VCWL007: Interview with Chef Toni

Antoanet Aburto, also known as Chef Toni, is the general manager at M. Cafe de Chaya in Los Angeles. She has a wealth of experience in the restaurant business and is passionate about Peruvian cuisine. The audio for this week's podcast was not as great as my conversation with Chef Toni, so we have a transcript of the interview instead of an audio version. Enjoy!

You will learn...

  • Chef Toni's views on culture and food
  • A staggered approach to veganizing dishes
  • An easy, fast vegan dish you can teach friends
  • How easy it is to eat a few vegan meals a week


Follow Chef Toni






Michelle You're listening to the vegan Cooking with love podcast where we talk about cooking and teaching people how to cook delicious vegan food. I'm your host Michelle Johnson. Please visit us at

This week we're talking to Chef Toni. Chef Toni is a classically trained chef turned vegan and is currently the general manager at M Cafe de Chaya in Los Angeles. She's working to open Evolution, a vegan cafe as well as a Peruvian restaurant that focuses on organic, plant-based and seasonal alternatives to the traditional Peruvian gastronomy. I hope you enjoy listening to Chef Toni as much as I enjoyed talking to her.

How are you doing this morning?

Chef Toni Good.

Michelle So, I noticed that you describe yourself as a classically trained chef turned vegan. Where did you start and how did you end up where you are now?

Chef Toni Well, I went to school for a culinary arts program and I became vegan when I was right in the middle of the program. So I learned all of my techniques using a lot of butter and a lot of meat and all of that. And so, that's kind of a little bit of my story. It was a little tough when I was in school. But it was good. I think all the things I do now, I definitely can do because I got the proper, the classical training. Otherwise, it would be a little bit different. I'm glad it happened that way. Everything that I learned was classic, French cuisine techniques and not vegan at all. It helped. Any knowledge that you have. My culture, my training, my experience, everyday at work. Everything helps--my career, my personal life. I appreciate everything that I've learned.

Michelle Do most culinary schools teach you in that French tradition?

Chef Toni Yeah, all of them. That's the training. I know there are a few schools that are vegan or vegan friendly, the Gourmet Institute in New York and other schools. Classical training is classical training. There's no other training.

Michelle Okay, I never knew what that meant. Classically trained. What is that French tradition? What do you learn with the classical training?

Chef Toni You learn classical cooking techniques, French classical techniques. You learn classical sauces, classical techniques, proper names. Cooking has a Parisian history. So there are proper names and proper techniques. Proper everything, so that's what you learn.

Michelle And you said that those techniques, you've been able to translate those techniques or apply them to your vegan South American food?

Chef Toni Yeah, the techniques will be the same; the names will be the same. The difference will be the ingredients.

Michelle Okay, very interesting. Do you feel like going to culinary school is essential for someone who wants to become a chef? I've heard both ways.

Chef Toni I don't think so at all. No, I don't think it's necessary. I think it complements and adds to your knowledge. Back in the day there were no schools. All of the greatest chefs and most of my teachers did not go to school. They learned in restaurants. That's definitely the best way. It's a different route, but it's the same. Even if you go to school, when you graduate, you're not going to go into the kitchen and become a chef. You probably will start at the bottom anyway.

Michelle So did you have to start as a line cook?

Chef Toni No, I never did. My experience is mostly in management, restaurant management. I went to school for the restaurant management program. It just happened that the first 3 years involves cooking, culinary arts and I absolutely fell in love with it. The last 2 years is all business administration. No, all my experience is in running restaurants.

Michelle So, you still consider yourself a chef though, right?

Chef Toni That's the title you get when you graduate, so yeah.

Michelle So, do you still cook? You don't cook at M Cafe, but do you cook in other projects or venues?

Chef Toni Yes, I cook for my own catering business. I do everything from the menu to actually preparing everything, serving, cooking.

Michelle Awesome! So it's probably nice to have that creative outlet after dealing with the day to day at a restaurant.

Chef Toni Yeah, definitely.

Michelle So tell me about traditional Peruvian food. Is it traditionally centered around meat? What are those dishes normally like?

Chef Toni Yeah, Peruvian food is definitely not vegan or even vegetarian at all. Everything will have some kind of animal product in it. Every single dish. It is very vast. That's why it's so amazing. It's basically fusion. We have a lot of immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Japanese, African, Italian, Spaniards mixed with Indian. It's very very fusion and we have pasta dishes that use Peruvian ingredients and maybe European ingredients maybe mixed with a little Japanese sauce. Everything is very mixed, but not vegan. Everything has meat or milk, or some kind of animal products. Not vegan friendly.

Michelle That's interesting. I had no idea that the food incorporated that many different cultures. How have you recreated some of the Peruvian favorites or dishes?

Chef Toni My background has helped, with school. There are different ways. I usually play around and do different vegan versions of things. Sometimes, I start with the obvious veganizing, which would be with the fake stuff. If something calls for mayonnaise, I use vegenaise. If something calls for chicken or meat, I would do the fake chicken or fake meat as the first step to veganizing. For other people who are starting to try and change their diet, I like doing that for them.

Then I definitely go in deeper and do other options that involve just all natural ingredients. And then maybe other option that will be even healthier. If something calls for mayonnaise, instead of using vegan mayonnaise, maybe I will do avocado. Just straight up avocado, mashed. If something calls for meat, I will do maybe mushrooms or potatoes or maybe just veggies depending on what the recipe looks like. If something calls for rice, even though rice is vegan, all rice in Peru is always white rice. I would do brown rice or substitute it with quinoa, something healthier, more natural. So it depends. There are different levels of veganizing my dishes. There are a lot of options; that's what so amazing about it.

Michelle That makes me think about your culinary school experience. How did your classmates respond to you changing your diet?

Chef Toni They were actually very receptive and cool about it. Amazingly enough. I think they were interested because they knew it was a challenge. It was like an extra level of passion and an extra level of challenge. So everybody was pretty cool with it. I had just started being vegan or trying to be vegan when I was in school. So I would still eat everything at school and be vegan after school for a couple months. And then, after that I couldn't do it anymore. My body started rejecting everything. I would taste everything and spit it out, just to learn and get a good grade.

So my friends definitely helped me when it came to the class, cooking, and getting my grades. And even my teachers would help me and be cool with that. The parts that were vegan and vegetarian were easy for me to do. When we had teams, people on my teams would help me with everything else. Everyone was very supportive and very interested in me being vegan. I would always do vegan versions of things, especially toward the end of each class when we would do our projects by ourselves. So, everything that I would do would be vegan. People would be interested. Maybe one chef or two were not very supportive. Then, I would not tell them. I would hide it and then I would do my entire dish vegan and get my grades, which were great. I graduated with honors. So, I would get my awesome A and then I would tell them, "You know, it was vegan. I didn't use butter. I didn't use meat." And they would be shocked but supportive. I would always wait until I got my grade first and see the reaction first of my plate before saying anything. Everybody in the culinary part of my life has been very supportive and very very cool with it.

Michelle That's awesome. How has your family responded? I know that's been tricky for me.

Chef Toni No, my family did not respond the same way. It's hard for them. I do a few speeches on culture and veganism because my culture is not understanding of it. And I respect it and understand it, because three years ago I was in the same place. I would not know how someone could live without eating meat. I didn't have the knowledge. I had never heard of it. So, I understand it and I respect them. But being on this side now, I ask myself, "How do I show them the light? How do I illuminate them on this?" It's hard.

I talk about, in my speech about culture, from your family culture to your nationality culture, to your religion, your work, the different social cultures you live in, it's hard to go against what you do every day. I understand it. I respect it and what I say usually is - things that were considered the norm, considered normal for years does not make it right, does not make it the best for you. Women in this country, for instance, were not allowed to vote, not long ago. And that was the norm. That was considered normal. Blacks were not allowed in the front of a bus. That was the norm. That was normal. Not even long ago we had slaves and that's what everyone was doing and everyone thought it was right, in this country. In other countries, women still can't vote. People still have slaves in certain parts of other countries and that's normal there. I have a few friends who are sociologists and they say in their culture that's okay; that's right. And so I say, the difference to me when it comes to our diet is that we have the same culture, which is our planet, our earth. There are sources that we have in our diet here that affect the sources that affect everyone's diet in China, in Africa.

So, that's the difference to me. Culture should not matter. We should think about the bigger culture, which is the humans on planet earth's culture. The choices you make 3 times or more a day…consciously make, affects your home, your roof, your air conditioning, which is our weather. All that. Why do you still make it? Think about that. Make a choice that doesn't affect that so drastically. We have affected it very violently; it's just going down. That's what I talk about when it comes to culture. I think about that culture before my own culture. I'm thankful about it.

I think every culture has good things and bad things. The good thing about my culture is that the food is great. The food is very vast and I have so many dishes in the back of my head just by growing up there. It's amazing. We have great things culturally…our music, our dances are good. The options where we choose to source our food is not the right choice at this point, for the planet.

My family is like, "You need to eat meat." They don't get it. Our breakfast every day is coffee, which is half coffee, half milk and a warm sandwich of ham and cheese. That's what we eat for breakfast every day. And then we have the amazing special breakfasts we eat on the weekends or special occasions, which is pork, a lot of pork. Really salty, fried pork. That's like the special occasion breakfast.

It's not an option anymore. I think tradition and culture should be unimportant right now for our diet. Embrace the flavors and all that but do versions that are better for our present situation.

No, my parents have been tough. They have come around with some tactics to serve them vegan food, I call them zero cholestorol options. My parents, especially my mom has really bad cholesterol. So I tell her, "This is what I'm going to cook for you," and she knows it's good for her, but I don't use the V word. It's not allowed in my parents household, because I know they have a stigma against it. I just tell them it has no cholesterol and thankfully because of my background, everything is amazing. They ask for more.

It's good. That's my weapon.

Michelle Yay. It's the most powerful weapon. I always tell people. You have to feed people good food in order for them to believe that it can taste good. You have to feed it to them.

Chef Toni Exactly, that's what I do. I don't preach my veganism to anybody. A lot of my friends don't know I'm vegan until later on. I don't talk about animal rights. I don't talk about the environment or health. If they ask me, I hope they're ready for the speech. I will talk for a long time. I never talk about it up front. I preach it through my food, especially in my culture. We're all about the taste and things are cooked with lard because supposedly they taste better. I disagree. I cook what I cook and like I did in culinary school, I wait until they eat it and they say how amazing it is and tell them, "By the way, I didn't use any animal products. It doesn't have any cholesterol. It's good for you. It's healthy. It's compassionate because it doesn't use any animals and doesn't contribute to factory farming and this and that. And it's great for the environment." But I wait for the verdict and then I talk about it.

Michelle That's a smart strategy.

Chef Toni So far, it's working out. Yeah, that's my tactic. It's been great. I'm doing it my way, but I think my way is working, especially in my culture. For my friends and my family, I think that's the way to do it. It's working out for me, so I guess that's good right?

Michelle Yeah, absolutely, that's awesome! And see you're lucky. You have amazing culinary skills whereas the rest of us, we're trying to figure it out as we go along. So it's a little bit harder for us to win people over. I'm trying to find a few good recipes and just stick with them.

Chef Toni Yes, exactly. That'w why I talk about the different levels of veganizing. I know that something that I might do might not be as easy for otheres, so I try to step back first and say "Okay, what's the easiest option that's vegan and still compassionate?" It may not be as healthy, but it's compassionate, right?

We do that first. You can buy vegan mayonnaise and Gardien chicken and replace that as your first step. That's good for some people. Why not support them? I don't try to be a health advocate right away either. I think I should cater to whatever people need. If someone wants to do it for animal rights and be compassionate, help them with that. Whatever version of a vegan dish that they want, help them with that. If someone wants to do it healthier, we can do that to. We can choose healthier options. It depends. So someone may want to be more environmentally friendly and do all local, seasonal produce, we do that too. So I try to be open minded.

As a vegan, you have to be open-minded. Being militant and square doesn't really take you anywhere. If you're going to be square about your veganism, people who are square about being an omnivore aren't going to listen to you. You have to be open and have options and cater to whatever the person needs. If they're asking you, they are curious. They want to hear what you have to say. You have to be open and give options. Always give options.

Michelle Mmmhm. Yeah, I love it. So what kind of food do you cook for yourself after your long days? Do you usually eat at the restaurant or do you still cook at home?

Chef Toni I typically eat at the restaurant mostly. I'm there way too long. I'm there at 7 in the morning and I leave late. If I close, I could be there until 2 in the morning. If I decide not to close, I could still be there at 10pm. I eat there. Thankfully it's a great restaurant. It's super healthy. I'm glad to eat there since it's healthy food.

When I'm home, if I ever take a day off, it's not anything that I'm proud of. It might be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I don't have time to cook anymore. That's why I have the blog. It's the only thing that keeps me focused, cooking foods and taking the time to cook well prepared vegan and Peruvian meals. When I post on the blog, I take a lot of time and do a lot of research. I do different versions like I said before. For my blog, I usually post the last version that I like. I do different versions, different levels. I definitely think about different levels of veganizing a dish. I spend so much time researching. Peruvian food like I said, is not vegan at all. So it takes me a lot of time to research and choose a plate that is interesting and also translates, or would be interesting to do in the States and that people will want to cook in the States. After I do that, I think about the vegan version. I do the first round with obvious jarred Vegenaise and Gardien or whatever, to see if it tastes good. After that, I take it up another notch and I create another version - my own version of whatever, instead of fake meat. I don't like fake meat. I don't see the point. If you want something that tastes like meat, just do meat. That's just the way I think. I do mushrooms, I do veggies, I do other options that will replace the meat in the dish. But it depends. Sometimes I end up with something different altogether. Once you replace so many different things, it's a whole different dish. So I try to balance it so it's not completely different because I do want to promote Peruvian food. I try to make something that's not completely unhealthy either. I try to do something unique and that's somewhere in the middle.

Michelle Very cool! So your catering business...are you pretty busy with that? How's that going?

Chef Toni Before I started working at M Cafe, I definitely worked in the catering business more. I started working to promote my restaurant project. I have this vision of a Peruvian vegan restaurant in Los Angeles. So I figure since Peruvian food in particular is so unique, I will have to have people eat it, eat my dishes. So I started a catering business as a trial for that, to promote it and have people taste the dishes.

Once I started catering for a few people, those people talked to other people. They spread the word as well. It spread quickly, I think and it started doing pretty well. I started doing private dinners and then started doing events and all sorts of things. It was great.

So, I ran across M Cafe when I was looking on Craigslist to see if anyone needed a caterer for a film. I used vegan as a keyword search and saw an ad for someone who was looking for a vegan cook who also had restaurant management experience. So I sent my resume just because I was looking for a job. I didn't know who posted the ad; it didn't name the restaurant. I sent my resume and it was perfect. They interviewed me several times and everybody was pretty happy with my background and what I had to say. So, it was just meant to happen. It was a good fit. Ever since I started working there it's been a perfect fit. So that was good. My catering had to stop and I'm okay with that. Once in a while I cook for customers I already had and they really like what I did and they call me back. I'll do it for them. If it's a big event, I'll do it for them.

Michelle Okay, and you're also working on trying to open a cafe or a coffee shop?

Chef Toni Yes, I want to open a coffee shop. There's an amazing all vegan coffee shop in Orange County. I love them and am very jealous of them. I want to open an all vegan coffee shop in Los Angeles. I feel like coffee is such a staple in the American diet now. I don't even drink coffee by the way, I just think we should have a cafe because most people have a cup of coffee every day. They go to Starbucks or Coffee Bean. We have a lot of great local coffees shops, but not with vegan options. None of the baked products are vegan. The milks are mostly not and they will only have soy available and they will charge you more. I hate that.

So, I think having an all vegan cafe is doable in the right location and with the right everything - menu, management, team. It can happen. I want to have it with a little Latin flavor. Maybe the pastries will have a little Latin background. Everything will be vegan. I think it's important to have that option. Especially in Los Angeles. We have a large vegan community so I think we should have that and I think some healthier pastries, but some unhealthy ones too, like donuts would be good to have. We don't have a vegan donut place in LA.

Michelle You don't? We don't either but I expect you to have it.

Chef Toni There are a couple places that have vegan options, but not many only 1 or 2 and they have limited options. I want to have deep fried, actual donuts and have several options of vegan donuts, paired with healthier options and coffee options. I'd like to have fair trade coffee, Peruvian coffee. There so many things you can do with a coffee shop that can also be good for the environment and for your local culture as well and for your vegan community. That's my new baby, my new project.

Michelle That's exciting. That is really exciting. You're right. I hadn't thought of half of the things that you mentioned. That is so true - that doesn't exist. You don't get that. That's awesome.

Chef Toni Why do they charge extra? I've worked in coffee shops and managed a few in my career. To have a non-dairy milk available should not be hard, if there's a demand for it; it should not be hard. There should not be an extra charge. It upsets me to see that.

Michelle So, what tips do you have for people who maybe have are vegan who have a South American background or who just really enjoy South American food. What tips do you have for them to prepare better tasting South American vegan or Peruvian food?

Chef Toni That's a really hard question. It's hard. It's not easy, I'm not going to lie. I think if they are just starting, they should do the obvious mock versions. Do the vegan whatever that's available. It all depends on where you are. We're lucky in LA. We're spoiled. You go to any market…even regular markets and they have vegan options, not just Whole Foods or Trader Joes. So, I don't know that I have any tips other than trying and doing research. I think that depending on where you're located, you will have easier options than in some other places where you will not.

It takes passion to really want to do it for whatever reason. Animal rights or environment or your own health. You have enough reasons to do it; just stick with it. See what you want to do and do a little research. Go to your market and see what you're options are. If you have trouble finding something, go to another market that has specialty items. Do it once a week or once a month and stock up on everything you may need. I don't know. It's different for everybody. If you have a good market with good produce, do everything with produce. Don't do the mock meat. Do all veggies. Cook them differently. Try different options basically. I think it's different for everybody. I know when I went to Peru, it's hard there. We do have amazing produce. Stick with that and do everything plant-based, which can be amazing. In another area it might not be easy to find good produce, like convenience stores where everything's pre-packaged. Some people just have a Walmart nearby as their main market. Do a little research and see what the options are. Take a little more time when you go to your Walmart or your Whole Foods. Even Whole Foods is tough. Sometimes they don't have all of the options there. It's different for everybody. I think stick with it it and be guided by your passion and your principles.

Michelle Okay, that's helpful. So, to wrap up, if you invited 3 friends or family members over to teach them to cook a simple vegan dish, what would you teach them and how do you make it?

Chef Toni I don't know. I think something like tacos would be easy and fun. Tacos are everywhere in the States. That's a really good easy and fast option for everybody. Even do like a taco bar. Have you friends and family over and have a bunch of toppings…guacamole. I mean, everybody loves guacamole right?

Michelle Yeah

Chef Toni And you do a bunch of salsas and different types of beans, rice, veggies, different types of veggies and all that. And everybody just serves themselves what they like. We're lucky to have vegan sour cream and cheeses and dips. I think that would be good and easy. Even fake meats, you can get soyrizo, I do chopped mushrooms and veggies. That would be a lot of options just right there for a nice party. That's a good option, right?

Michelle That would. Yes! That's awesome. I hope that somebody who is listening to this podcast will say, "Oh my goodness! I'm going to invite people over and we're going to have a taco party. " That would just be awesome and people don't even think about that as something that is easily vegan. And you're guests won't even probably miss the meat.

Chef Toni I think so. Three years ago I was on the on the other side, I would not know how someone could eat food without animal products. Now, that I'm on this side I'm like, "It's so easy." There's always an option. There's always something that's vegan. You see things from different perspectives.

Michelle You do.

Chef Toni I think that's what our jobs should be--to give options, mention some things…This could be vegan. Lasagna, I love lasagna and usually it's all meat and all cheese, you know? So once you think about it, it can be vegan. It can even be a better option. So many things you think - Oh, this could never be vegan - Philly cheesesteak could never be vegan right? Well, think about it. Yes it can. Use vegan meat and vegan cheese, your veggies, freshly baked bread. Bread makes the sandwich you know?

Michelle It does.

Chef Toni Yes, it can be vegan. Pizza, you know. The first thing people say when you tell them you're vegan - you don't eat pizza and ice cream? Yeah, you can eat pizza and ice cream. For pizza, it's just the cheese. Lots of people enjoy vegetarian pizza. You just leave off the cheese. Or ice cream. There are amazing vegan ice cream options, hundreds. They keep coming and it's great. And I'm lactose intolerant. I never liked ice cream when I was little because it made me sick. Growing up, I never understood why kids loved ice cream. I never liked cheese. I always rejected it. I never got it. I would eat ice-based ones, but never milk-based ice cream. I never understood why people liked it. And now that I've had ice cream, as a vegan, they have the coconut milk, rice milk-based ice cream. I'm like, "Oh my god, this is genius!" And there are so many options. And now I get it. It's great and we have so many options. Tofutti sandwiches - I will eat an entire box.

Michelle I've done that.

Chef Toni They're so good. And now I get it and we have have the options, thankfully. Even my local market that didn't have any vegan options a year ago, now has almond milk, and rice milk regularly. Even the margarine, the oil based butters, they label it vegan now. There are so many things now that are changing. We are heading in the right direction.

Michelle We are.

Chef Toni It's a good time to be vegan Or at least tyring to be vegan. We're in a good time.

Michelle It is. I totally agree.

Chef Toni If somebody wants to try something one night, the options are there and with the technology, just Google it. Go on the computer and say, "What do I want to eat today? Can I make it vegan?" Yes, just ask Google. It will give you all the answers.

Michelle It's so true.

Chef Toni It's not hard. If you want to make your entire week, what you normally eat, and you want to turn it vegan, you could probably do it. Maybe it would take an hour to research. Don't go on Facebook for an hour. Go do the research for an hour and you can do your entire diet that you always do as vegan. I would bet money on that. It's not hard. It's really not.

Michelle I think that's so important to share with people. That's so good. Thank you again for your time and I hope you enjoy the rest of the day. don't work too hard.

Chef Toni I'll try. Thank you.

Michelle Bye bye!

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