James Sitkiewicz is a creative young chef. He’s on the cutting edge of the Vegan and Plant-based movement. Mariano’s grocery store is part of the Roundy’s corporate chain. The newly opened location in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood houses their flagship Vegan department called Veg’d, with James at the helm.

James and I were scheduled to meet at the Veg’d Counter in the store on the afternoon of July 25.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I was met by an employee who motioned for me to roll down my window. She told me the store was closed due to a power outage.  Uh-oh! Then, I saw James standing outside with several of his staff. I walked over and he immediately apologized for the situation…like it was his fault? He was also sorry he couldn’t cook for me that day, as he promised. I didn’t care about the power outage, and still wanted to interview him.

So we sat in the air-conditioned front seat of my car and I turned on my Iphone voice notes.

Why did you decide to become a vegan chef?  “I took a job as sous chef with an old classmate from Illinois Institute of Art. He was working as the head chef at Karyn’s on Green. I wasn’t a vegan before starting work at the restaurant. I learned much from him during my time at Karyn’s. My friend John has been vegan since he was very young, and after learning more about the health benefits of eating plant-based foods, I jumped into it myself. I also began having so much fun creating unique and new vegan dishes.”

So, are you completely vegan now?  “It took a while for me to get there completely, but I’ve been 100% vegan for about a year.”

What was the hardest part about it?  “Learning to plan my own meals when I’m out.  The ‘convenience’ restaurants aren’t typically vegan-friendly.  I had to learn what to look for in grocery stores. I also cook and bring my own food when I’m going out.”

What’s been the best part?  “Being able to help customers navigate the store and guide them toward vegan foods. After I began to feel the effects of eating vegan, I became extremely passionate about begin able to cook vegan cuisine in various forms and put my own unique style into it.  I love playing with food. I love going to work and cooking this style of food.”

Do you have mentors and/or chefs that you admire?  “Yes, my friend John Gorecki, currently working at Wood Restaurant, is definitely mentored my vegan culinary journey. I also admire and follow Ani Phyo, raw food and wellness chef.”

What changes have you seen in the vegan cuisine and plant-based world?  “The biggest change lately is the awareness of this diet. There are many more people out there who are legitimately trying to learn more about this lifestyle, and information has become way more readily available.”

“When I started culinary school, there were no vegan cooking classes. Back then, nobody even knew the differences between vegetarian and vegan.  The lifestyle movement is still growing, but it’s great to see more people are shopping for healthier food alternatives. I’ve seen parents with children who have certain food allergies have to become more conscious about the food products they’re buying. The world of vegan eating is definitely expanding due to consumer wants and needs.”

What advice do you tell others about starting a plant-based diet?  “I first tell them what it’s done for me. I began to feel healthier.”

“After spending 12-14 hours, day in and day out in many kitchens, I was pretty fatigued. When I came to Karyn’s and began working with John, I noticed within a couple of months that I wasn’t tired at the end of a really long day. I’d say eating vegan changed my physical and emotional well-being.”

“Then, I tell them to keep it simple and use me and Mariano’s as a resource.”

How do you respond to critics or skeptics?  “I cook for them. They usually have a pre-conceived idea that vegan food is bland and tasteless, or they’ve been served some bad vegan food. Then, they say that could never stop eating red meat. So I tell them I’ll cook you a Portobello that will taste just like a charbroiled steak…..and it does.”

Do you have some personal career goals?  “I want help people change to the vegan lifestyle through my work at the Veg’d counter at Marianos. There are lots of vegan restaurants around the city, but I want people to feel comfortable shopping for food they can cook at home and get creative with it.  We’re working on putting together a specific guide for shoppers to easily locate vegan products and foods within the store. They’ll be more likely to keep eating healthier when the foods are more accessible.”

What is your best dish? “This is difficult (laughs). But, I love doing marinated Portobello steaks, served on top of a balsamic reduction, and certain purees.  I love making pastas, too.  I had several key dishes when I was at Karyn’s.  A fire-roasted eggplant with Middle eastern seasonings that we served on top of slow cooked farro. I also had a coconut tagliatelle pasta with tarragon worked into it, giving it had a greenish texture and look.”

“There was also a roasted beet dish with painted-on miso cranberry spread and toasted pistachios and micro greens on top.  Not only was it a great appetizer, it was also a work of art.”  I actually remember ordering this beautiful appetizer during one of our visits to Karyn’s!

Do you have a career highlight?  “When I was working with my friend, the head chef, I had the most fun developing seasonal menus at Karyn’s.  We’d come in on our day off to work on these. Our friend from Testa would send us seasonal samples to create new dishes.”

“Also, having been picked by Mariano’s to oversee their first Vegan department is exciting and a real blessing.”

What is your experience with the recipes promoted by the China Study and Forks Over Knives? “ I’ve only recently been made aware of this style of ‘no added oil’ plant-based eating, and I love challenges. I developed a raw pizza crust with no oil, and topped with a no salt or oil salad. I also love veganizing traditional dishes”.

Like what?  “The vichyssoise from the vegan demo last month. I’m working on a few classic recipes from the Silver Spoon cookbooks. I’ll be preparing the 3-course Italian themed dinner event for 8 people this month at the Veg’d counter”. 

What’s your favorite go-to meal at home?  “I like making rice: Arborio, jasmine, and I just bought some black rice that I haven’t tried yet”.

James admitted this was his first interview, and I confessed it was mine, too! I happily accepted his rain check offer for a plant-based meal next time I’m in the store!