Max La Manna wants you to eat more plants.

Max La Manna zero-waste vegan chef.jpg

Max La Manna (@eatingwithmax) is a zero-waste vegan chef who never wastes food and resourcefully creates delicious meals. He is an outspoken voice for sustainability and environmental conservation around the world.

Kyle Calian: How did you end up as an Instagram chef, and what made you get into cooking?

Max La Manna: My father was a chef, and food has always been the central focus in our family. It brought us together all the time. I grew up in a busy household. There were six of us, and we were all over the place with sports and activities and school projects and things like that. But food always brought us together.

I would always watch my father cook in the kitchen, and I grew up working in his establishments. I didn't think I wanted to be a chef or at least cook for a living until about a year ago when I was living in Australia.

I had this epiphany of “what am I doing with my life? I'm 27-years-old, what am I doing with myself?” So I sat down on the beach, wrote out a list of 10 things I can see myself doing each and every single day. And one of them was to cook.

When you're prepping your menu and picking your ingredients, why is one store more important to you than another one?

When I'm shopping, I'm looking for food and ingredients with no packaging or less packaging. I don't have berries during the fall or the winter, because at grocery stores or supermarkets they're all packaged in plastic.

During the summer days, I'm at the farmers market picking up fresh berries because they're seasonal, they're local and they require no packaging at all. I ask the farmer, "Hey, can you take this back? Can you reuse it?"

With shopping, yeah, it takes a while for me to think of a list of ingredients that I'm going to need, because some stores and markets may not have exactly what I'm looking for. One week there may be cauliflower that's in plastic. The next week they may have cauliflower that's not in plastic ... It changes all the time, so it keeps me on my toes.

“When I'm shopping, I'm looking for food and ingredients with no packaging or less packaging. I don't have berries during the fall or the winter, because at grocery stores or supermarkets they're all packaged in plastic.”

How are you using social media to influence positive change? What are some of your favorite things to post or share to help to spread this message?

One of my strengths in this regard, I think, is compassion, just having compassion for other people and showing that the changes that I've made can be easy changes that anyone else can make. There may be difficulties involved, maybe you really want something that's wrapped in plastic or packaging, but I think it's just knowing exactly where that is going to go at the end of the day. Let’s throw that away? There is no away. It stays here. Just being adamant and strong in the choices that you make.

One thing I like to do is to pick up garbage around the neighborhood, usually in Brooklyn where I live. And right now, since I'm traveling, it's fun to pick up garbage in other cities, too, because I don't see anyone else doing that. And so quite frequently people will stop and ask me what I'm doing. I also like to use social media to show a range of different products that people are using.

I think that gives insight to other people around the world who are watching, who are tuning in to my channel. To know, oh, wow, I guess I can also pick up garbage, too, because this is our planet. I don't wanna walk down my street where I live and see all this garbage that is accumulating. If we can continue to just raise awareness that way ... Just like, hey, pick up some garbage on your street and throw it away properly. You're gonna encourage somebody who may see that and say, "OK, maybe I don't need to litter anymore."

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Why is eating a vegetable-based diet so important to you?

It originally started with health reasons for me, and then it switched gears into more environmental reasons ... When I was child, I watched “The World’s Strongest Man” on ESPN. My dad told me he actually was the world’s strongest man and, of course, I believed him. So having that in my mind growing up, I always thought, OK, yeah, what do I need to do in order to achieve that? So I was heavily into sports as a kid and took care of my body ... and I got to the point where having a vegan diet, having a plant-based diet was introduced. And it made all the sense to go and do that for my health.

Can you talk about the connection between mindfulness and eating?

It's a great question. Mindfulness and eating. We're so caught up with what's happening around us and what's going on in our phones, that we forget where we are and what we're doing in this present moment, especially when there's food in front of us. I think we eat with our phones first. We take pictures of our food first, and we then eat the food, and we're not even enjoying the flavors. We're not savoring the moments of each texture.

And with mindfulness, when we're able to put our phones down, smell the food, touch the food with our hands, savor the food, let it sit on your palette, it is a meditation. And your body definitely thanks you and is appreciative of you taking that moment to slow down ... If we’re able to do that in eating, then we're able to do that in other areas of our life.

“With mindfulness, when we're able to put our phones down, smell the food, touch the food with our hands, savor the food, let it sit on your palette, it is a meditation.”

A question about the word vegan; how does that term make you feel? Because there's a lot of debate ... It can make people feel ostracized or singled out. As someone who was vegan for almost three years, I found it tricky to navigate at times. Do you feel like there's a balance for each person? Does it have to be so strict?

Yeah. I see people's reactions when I mention that I'm vegan. And they're like, "Oh, here's another vegan."

Just yesterday, I went to a Vietnamese restaurant with a friend. I know fish sauce is common in Vietnamese cuisine, so I made sure to ask if the (supposedly vegan) dish I wanted contained fish sauce. They said yes. I said, “So it’s not vegan, then.”

So, people have their own ideas of what veganism is. For me, I don't think I really advocate and tell people, hey, go vegan. I think that’s harsh, actually. There's a lot of people out there (on Instagram) who promote a vegan lifestyle, but they ostracize and hurt other people's feelings for not making the switch to veganism. This may work for some, but it's not an approach I think will convert the minds of others.

What I encourage people to do is just eat more plants. The conversations that I've had with people, whether they're vegetarian or pescatarian or they just eat meat, I say, hey, let's lower our consumption of meat and eat more plants. And almost 100 percent of the time they agree, and they're like, "You know what? You're so right. This makes a lot of sense."

I think people who are vegan need to understand — it was a process for me — that people can have a really bad experience with food. There's a lot of people who have emotional baggage or emotional issues with food in general. So when we associate a term like vegan to someone and how they live, they can take on a lot of stress. And that's not good for the body. It’s not good for your health.

“What I encourage people to do is just eat more plants.”

I like to use the term "flexitarian," because if you just focus on plants I think you'll be all right. It's not an all or nothing game, but you should be focusing on doing the most good and not the least bad. I'm sure you've cooked for a room full of omnivores and carnivores alike. What are some dishes that you feel have just blown people out of the water?

Pizza and pasta with mushrooms. They thought that the mushrooms were meat because of the way that I prepared it, and flavor-wise and with the textures. But with pizza and pasta, people think that you can't make pizza or pasta without eggs or cheese.

Now, obviously, they know they're coming to somebody who's vegan and who prepares vegan or plant-based food. They know what they're getting themselves into. But then it goes back to that mindfulness, where I invite everyone to just take a moment, look at your food, smell the food. If you wanna touch it, touch the food. Eat with your hands. Activate all your senses when you're eating. I think that's a really important process, too. But yeah, people are blown away, like, "Wait, how do you make pasta, how do you make pizza without actually using animal products?" There's alternatives nowadays. And I think it tastes identical.

“People are blown away, like, ‘Wait, how do you make pasta, how do you make pizza without actually using animal products?’”

Yeah, I agree. Who are some of your biggest influences?

My inspirations aren’t always people ... sometimes it's just an act that someone does, like holding a door for someone. Or maybe I see someone carrying someone's baby carriage up the stairs, as you probably see all the time in New York City. Those are the things that influence me. And if we had to go to a chef, someone who inspires me is Matthew Kenney. I'm not sure if you've heard of him.

No, I haven't.

Big plant-based, vegan chef ... He's all over the world. And I've had the honor of meeting him and talking to him a few times. But he's someone I look up to.

Cool. Final question: If there was one thing you could tell readers to do to have a bigger impact, what would it be?

Eat more plants. Less is more. Say no to plastic. And just be more mindful of the choices that we make each and every single day, because that not only impacts us in the moment, but it impacts everyone else around the world. It has that ripple effect.

We may not see it or may not know it, but what we do today will create a huge impact for the future to come ... Plastic was introduced to us 60-plus years ago, and now we're in this mess. But we're cleaning it up. So I think we need to slow down and be more mindful.

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This interview originally appeared in Issue No.4. Do you like what you read and want to support The Regeneration? Get a print or digital copy here!