From Hard Facts to Fun Fiction: “Skinny Bitch” Author Kim Barnouin Pens Breezy Summer Read – By Nell Alk
Chances are, if you’re of the plant-based persuasion, you’ve become acquainted with Skinny Bitch. Heck, perhaps the bestselling book was the reason you went vegan in the first place.
A vegetarian since 18 and at 23 toying with ditching dairy and eggs (and fur—never part of my repertoire—leather, wool, down and silk), co-authors Kim Barnouin and Rory Freedman encouraged me, with their refreshingly forthright tome, to transition to the kinder side. Thanks to them, I took the compassionate plunge and haven’t looked back.
Over the years since its release in 2005 (though it came to my attention in 2007), I’ve kept up with the brilliant babes behind Bitch. From Skinny Bitch in the Kitch to Skinny Bitch Book of Vegan Swaps, and everything in between, the franchise never failed to relay something new in a way that was both entertaining and educational.
Imagine my excitement when I discovered Barnouin was dropping a novel! After all their lovely lessons in health, wellness and cooking, I was eager to sink my teeth into something a little lighthearted. No ingredients needed, save for sunglasses, a towel and a tall glass of H2O. Indeed, the 44-year-old blonde bombshell had branched out and broken onto the beach read scene.
Skinny Bitch in Love, which hit shelves last month, is nothing if not a blast, a romp of a story set in Santa Monica and following leading lady and skillful sous-chef turned entrepreneur Clementine Cooper. The plant-powered protagonist not only falls in love, as the title implies, but also hits several snags along the way, both personally and professionally. And who can’t relate to that?
Now, I’m not one to fawn over chick lit, but when the heroine eschews animal products, I can’t help but sit up and take note. It’s rare to find a narrative to which I can so readily relate. It’s a guilt-free treat that I highly recommend to veggie and omni ladies alike. Next up from the ever-active author, wife and mother? Skinny Bitch Gets Hitched. (Literally can’t wait to get my hands on it, though it won’t be out until at least next summer.)
In the meantime, Barnouin took a few minutes last week to talk with me about her foray into fiction—what inspired this literary shift, what the writing process was like and why just such a story needed to be told. She also offers advice to the vegan-curious, shares why and how she went veg and hints at what’s up next (besides Hitched) for the Bitch brand.
First of all, congratulations on Skinny Bitch in Love. Had you always been thinking about getting into fiction writing?
I hadn’t. I was really happy doing health [and] nutrition [books and] cookbooks. Two years ago, with my son and my mom on vacation, I’m looking around at all these people on the beach reading summer novels. The light bulb went off. I thought, Wow, I think I want to be part of this. I called my literary agent that minute.
Have you always had the propensity to write fiction, or was this your first stab at it?
This was my very first stab at it. When I was young, I was writing like a maniac. I would write these crazy fiction stories from, like, 10 years old to maybe 13 or 14. I stopped doing it, getting into [my] teenage years, [and] I never tried again after that.
Was it a painful process at all?
Sometimes it can be. Most of the time, no. I can get in the zone and get into the characters and the story. But, other times, when I try to force myself to sit down and do it, it’s like birds chirping in my brain. Most of the time it was an absolute joy. But, there were times when nothing was coming. It does get difficult.
But, overall, it was a positive experience.
It was a great experience. It was such an exciting thing, putting characters together, putting lives together. I’m so glad I did it. I just tried to mix the Skinny Bitch brand and food and being vegan, so it wasn’t coming out of left field.
For sure. It’s seamless. So, for whom would you say the book is intended?
I think it’s for a younger generation. People in their twenties and thirties. It’s nice because those are the people who are influential. They’re the people who are coming up, who are going to be making a difference, hopefully in animal rights or nutrition or food. That would be a wonderful thing.
Agreed. And now you’re editing the follow-up, Skinny Bitch Gets Hitched. Clever title.
It’s cute, you know? They’re fun books to read. I spend so much time doing heavy research on food and nutrition. I like reading books that take me away, get me out of my head for a while. That’s what I like about these books.
Absolutely. There are endless chick lit titles on library and bookstore shelves, but none, I’d venture to guess, are coming from the vegan perspective. Which completely shifts the vibe for the better. I really appreciated that. It was very refreshing. And long overdue.
Thank you. That’s been the whole goal, ever since the idea for these books started back in 2003. It was always to make veganism become more mainstream and more “normal.” We’ve come a long way. It’s getting much more attention. I thought it’d just be fun [to] keep it going, [to] have a character like this. This is our future. This is the way people are eating now. It may be the minority, but that minority is building. It’s all about trying to spread [the message] in a nonthreatening way so people think about it.
Would you say that’s why this book needed to be written?
Definitely. There’s a need for it. It’s nice to get people talking. One of the characters—the best friend and roommate, Sara—[is] not so perfect in the vegan world. I think people can relate to her struggles. Some of the characters are aces at it. For others, it doesn’t come as easily. But, they’re passionate and they work hard, so I definitely want to spread that message.
Did you become vegan for health reasons?
I did. I was sick all the time. I didn’t have health insurance and I didn’t have a lot of money to really delve into what was wrong. I was in the bookstore going through books about food, and food allergies would come up. I thought, Maybe food can be pretty powerful. I was so naïve about food, because I ate like crap. I changed my diet, [gave] up all my bad vices. I tried vegetarian for a while and started feeling great. Then I took it a step further: vegan. The whole process took me a year. It was a gradual change. All the sickness was gone. I couldn’t believe that changing my diet could be that powerful. Everyone was like, You look so great! Your skin, your eyes, your hair. And you’re feeling so much better. What’s your secret?
Thus, Skinny Bitch was born. So, what’s your own diet like?
There are times where I think, Have I had a salad this week? [Laughs] But, I go through periods where I eat really well, and really clean, because I want to be able to have my treats. I’m not the person who sits down and has, like, four cupcakes or ten cookies at a time. I don’t go nuts. Moderation helps. I feel like my diet is balanced.
And how has this vegan ethos spread to other aspects of your life?
The first few books were co-written with Rory Freedman and she was really into animal rights. She opened my eyes to so much going on that I never knew about. That got me to look at other areas. That inspired me. That made me realize that there’s more to it than just saying, I’m not going to eat animals. It’s a matter of [living] the lifestyle.
So you put out Skinny Bitch: Home, Beauty and Style. Any favorite cruelty-free companies?
Jane Iredale has got some really good makeup. Josie Maran has beautiful stuff as well. I got some argon oil from her line and it’s just spectacular. Mrs. Meyer’s I use for home cleaning. There’s this shampoo I found in a drug store, Shea Moisture. I was amazed by it. It is so good. It’s got absolutely pure ingredients. All things you can pronounce and understand. My main thing is looking at the ingredients. Reading the ingredients of things you’re going to put on your body means so much, because your skin’s going to absorb it all. I’m trying to get people to take charge of what they’re using and know what this stuff is.
Makes sense. Any advice for people considering going vegan?
Be easy on yourself. Don’t think you have to do this overnight. Take your time, do your homework. Eventually, this is how I want to eat. So, how do I get there? It’s just a matter of slowly giving things up.
Or, if they want to cut the crap cold turkey, more power to them! They can start with Skinny Bitch Book of Vegan Swaps! [Laughs] So what’s next on deck, apart from Hitched?
A baking book. Eighty recipes of ridiculously good desserts. Easy to make, no crazy, hard to find ingredients.
Skinny Bitch Bakes [a fictional company from Skinny Bitch in Love] come to life!
I like to cook, but I love to bake. I don’t like buying treats. There [are] so many preservatives and additives. Whatever I want I can make myself. I’ve had tons of failures, but trying it again and again you figure out what works. For me, it’s my meditation. Being in the kitchen and baking is so much fun for me. I really enjoy it.
Lucky son and husband! Lastly, what can Bitch fans expect further down the road?
I want to get back into the kitchen. I might do an all-encompassing cookbook. I did the Ultimate Everyday Cookbook a couple years ago. Fiction and cookbooks are on my favorites list, so I may be going back and forth [between] the two of those.
Whether you reside in New York (like I do), frequent it every chance you can, or still haven’t visited, few folks aren’t hip to the fact that the Big Apple is big on gastronomic satisfaction. Beyond being everyone’s favorite way to ward off doctors (get it?), the City That Never Sleeps is packed with foodstuffs to satisfy any and all culinary inclinations. From Momofuku to The Modern*, Del Posto to Dell’Anima*, this place is chock full of ways to tease your tongue and widen your waist. However, less recognized than, say, NYC’s fame-claimers like pizza** and bagels are the no less satiating vegan eateries.
Plant-based places abound and can be found in any neighborhood. From Candle 79 on the Upper East to Blossom in the West Village; from Peacefood Café on the Upper West to The Butcher’s Daughter on the Lower East, there’s exclusively cruelty-free fare to be sampled at virtually every subway stop. Despite seemingly limitless options, my latest favorite train destination takes me straight to TriBeCa. The southbound blue line transports me from my Chelsea apartment to Suite ThreeOhSix, the newest kind dining find on the island. And it’s nuanced, too!
Begun by 24-year-old Chef Daphne Cheng, this recently launched supperclub and academy is tucked away on Franklin Street, hidden in the middle of the block and bearing little indication that it’s there. (Perhaps that’s in part why Underground Eats took such a shining.)
This private loft—which for Saturday dinners seats 16—offers an alternative to your typical compassionate cuisine. Not to knock the meatless meals I’ve elsewhere had the pleasure of consuming, but S3O6 changes the game. And here’s why.
In addition to its under-the-radar space, Suite ThreeOhSix offers a surprising menu every time. Guests won’t know until they arrive what they’re poised to enjoy. They know in advance for how many courses they’re signed up (and the accompanying cost), but what comprises said courses remains a mystery. Ticketholders take a risk, but can rest assured they won’t discover any animal products. What’s more, they’re equally unlikely to uncover tofu and mock meats in Cheng’s dishes. She prefers instead to work with whole rather than processed foods to create her healthy-meets-haute masterpieces.
And masterpieces they are. Accuse me of hyperbole, but no one’s stopping you from seeing—and tasting—for yourself! Cheng’s inventive imagination makes for an impressive spread, unique ideas visualized in real life. And, with this willingness to push the edible envelope, she makes comrades out of otherwise seemingly disparate ingredients, inviting the uninitiated to try foreign combinations of flavors that I’ve never known to disappoint. (And I crash her weekly dinners fairly regularly.)
So, let’s see. So far we’ve got…spankin’ new spot (which, by the way, is très chic). Check. 100% vegan vittles. Check. Intimate atmosphere, lending S3O6 an exclusive (yet still very inviting) air. Check. A focus on fresh, seasonal, organic (and local when possible) ingredients and few if any denatured ingredients. Check. And a visionary chef—with solid credentials, given she not only graduated from the Natural Gourmet Institute, but also started her own catering company at 21—in the kitchen. Check.
So, what else? Well, Cheng never serves the same menu more than once, so it’s always a transient experience not to be repeated. This also means that, if you’ve got the, ahem, means you can reserve a seat Saturday after Saturday and never get bored. And, of course, akin to the food constantly changing, so too do your tablemates. Though this communal scenario may not be to everyone’s taste (believe me, I am ordinarily reluctant to share a meal with 15 perfect strangers), it’s perpetually proven a pleasant experience. Who knows, the guy or gal next to you could be your future spouse…or boss…or plant-based bingeing buddy.
Speaking of forming relationships, the elegant setting—defined by high ceilings, classic columns and full view of a bustling kitchen—is an ideal date location. Unlike every other restaurant in NYC, S3O6 is nearly guaranteed to be a first for that special someone.
So, why wait? Secure a reservation today. Bonus? Once Cheng opens her own restaurant—an endeavor currently in the works***—you can brag to your foodie friends that you knew her and her food when…
* Both of these restaurants have catered to my vegan needs and the latter even boasts a vegan bartender. Heck, maybe the two of you can toast to non-vegan spots granting plant-based wishes.
** For vegan pizza in NYC, run-don’t-walk to Palà or Eat Drink Wild. Two Boots also makes magic happen when you’re craving crust without the pus. J Heading to Long Island? Stop by 3 Brothers Pizza Café in Farmingdale, which boasts an extensive vegan menu—thanks to Jay Astafa—including, no doubt, slices and pies.
*** Interested in learning more about backing this vegan venture? Email email@example.com and tell ’em Nell sent you.
Photographs compliments of the chef.
April showers brought more than May flowers this season in NYC. Indeed, last month brought remarkable vegan fine dining to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, two nights that this month attendees still can’t stop talking—and writing—about.
The Old Bowery Station, on April 25 and April 26, played host to 20-year-old plant-based chef Jay Astafa’s restaurant concept, Jay Kitchen. The transient but transformative pop-up wowed crowds of roughly 80 – 90 people each evening, which translated to about 1,360 plates total, as the sit-down dinner consisted of eight carefully curated courses.
Photo by Hulya Provenzano
The menu featured several palate pleasing dishes, but perhaps most memorable, at least to my mind, were the nut cheeses. From a cashew chévre crostini topped with ramps to a homemade cheese plate (featuring aged cashew cheese and brie with strawberry-rhubarb compote, orange infused bee-free honey and rosemary-almond crackers), there was much to indulge in, not to mention rave about on Instagram.
Beyond blowing folks’ minds with rich and creamy cruelty-free cheese, kitsch also made a cameo, in the form of caramel popcorn treated to liquid nitrogen. Entitled dragon’s breath, the salty-but-mostly-sweet morsels titillated the tongue and made for some entertaining exhales.
“This menu was inspired by fun,” Astafa told me. “I wanted to do something fun.”
Photo by Erin “Red” Grayson
Born, raised and based in Long Island, Astafa said farewell to flesh six years ago, at age 14. He explains, “After watching a PETA video, I made the connection that meat comes from animals. I couldn’t eat meat anymore after that.” Following this realization, he had another, maybe more profound, awakening: “I remember, it was Halloween. I was trick-or-treating at that time and eating candy with milk in it. Every time I consumed dairy, as well as eggs, I felt guilty. So I became vegan.”
Astafa grew up in a foodie household, however, as his family owned and operated an Italian restaurant, called Three Brothers Pizza Café. Instead of being discouraged by their conventional cuisine, four years ago he asked if he might supplement the menu a bit. As the cliché saying goes, the rest is history.
Astafa continues to craft compassionate meals at the casual suburban spot, but has in the past year developed a desire (in addition to a business plan) to open a gourmet establishment in New York City proper. Presently studying restaurant management at The International Culinary Center (formerly The French Culinary Institute), Astafa has high hopes of garnering savvy investors’ support and competing with some of NYC’s finest, from Candle 79 to Blossom, Pure Food and Wine to Dirt Candy.
I recently sat down with Astafa to discuss this achievable dream, one for which many a local conscientious consumer is waiting anxiously to come true. We also talked about his trajectory, techniques and a whole lot more.
When did you realize you aspired to be a chef?
As soon as I became vegan. It opened a whole culinary world for me. I discovered so many different ingredients. I would watch Food Network all the time, to teach myself how to cook. I even had a food blog when I was 15. If I weren’t vegan, I don’t think I would be a chef. I was aspiring to be an actor, actually.
When did your diet and lifestyle shift infiltrate the family restaurant menu?
In 2009. By then I had been teaching myself how to cook vegan for about a year-and-a-half. To my dismay, there weren’t any vegan dining options on Long Island. Then I discovered Daiya. I was like, Why not just add vegan cheese to the pizzas? I created a modest vegan menu, and at first traffic was slow. No one knew about us, because we didn’t advertise. I was so happy when even just a few people each day ordered from my menu. A few months later, I created a full vegan menu, and it was written about in The New York Times. That’s how it started. It was all word of mouth.
From how far do people travel to dine at Three Brothers?
It’s not just Long Island. It’s Manhattan, it’s Brooklyn, it’s all over. Three Brothers is definitely a destination restaurant.
Are there non-vegan skeptics that try the vegan dishes?
We get people who aren’t vegan who order vegan food and are so surprised. Now, I want to open a restaurant that’s entirely vegan!
Tell me more about that.
I want to open Jay Kitchen, a vegan fine dining restaurant. I want to do something that hasn’t been done in New York City yet. NYC’s foodie scene focuses so much on meat. That’s the trend. I think meat is passé. It’s time for something new. I want to show people that you can enjoy innovative food that doesn’t involve harming animals. That’s my mission.
Which was presented at your pop-up. How did that materialize?
Originally, I had hoped to open my own brick-and-mortar restaurant by early 2013, but my concept changed, evolving for the better. In the meantime, I was looking for a fun way to share what I was working on. So, I decided to do a pop-up. Spring is my favorite time of year; there are so many awesome vegetables in season, which I saw as the centerpiece of my menu. Most people think vegetables are side dishes, but they can easily take center stage. I also wanted to emphasize foods people don’t typically think can be vegan, like cheese.
Oh, for sure. From where did you draw inspiration?
For a couple of the cheeses, like the Brie, I was inspired by Miyoko Schinner’s Artisan Vegan Cheese. She’s created recipes for so many different kinds of plant-based cheeses. It’s one of my favorite cookbooks. Spring was also an inspiration, as mentioned. Another inspiration was fun. I wanted guests to have a fun gourmet dining experience. Lastly, and tied to fun, but also innovation, I incorporated modern molecular gastronomy techniques, something you don’t often encounter in NYC’s vegan scene.
Can you speak to a couple of these techniques? I know there was the liquid nitrogen caramel popcorn…
There was a technique for the caviar called spherification. The soup had a foam made from chive oil. I also used a lot of neat equipment, such as a PolyScience Smoking Gun. It’s a really cool tool—you can cold smoke anything! I used it on the cauliflower. For dessert we used caramel powder, made from tapioca maltodextrin. The tapioca absorbs the fat, and turns the caramel into powder. When you eat the caramel powder, it melts into caramel. This was dusted on top of the chocolate tart.
Yum! What was a fan favorite across the board?
Guests really loved the ravioli. People can get vegan ravioli in NYC, but not like you find in Italian restaurants like, for instance, at Babbo. Mine was inspired by Mario Batali. I wanted to make a vegan version. I make my own cashew cream butter and my own cashew Parmesan. The pasta is homemade, too. Instead of eggs, I use silken tofu. That’s an excellent egg replacement for pasta. Eggs make the pasta soft, and silken tofu provides the same effect.
I remember it melted in my mouth. So dope. What did guests think of the cheese plate?
People loved the cheese plate. There was a woman there, not a vegan, who is a big Brie lover. She raved, This tastes just like Brie! That was a rewarding compliment. People imagine vegans can’t eat cheese, but that’s not true: there’s a whole world of plant-based cheeses out there.
Vegan cheese is having a major moment right now.
Six years ago, there weren’t any vegan cheeses that tasted good. Now, so many are coming out, including some that melt. It’s really changing our world. There’s no longer an excuse not to be vegan. And it’s definitely growing more popular. When I first became vegan, many people didn’t know what it was. Now, everyone recognizes the term.
Absolutely. Who in the vegan community do you look up to?
Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Their book, Veganomicon, was one of the first books I bought when I became vegan. They inspired me to learn how to cook. Before that, I didn’t know anything about vegan cooking.
What’s so special about your edible offerings? What do you bring to the table, so-to-speak?
A lot of the stuff on my menu I can’t just go get from the store the same day. I have to pre-plan. I make a lot of ingredients from scratch, like the butter and cheese. Beyond this and the modern methods I mentioned earlier, in general I simply like creating a one-of-a-kind dining experience.
Your future looks bright. What are you most looking forward to post-pop-up?
I can’t wait ’til I actually do that every day. I was sad it was over after two nights. I’ve been dreaming of opening a vegan restaurant in NYC for so long! Right now I am working on finding a location and a backer. 2013 has been wonderful so far, and I’m excited about what’s to come.
Interested in investing or know someone else who would be down to discuss backing this talented and ambitious vegan chef? Have access to a viable venue in NYC, or have other ideas to help him make this fine dining dream a reality? Reach Jay Astafa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Unless otherwise specified, photos courtesy of Rachel Durga Page.
When it comes to Las Vegas, there are two men in my life: Steve and Ronald. Steve, as in Steve Wynn, is a big-deal iconic Las Vegas casino owner. Apparently he adopted a vegan diet in 2010 and now all of his restaurants (of which there are many) have a special vegan menu in addition to their main menu. I don’t know much about Mr. Wynn, I just know I would jump in front of a train for him. How could I not? Look at this!:
This beautiful creation is the vegan eggs benedict from Wynn’s restaurant Tableau. It was amazing. And the marble potatoes weren’t bad either. Additionally, the setting is lovely. I felt really fancy, which is the main reason I like going to Vegas anyway. I highly recommend Tableau, especially for brunch, but my favorite Wynn restaurant on my last trip was Sinatra. It’s Italian fine dining and, like always, there’s an impressive vegan menu:
Don’t be jealous! OK, you can be jealous.
But like I said, Wynn isn’t my only Vegas beau. There’s a handsom devil named Ronald who has always had my heart. OK, I’ve never met him. I don’t even know if there is a “Ronald,” the man, I just know Ronald’s donuts are the best vegan donuts in the country. Maybe the world!
I don’t know why more than half of the donuts at Ronald’s are vegan, I heard a rumor it was for religious reasons? But really, I do not care–as long as they keep making them! These are classic, old-school donuts; They aren’t caky like so many donuts these days. And they have giant donut twists! And bear claws! And apple fritter things! It’s basically heaven. No trip to Vegas is complete without getting a ton of donuts from Ronald’s. You will probably have to take a cab if you don’t have a car, but it’s worth it.
If you happen to find yourself in the area, you have to patronize the Wynn and Ronald establishments, or you will never be a complete person. It’s sad but true. But why wouldn’t you hit these spots? These two wonderful men are doing all they can to keep vegans plump and happy in the grownup amusement park that is Las Vegas!
I just stumbled upon this photo on our tumblr feed and got excited to discuss falafel. Seriously though, who doesn’t love falafel? This recipe is from figgy & sprout’s blog. They are baked to perfection with pistachio’s & herbs & are gluten free to top it off! I’ve attempted to make it a few times but I wasn’t too successful, unfortunately. Last night, i have to say I had one of my worst falafel experiences… it was dry and crumbly! Quite upsetting! To make up for it, I had to go to my favorite spot around a few blocks over (I don’t know why i didn’t go there to begin!). It’s called the green panther located in the heart of Montreal’s hipster community in the mile end. Their traditional falafel wrap makes my mouth water. It comes with 5 falafels, cabbage, carrots, pickles, sauekraut, sprouts & tahini : the essentials!
Whether you’re crunching on your falafel sandwich or staring at the many fixies passing you by, it’s a fun place to check out , and do a little people watching at the same time : ) I’m going to attempt this recipe for our next pot luck next week! Wish me luck!
Falafel places to check out ! We want to grow our list, Leave us a comment with your favorite falafel spot : )
Maoz Vegetarian : Berkley ( Sad to say this location is now closed! They had the best falafel pizza.. somebody needs to open this place here in Montreal!)