with Chad, come to be?
Our priority is to alleviate and end the use and need for animals in our food system by setting the example and working within the big businesses. Wicked Healthy is 80 per cent healthy and 20 per cent wicked, which equals 100 per cent awesome! It’s what we believe to be the most realistic way to eat for longevity. Yo-yo diets don’t last, and we’re plant pushers, so the more plants you get into your mouth the better, leaving some wiggle room to still enjoy bits of Wicked that keep us coming back for more. WH came about from watching so many people move from one extreme diet to another – we wanted to show our common sense approach to living a healthy lifestyle and bring it mainstream. It’s about creating delicious food that’s free from animals – that is what we feel will move the dial forward the fastest, by making vegan foods available that you want to choose over animal-based.
Tell us about the innovative Wicked Meaty project.
Wicked Meaty, or whatever we decide to call it in the end, is something we’re working on currently. All I can say is we’re going to bring veg front and centre like it’s never been seen before in the retail setting. I’ll get in trouble if I say any more, so keep an eye on this space for what is to come.
Have you got any more exciting projects on the horizon?
We’ve been working hard on the new launch of the Wicked Kitchen YouTube series, creating follow and cook-along recipes to help inspire people to take control and cook more plant-based. We’ve also been digging in with Wicked Kitchen and the expansion of Good Catch (goodcatchfoods.com), which is keeping us very busy at the moment. We have lots of other things in the works, in and outside of Tesco, too.
Since becoming Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco, how have you seen the vegan market grow in the UK?
The launch of Wicked Kitchen set the benchmark for other retailers to catch up to – there was a pent up demand, and now it is being met. Wicked Kitchen makes vegan food for meat-eaters and vegans, as opposed to a bunch of meat eating ‘food developers’ making ‘vegan’ food for vegans. That is hands down the biggest difference between us and any retail competitor, and it’s why Wicked Kitchen have the most crave-able, sought after, chef-crafted plant-based foods available in a supermarket. We’ve been training our whole lives for this and we live the mission. I’m very grateful to Tesco for believing in me, and dealing with my constant rants about how we can change the world for the better by offering amazing plant-based solutions in the market place.
When I moved to the UK, I could only find one or two meals that were suitable for vegans. Selfishly, I create all the Wicked Kitchen meals to have something to eat for myself that does NOT include any animal products, and figured that lots of others feel the same way. We may or may not have set the trend, but we are setting the standard of quality and have created space for competition where there was none. This is where real change happens and how we bring vegan mainstream in the retail world. Now, everyone will compete to have the best offerings, and that is better for the animals and the planet.
Do you think there is largely still resistance from the wider public to veganism?
There are different approaches to get people on board to being vegan, and each one serves a role. As a team, we can influence the wider community, and individually, we can lead by example. Where I see most resistance, is from vegans putting other vegans down because they are ‘not vegan enough’ and that sh*t has to stop. It’s easier to deal with a meat-eater enquiring about the ‘why’ of being vegan, than it is to deal with a self-righteous person who thinks they are the ideal vegan and imposes that on others. Our priority is to save animals, and kindness and compassion wins above all else in the long run.
Aside from inspiring others through your cooking, how else do you try to advocate veganism?
We definitely lead with culinary attractivism. We support animal rights and environmental awareness advocates that promote veganism – anything to end suffering. We try to lead by example in every aspect of our lives at work, home, the gym or anywhere we go. Not eating animals is the least we can do!
What are your favourite recipes to cook for yourself at home?
I’m a huge mushroom fan, and 80 per cent of the time I am playing with and testing new ways to work with them. I love comfort food, big eats and moreish food, and couldn’t care less about fancy pants, overpriced, pretentiousness when it comes to food. Give me a couple of packets of instant ramen, a few cool AF mushrooms, some tofu (I love tofu) and an array of veg to choose from, and I’m a happy boy.
Do you get many non-vegans commenting on your recipes, or coming to you for advice on veganism?
Surprisingly, yes! More people that want to find ways to go vegan and cut down on eating animals message me than vegans. Most do it on direct messages through social media or email through our website – it’s really great. Lots of people thank us for bringing cool food to the market place and for making something that isn’t ‘hippy dippy’, that they can bring home and that their partners will eat and not miss the meat.
Where are your favourite places to eat out?
My favourite place to eat is at home, when having guests over to cook a Sunday roast for! There are so many places here in the UK and in the US that are doing such an amazing job – I cannot name any unless I name them all, and that might be for another article!
What is a typical day like for you?
I‘m up at 5am most days – I make a cup of coffee and sit to practice meditation for 60-90 minutes, in the way I learned when I was living in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in upstate New York. Then I head to the office/kitchen until about 5pm, before going to the gym for an hour or so, then I’m back home to cook, maybe shoot a photo for Instagram and work on any US projects we have. I feel like I am on one long work retreat –my hobby is my work and vice versa, and I’m thankful for that.
What are your future goals, hopes, and resolutions, for yourself and veganism?
In regards to work, I set my life up in chapters and that helps me stay centred, focused and realistic with an end goal. Currently I’ve committed to five full years of head down, full speed ahead, doing all things Wicked in the UK as hard as I can. When that time is up, I will reflect on where I am, how things are going and take the time to decide where to go next. I’ll never give up on learning and finding a way to end suffering.