Roberto Martin's vegan recipes connect with Ellen DeGeneres

DOWNEY - Growing up in Downey the youngest of 15 children, Roberto Martin spent many hours in his mother's busy kitchen and, like many other youths in high school, he worked part-time in restaurants. His first such job was at Acapulco's, followed by a stint at Mimi's Cafe, then at Olive Garden, while attending St. John Bosco (where he played football). The pattern would be the same when he went to Cal State Fullerton to get his bachelor's in political science.

In his senior year while waiting on tables at Steps on the Court, located near the Ahmanson Theater downtown, was when Roberto noticed the respect afforded not only the food by a gracious and well-heeled clientele but also the chef. This got him to thinking that maybe, just maybe, there's a future in being one.

Not one to follow the crowd anyway, and not really enthused about "sitting in front of a computer all day" ("I'm an outdoors man"), he sold his Toyota pickup truck, took out some loans, proceeded east and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York, near West Point.

The two-year course was a combination of academics and kitchen work, with Roberto imbibing culinary wisdom from a German chef and proponents of the pre-eminent French cuisine.

"My classmates came from all over, from Switzerland, from Germany, from Mexico, and so on," he said. The whole exercise took his mind back to his exposure at Steps on the Court, that is, to fine dining.

Back in Los Angeles afterwards, Roberto chose to find his niche in the personal chef field. Blessed with an engaging, sunny personality, he became personal chef to Arnold and Maria Schwarzenegger (one year), Tom Cruise (two years), Elizabeth Taylor (2 1/2 years), and Jerry Zucker (4 1/2 years) of "Ghost" fame.

Roberto has since become personal chef to Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, who are both vegans and who provide the afterword and foreword, respectively, to his recently-published 230-page recipe book, "Vegan Cooking for Carnivores." He says it has made the New York Times, as well as the Canadian, best-sellers lists.

Vegans like Ellen and Portia avoid eating animal-based foods, Roberto says. "This means no fish, no dairy, no chicken, only plant-based foods." Says Portia in the foreword: "Roberto wasn't a vegan chef but he was eager to take up the challenge in a very unique way: instead of making vegan food, he made food vegan."

"Within a week," she continues, "Ellen and I were eating grilled chick'n with gravy, spaghetti Bolognese, and flan. I began loitering around the kitchen, watching this half-artist, half-scientist re-create his favorite dishes without meat or dairy. Then I asked him to recreate ours. I asked if he could make an Australian Shepherd's Pie and other recipes handed down to me through the generations of my family. Ellen asked him if he could figure out a way to make her childhood favorite, Red Beans and Rice. It was better than the original."

And so began a 3 1/2 year professional relationship that continues to this day. Portia says further: "Roberto taught me that the key to making good food vegan is substitution. By substituting animal proteins with vegan alternatives, you can enjoy all your favorite foods and never feel deprived."

Here are excerpts from Ellen's afterword: "I was raised in the south, mostly in Louisiana, and, for some time as a teenager, in Texas. The first 50 years of my life, all I knew were cheeseburgers and chicken-fried steak... It's been four years now that I haven't eaten an animal product, and I'm proud of this fact...[If you do the same,] not only will you eat better, but you'll feel better knowing you're not hurting any animals. I know we're very fortunate that we're in a position to have a chef, but [Roberto's] recipes are not too difficult. Portia has never cooked before and she's made some of these dishes."

The dishes Ellen is referring to are the couple's comfort foods including spring rolls, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, faux pho, and many others.

After he was accepted as Ellen and Portia's personal chef, Roberto says: "What Ellen, Portia, and I learned together was that vegan food is no different than any other cuisine. Flavors that worked in non-vegan meals worked in vegan ones just as well... A little creative substituting is all you need..."

He has frequently appeared with Ellen on TV on her show as well as on YouTube.

"My aim in this book of [vegan] recipes," he says, is to "promote the vegan lifestyle and to help people prepare vegan food."

"It's been a joy being the couple's chef," Roberto continues, referring to Ellen and Portia. "They're wonderful people. What you see is what you get. They're real."

Roberto, who resides in South Bay of Los Angeles with his wife, Teena, and son, Jackson, is already at work on his second book. He says most of the members of his family still live in Downey.

********** Published: June 07, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 08