Growing up in Austin, Texas. as the daughter of a pig farmer, Ashley Ucan dreamed of being in the CIA. She could never have predicted that one day she’d be slinging out strictly meat-free dishes in Denver. Her seven years as a chef in Colorado included time at Jax Fish House and TAG before an interest in sustainable sourcing led her to Root Down.
Recently, the talented chef was promoted to executive chef at Vital Root, Root Down's vegetable-focused sibling restaurant where most items are vegan or can be made vegan by a simple request. We talked to the Texas native about cooking with plants and what makes this casual veg hot spot such a draw.
Westword: Growing up in Texas in a farming family, did you ever think you’d be cooking with strictly plants?
Ashley Ucan: My mom was a farmer, and my dad a landscaper, so I’ve been around plants my whole life. With that, I think I knew a lot more going into school about product knowledge and nutrition. I always loved the idea of sustainability, and Vital Root does that. We also concentrate on nutrition and what it does for your body – not just the latest fad and not just what’s popular.
How is plant-based cooking different than cooking with meat?
It really makes me think of vegetables in a whole different way. When I first started at Vital Root, I was making cauliflower rice, and I had never even heard of it before. At other restaurants, I just had the rice waiting for me; I didn’t have to make it. Cooking with plants is harder, and it’s more challenging.
What’s the biggest difference between working at Root Down and Vital Root?
I had preconceived notions that it would be easier since it was vegan. I figured butchering meat or preparing a fish takes a lot of skill. But vegetables aren’t so easy. A lot of chefs have a tendency to lean on the protein in a meal. It takes a lot to make a full dish with just vegetables.
How is the atmosphere different?
It’s definitely calmer. At Vital Root, what makes the kitchen unique is you won’t find your typical line cooks here. Behind the scenes, it’s vegans or people with gluten-free backgrounds. It’s more of a nurturing environment. It’s such a positive place, and everyone is here for the food.
What are your favorite dishes that you cook at Vital Root?
I definitely love our wings. [Korean barbecue veggie “wings” are actually smoked broccoli and cauliflower with sesame seeds.] They’re interesting and a great appetizer. Another favorite is the pad Thai with green papaya, pickled vegetables, Thai chili paste, peanuts and cilantro. I love the one at Linger, and it stands up to that.
Has cooking vegan at your job changed the way you eat at home?
Yes, I’m a lot pickier about what I eat. I feel like I’m more sensitive to meat. When I’m grocery shopping, I rarely buy it, and it’s not that I’m making an effort to do so. It’s just subconsciously, I’m not drawn to it.
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I know there are many delicious dishes at Vital Root, but tell us about a creation that just didn’t work out.
We do Raw Night the first Monday of every month, and that’s an area where we experiment and have fun. We’re making things we never made before, like calamari with coconut meat and paella with cauliflower. I tried to make a Korean stir fry one time, and it didn’t turn out good at all. It’s just so hard to do a raw stir fry and make it taste like a hearty, homey raw dish. You can’t hide behind anything when you do raw food.
What’s next for the restaurant?
We really want to tap into the nutrition side of things by offering products in the retail case that you can incorporate into your daily routine, such as juice cleanses. We are a restaurant first and foremost, but we want to get people in a routine so they can drop by and get what they need for the entire day. We don’t want people to stop in and feel healthy during the afternoon but later on go and eat a greasy cheeseburger. The hope is to bring people into this lifestyle and make it something that’s permanent.