I’m really excited to introduce you to a new friend of mine, Renee Press, owner of Fire and Earth Kitchen here in Seattle. This is the first of a new (and hopefully regular) series that I am going to write, highlighting different influential vegans in Seattle. I am always curious to meet other vegans, even if I only meet them virtually, and thought you might be too!
Renee and I met in March when I took one of her famed cooking classes—seriously, her classes are great and they sell out right away—they are really popular! Renee has graciously answered a few questions for us about herself, her business, and why she’s vegan. And all the way at the bottom of this post you will find her recipe for Homemade Roasted Red Pepper Ketchup that I learned how to make at her class a few months ago (really, keep scrolling, it’s ALL the way down there!). Without further ado, here’s Renee!
Tell us about yourself (any details you find relevant!)!
Hi all! I’m Renee Press, the owner of Fire and Earth Kitchen: Seattle’s first all vegan & gluten-free cooking school! I am also an artist, recipe developer, and personal chef. I’m originally from NY, where I studied fine arts and art education at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Contrary to what some might expect, I grew up eating hot dogs, mac and cheese, pizza bagels, egg sandwiches, basically the farthest from being vegan you could ever imagine.
But after college I traveled quite a bit, backpacking through South America and the Middle East. I became more open to trying food from around the world, and realized vegetarian food could be tasty too! Upon returning to NY, I started volunteering at a yoga institute in NYC, working in their kitchen and bookstore in exchange for yoga classes. I began to see the variety in vegetable centered meals, and that eating animals and their by-products wasn’t really necessary at all.
In 2008 I moved to Washington State with my husband Nick. We lived on Puget Sound in Tulalip for a short time, and as we didn’t know anyone here, we spent a lot of time playing in the kitchen creating new recipes. We created a new life here, centered around our love of animals, the outdoors, and our passion for tasty vegan food. We also started developing relationships with and supporting local animal sanctuaries like New Moon Farm Goat Rescue, Chimp Sanctuary Northwest, and Pasado’s Safe Haven. Seeing the work they do day in and day out to help animals in need is incredibly inspiring and reminds me of the direct correlation our food choices have on the wellbeing of our animals friends. So we keeping working for change. We now live in Shoreline with our cat Baya, and our two pet ducks, Dusty and Otter.
How long have you been vegan, and why?
I’ve been vegan for 8 years. I first went vegetarian in 2006 after watching the documentary Winged Migration. There’s a scene where a hunter is shooting two ducks from the sky, I’m not sure why that particular scene got me, but it hit me hard. In an instant my heart opened and I decided I wouldn’t eat meat ever again. It wasn’t long before I realized that the dairy and egg industries were institutions that I didn’t want to support either. My husband Nick and I both went vegan in 2008 and never looked back! By far the best decision either one of us has ever made. The strange thing is, almost a decade later, guess who walks into our lives? Two ducks in need of a home. Life is crazy!
You’re gluten free as well! Any tips for dining out and about?
Yes, I went gluten-free in 2010 after having some gastrointestinal issues. It helped significantly so I stuck with it and started creating even more recipes based around my newfound freedom from wheat. I don’t think everyone needs to avoid gluten, but I have noticed since going gluten-free that I eat very little processed food; less bread, more whole grains. Plus, cooking with other flours like chickpea, quinoa, and pumpkin seed is fun and puts more variety into our diet. I always tell people, variety in nutrients is the key to staying healthy and not getting bored with your meals. The easiest way to ensure variety is to eat a wide range of plants, lots of beans, legumes, whole grains, and of course fruits and veggies. When eating out, we tend to go to places where gluten is easy to avoid, and healthy but tasty vegan options are plentiful like Indian, Japanese, or Mexican food.
Tell us about Fire and Earth Kitchen! How long has it been around? What kind of a business is it?
Fire and Earth Kitchen is Seattle’s first and only vegan, gluten-free cooking school. I’m really proud of how much it’s grown in the past 5 years and how supportive our amazing city has been of the work we do. We started Fire and Earth Kitchen in 2011, we had already been vegan for about 3 years, and I was really passionate about the benefits of a vegan diet and how it could save animals and humans from unnecessary fates. At the time I was working at an integrative medical clinic in Seattle, and saw a lot of patients coming in with various health issues that I knew would likely be improved if they were simply eating more plants. The doctors and nutritionists there might recommend eating more greens and less meat, or omitting dairy, but unless you know what to cook instead of the standard American diet, and most importantly how to make those new meals taste good, people seemed to have a really hard time committing to it. I thought I might be able to help. My coworkers were incredibly supportive and encouraged me to start sharing my recipes.
My background is in the arts, and I had no idea how the business would unfold at the time, just that I was passionate about sharing how amazing tasty vegan food could be. So we (my husband Nick is sous chef, sauce mastermind, and integral to our group classes) started teaching vegan cooking classes out of our living room. Nick built us a portable cooking table with burners on top that I parked in front of our fireplace. We cooked right there for about 2 years, sometimes the classes would fill and sometimes we’d only have 3 or 4 participants per class. It was slow going for the first few years. Eventually we began to expand and started teaching classes at friend’s homes instead, both on Whidbey Island and here in Seattle. We built a really nice community of host homes which allowed us to reach a wider audience, and also travel a bit, which is something we both love.
We now teach at Pike Place Market, Pasado’s Safe Haven (offer cooking class/sanctuary tours to raise funds for the work they do), The Woodhouse Wine Estates (vegan wine tasting and cooking class!) and at our current kitchen in downtown Ballard. We focus on teaching people to make creative vegan meals from scratch, using minimally processed ingredients and lots and lots of vegetables. I’d say 1/3 of our class participants are vegan and the rest are either gluten-free or just interested in eating more plant based meals. We promote inclusive veganism, answering questions about protein, nutrition, and general ethics openly, honestly, and with kindness. Every effort anyone makes is worthwhile and we want to support that. We focus on teaching healthy versions of classic comfort foods and tasty recipes from around the world; think Pumpkin Seed Ricotta Lasagna with Roasted Veggies or Bengali Dal with Saffron Rice and Caramelized Cauliflower. We are growing quickly and our group classes have been selling out months in advance. In order to accommodate demand we are planning on moving into our own space in the coming year. First time we’re sharing the news publicly!
What is the most important thing you hope people will take away from your cooking classes? Do you have a favorite class?
I hope they see that cooking delicious vegan meals from scratch doesn’t need to be hard, that it can be quick, easy, and very worthwhile. I don’t pre-chop vegetables before class, we do everything right there in front of everyone, from cutting onions to cooking rice. I do this because I want participants to see what it’s really like to make these meals at home, that its not some magic tv cooking show. Its real food in real life and it’s really possible. If people walk away feeling like, “Oh, I think I can actually make this recipe at home” and then they make it and enjoy it, my life is complete! We recently added a “Creative Vegan Cooking 101” 4 week course to our calendar and it is my favorite offering so far. I love sharing tips and tricks on how to get the most nutrition out of your food and how to improvise in the kitchen. We plan to offer it on a regular basis, as well as offering a “Creative Vegan Cooking 102” for everyone who wants our recipes for vegan, gluten-free potato pierogies and mushroom dumplings!
Do you have a favorite cookbook?
I’d have to say I love Vegan Richa’s Indian Kitchen. The woman is amazing, her food speaks for itself. I love her creativity, openness, and dedication. It comes through on the page and in all of her recipes.
If you could only have one type of cuisine for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Indian! My husband Nick traveled in India for about a year and we’ve always been obsessed with eating and cooking Indian food. The spices are so unique, I love the contrast of flavors and textures with creamy sauces, fluffy rice, chewy breads, tangy sauces. It’s the best.
What do you like to do for fun when you’re not busy in the kitchen?
I love to kayak, camp, travel, though haven’t ventured out much since having our pet ducks move in last year!
Tell us about your ducks!
Well, last spring my husband’s co-worker got two ducklings as a gift from her roommate. She knew she couldn’t take care of them, and began trying to find them a suitable home. My husband asked me if I wanted to adopt two ducklings….in that instant, I knew my life was about to change. And so Dusty and Otter entered our lives. They are now a year old, live in a duck cottage that Nick designed and built in our yard (complete with swimming pool and private garden) and have their own Facebook and Instagram pages. They’ve developed a pretty solid following, mostly because they’re so cute and they love the camera. They seem to really have an effect on people. Some folks comment that they’ve had a bad day, but when they see Dusty and Otter’s smiling faces it makes everything better! They’re a huge part of our lives, and it’s pretty cool to see they can impact others as well. I cherish every moment with them. If anyone thinks they might want pet ducks, get in touch with me, I’ll tell you all about what taking care of them is really like. They’re amazing, wacky, wonderful, and demanding creatures! But I’m so happy we get to be their caretakers, they really are some lucky ducks.
Ready for the Roasted Red Pepper Ketchup? I think you’ll find it was worth the wait!