“[I]f you look at our Instagram when we launched, and it was very easy to get engagement doing like, hot shirtless person with a tray of cupcakes.”
Alicia talks to Lukas Volger about his 60 percent vegetarian diet, cookbooks, veggie burger lines, and his work on the queer food journal Jarry Mag.
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. This show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics, and history affect a diet?
In this episode, I talk to cookbook author, and editorial director of Jarry Mag, Lukas Volger. Lukas began his career in food as a teenager working in a bakery in his native Boise, Idaho, before moving to New York City for college and getting into a restaurant kitchen, but he was studying literature with a focus on gender and sexuality. All of that has come together and Jarry, a queer food journal. He has also published three vegetarian cookbooks on veggie burgers, vegetarian dinners and bowl meals with another forthcoming. For a time he ran the veggie burger line Made By Lukas. We talked about how the veggie burger landscape has changed, why he’s eating 60 percent vegetarian these days, and the evolution of Jarry.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Hi, Lukas. Thank you for being here.
LUKAS VOLGER: Thank you for inviting me.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I wondered, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, I grew up in Boise, Idaho, from where I was born through age 18 when I left for college. I grew up on what I sort of think of as the standard American diet at the time. There was like always an animal protein in the center of the plate and then like a salad and scout, scalloped potatoes or something like that. We had a lot of bagged Caesar salads with the dressing pouches in them, and my dad grilled a lot, but, it was very, and like lunches, I always packed my own lunch, there was a peanut butter and honey sandwich and this little thing of like Jello chocolate pudding and a string cheese and, and just like some baby carrots or something. My lunches were very routine and then my breakfast wasn’t one of the chewy chocolate peanut butter granola bars.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh god, those were good.
LUKAS VOLGER: They were really good.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Why did you pack your own lunches?
LUKAS VOLGER: I was picky. I never liked the hot, I don’t think I ever had a hot lunch once I left elementary school.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When did you start cooking?
LUKAS VOLGER: Well I always cooked with my mom. I was always inclined to do that, and I used to, I sort of remember growing up, it must’ve been 11 or 12, I always was drawn to cookbooks and the recipes always seemed so fun. So with my neighborhood friends while our parents away at work, be like, “Oh, let’s make this recipe for like peppermint candies.” And we decided to make from Betty Crocker or one of those old all-inclusive cookbooks and not realizing, you know, the recipe makes it look so simple, but so we ended up with this whole mess of peppermint sugar goo all over the kitchen. But I always liked that. Whenever my mom entertained, I always enjoyed helping her out. Then when I was junior in high school, I started working summers, maybe a sophomore in high school. I started working summers at a bread bakery where I was like looking for summer work and I couldn’t get, like, I wanted to wait tables and I wanted to do retail, and I couldn’t get any of those jobs because I think it, I was a little dorky looking, and I got a job at this bakery and it was supposed to just help make sandwiches, and work the counter.
And it was a bread bakery called Stone Mill Bread Company and they had seven or eight different types of bread and they were big like sandwich loaves. It wasn’t like artisan bread at all. But then they did scones and biscotti and muffins and they service this one chain of coffee stores called Moxie Java. So it was pretty high volume for a pretty small space. I got to, I started helping out, portioning out the muffins and cutting up the scones. And, and over the course of the summers that I worked there, like I got more and more included in the pastry making. And I just really love the scale of it. Like pounds and pounds of butter on the table and like working with the big mixers and then making the biscotti. There was one night where we had this crisis where I was finishing for the day, and then OK, we’ve got whatever, the orders for biscotti ready for pickup, there’s a guy who does deliveries early in the morning and then we realized we didn’t have anything to fulfill the orders, and so I like happily volunteered to work all night and make all the biscotti. It was completely thrilling and listening to the music and being there when the bread guys came in really early in the morning, and I just enjoyed the environment a lot.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And you worked as a line cook when you were in college?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, a line cook. I started as a prep cook there and then was there for a little over a year. Just a place on the upper east side called Blue Grotto. There’s a really young chef, he was like, he’s right out of culinary school. He was taking over for some older, more established chef. I came at a time when he was starting to build his own team, and so there was this rift between the old and the new. Because I was going to school full time, I was only there like three days a week. But again I just loved, I wasn’t, oh well since I work brunch I was doing some baking but it was just the scale of it was really fun. I remember spending all this time cleaning squid or, like I don’t know, we had pitting olives, or just making salad dressings, and then occasionally help out on the line. I was a little bit more of a prep cook, and then the line cook sort of happened towards the end.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What were you studying in school?
LUKAS VOLGER: Literature with a focus on gender and sexuality studies.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How, and now you’ve brought it all full circle with your magazine.
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, exactly. One of my first job, the reason I stopped cooking at the restaurant was, well really bad pay, and really bad hours, and really bad conditions. I got an internship with the feminist press, which is the university press at City University of New York and I went to school at Hunter, which is also a CUNY school, and then they ended up hiring me when I was finishing my last semester of school. I was only there part-time, so it was working full time at the publisher of the feminist press and then finishing school. Yeah, but gender and sexuality was what I studied through a literature lens.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. And how did you find vegetarianism? When did that happen?
LUKAS VOLGER: That started in college, when I went to school in Oregon for two years at a place called Willamette University. I think, this must have been, what, it was 2000. I’ve been asked a number of times, “Why?” I really can’t even remember why. It just seemed like a sense of, I don’t even remember my friends doing it. I think I became aware of the environmental implications of eating meat and consuming meat. So that seemed like a really good reason to me, and also, I was just, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my mother’s diet have shaped my perception of healthy eating and, for her, it was always less is better than more food. And so vegetarian food automatically seemed like you’re sort of eating less. That’s kind of when I started. And then I’ve been off and on for years since then.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK. Where are you right now? I had read an interview from 2016 where you said you were 95 percent vegetarian.
LUKAS VOLGER: Right now I feel like I’m probably more 60 percent vegetarian. I’ve been eating a lot more fish. I’ve been like going through this, like going to the gym a lot and which is a really new thing for me, but it’s I guess, trying to feed my body for the amount that I’m like, it’s like strength training for the first time ever. I was doing my normal diet, like 95 percent, and it was the trainer that I work with who was, I was like, “I feel like I’m doing this all the time and I’m not really seeing the results.” He was like, “Well, what are you eating?” I told him, he was like, “You need to be eating 10 times as much food.” So I’m not really doing that, but that’s really what’s thrown off the vegetarian eating.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Where do you fall, ethically, on like making that decision?
LUKAS VOLGER: In terms of…?
ALICIA KENNEDY: In terms of putting your workout routine over deciding not to eat?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, I totally struggle with it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LUKAS VOLGER: I guess, well I feel like the ethics of eating meat on the animal rights aspect of it is something that I haven’t, like that’s not really my angle into it. So for me it’s always been, I think the environmental implications are to me very, very selling. And then also it’s just been such an affordable way to eat well and that I think has driven the way that I eat. I’m endlessly creative. I really like shopping at the farmer’s market, it’s been a pretty easy path for me to follow, and just incorporating a little bit more animal protein is I guess, I don’t know, it’s something that I struggle with because I feel guilty about it. But I don’t really know. I haven’t figured out the right way to articulate how I’m resolving the guilt.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, me either. I mean after being vegan and now being vegetarian and mostly just eating eggs, and because I’ve also started going to the gym, and so I’m like, “Oh, what can I do to actually feel like I’m eating protein and not eat tofu or things that are…
LUKAS VOLGER: Are just constant.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Constant.
LUKAS VOLGER: The plant-based, I’ve like met these weight lifters that are all plant-based and they just eat food all the time.
ALICIA KENNEDY: All the time, yeah. Yeah. I’ve done that. There was a time where I worked out a lot and was vegan and was like, “Okay, I have to have the smoothie with this and I have to have these powders and I have to put hemp seed in everything I eat,” and it’s like, I don’t want to live like that. Like, can I just eat an egg? I promise it’ll be from a happy chicken.
LUKAS VOLGER: I guess that’s one way that I’ve sort of like tempered the guilt. It’s just by, I’m pretty careful about how i’m sourcing any of this stuff, like all my vegetables but certainly any of the meats and eggs and animal products.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah. So your first cookbook was not the veggie burger book, or was it the veggie burger book?
LUKAS VOLGER: It was the veggie burger book.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How did that come about?
LUKAS VOLGER: So I worked in publishing for almost 10 years, and for the last year or two of that it was in a freelance capacity, mostly helping with production, and doing some like proofreading and copyediting and stuff. A friend that I had worked with before was starting up his own publishing imprint, or his own publishing company called The Experiment, and he just emailed me one day and was like, “Do you know anybody that could write a book about veggie burgers?” I was like, “Oh, let me think about that.” As I did, I was like, actually, I’ve been making veggie burgers. I think I have an interesting perspective on this. I’m just going to do a proposal, so I put it together and sent that over to him and it worked out. That’s another source of guilt, when I meet people that are trying so hard to get cookbooks published and it happened like very easily for me. But I guess like coming from the inside that way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. What kind of veggie burgers were you making, initially?
LUKAS VOLGER: Mostly bean ones. I would make some tofu ones, but it was mostly like black bean or red bean.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Cool. Then you had the Made By Lukas line of veggie burgers?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, I launched that in, oh god, I think it was 2014. And it was, when I first started writing the book, I started by going to the grocery store and buying all the frozen veggie burgers and tasting them. Then I developed all my recipes and then I went back and tasted them all again, just because I had forgotten. And I was just like, I mean this is, obviously, but I was shocked by how much better my homemade veggie burgers were than what was available at the grocery store, and so always that had been in my head. And so then I was working at this place 61 Local in Cobble Hill and I was, I had this loose idea for developing a local, you know, sort of premium veggie burger, and Dave Liatti, he is the owner. He let me use the kitchen and start testing stuff out and putting it on the menu. That’s where I kind of developed the product. So it was like I was scaling up that 61 Local. First, it was making a dozen or so veggie burgers and then it was getting up higher and higher, and like, I found that I was spending all this time just shaping the patties.
And so, then I had this novel idea was like, “Oh, what if you just put the mix in a little tub and then let people like shape them.” They’re going to make, whatever size they wanted, treat this as ground meat, you know, the same way that, it would be as versatile as ground meat was. Then I started working out of a kitchen up in Queens, and then I started working with a co-packer upstate and did that for about three years.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What were the biggest challenges of doing that kind of a business?
LUKAS VOLGER: Oh, it’s so many. So the perishability was really, really hard. This was like, the way, the thing that got me excited about this veggie burger was that it was designed to taste like vegetables, or just like, it got beets from farmers upstate and carrots and parsnips and kale. It was like a veggie burger that’s, that was our tagline, “veggie burgers that taste like vegetables.” What it meant was that it was just as perishable as vegetables. We would freeze them and then, it’s called “slacking it out” at the grocery store, so we’d deliver the product frozen and then they would put it on the shelf where it would thaw out, and it had three weeks, which is kind of an astonishing amount of time.
I couldn’t believe that we got that much time, but it was not nearly enough for what the grocery store needs in order to like, because they want to keep the shelves full all the time and it’s that, the perishability was just, was really challenging with that. It was also just so taxing. It’s like going around doing demos and I went into it because I love the food and I love the product. Now I realize if you’re starting a food business, is really love business. It’s about figuring out how to do the growth and the scaling and all the stuff that’s like, the food is such a small part of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Do you think you were a bit ahead of the trend with veggie burgers?
LUKAS VOLGER: I think so. I, I was always aware that people, it resonated so much when they were talking about the product, like these are veggie burgers that taste like vegetables. People were very turned off by the idea of fake meat or something that’s engineered to taste like meat. So that I had thought was a major selling point, and I saw that it resonated with people. I think that, I’m still keeping an eye on the grocery store. I haven’t seen anything like this pop up yet. I think it’s just really, you know, one of the other things I learned is like, there are two ways to sort of go into the grocery store with a product. One is to do something completely different and which is what I did and it means it’s very easy to get in because they’re like, “Oh yeah, I don’t have anything like this. We’d love to bring you into Whole Foods throughout the northeast.”
Then the other is to do something that has this well-worn sales track, well-worn path for sales, and in that case it’s hard because you’ve got to carve out your own, like identity. But once you’re going in with a new product, you’re doing so much education. It, it was really, I think, I don’t know, if there had been maybe one or two other products like mine, we would have been able to pull each other up.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It seems like we had been getting away from the fake meat thing, and now like the tech bros are just bringing us all back to it. It’s like, “Why are you doing this?”
LUKAS VOLGER: I know. Then I’m questioning like, “Well, maybe it’s not such a bad thing.” I don’t know what, I’ve read all kinds of things about lab meat and it seems like there are certainly ways that good could come of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. Yeah. No, I’m still dubious.
LUKAS VOLGER: It’s not something that I really want to eat.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Have you tasted it yet?
LUKAS VOLGER: I haven’t.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I read that whole Carol Adams book called Burger, and, which you got a mention in, but yeah, she ends on a very positive and optimistic note about Impossible Burgers and about, you know, GQ giving Superiority Burger “Best Burger of the Year,” and how this looks like, you know, a new time for, I feel like all of this is just reinforcing old ideas.
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Where it’s like, “Oh, we want the burger that’s like meat even though it costs so much money to make it in a lab,” and, you know, “We want the burger made by the fine dining chef,” and you know, that kind of thing. It’s just, it’s complicated.
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, it is.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Then you’ve written two other cookbooks, and were those processes as easy as the first one?
LUKAS VOLGER: Well, the second book was focused on vegetarian entrees, and it was kind of a rush job. The veggie burger book is still my bestselling book. I think based on that success, my publisher at the time was ready to sign something up and so we kind of like threw together this idea, and I still like that book but I sometimes wish it could disappear, to be honest. It didn’t really, like, sell. I look at it now, I’m like, there’s so many other different ways I would do this and don’t love the title anymore. And then, most of all, it just made me realize I don’t want to be a type of cookbook author that’s putting out one book a year or, that kind of pace.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, yeah. So Bowl is a lot more considered, you would say?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, I spent a lot more time on that. The entrees book came out in 2012 I think, and Bowl came out in 2016, so I worked on a proposal for a year or so. Maybe a little more than that, you know, off and on. And then I spent, the process of selling it took some time, and then it was like, yeah, I spent more than a year on, it seems like it was five years between when I started working and then when the book came out, but there was all kinds of other things happening at the time.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What inspired Bowl?
LUKAS VOLGER: I had this, that amazing vegetarian ramen at Chuko, and I had just wanted to figure out how to make it a home, and I was, I wasn’t even thinking about a cookbook. I just thought it was so good and I’d never had vegetarian ramen that was, incorporated the seasonality, had this completely delicious broth and really felt like refined, in an accessible way. And so I just started playing around at home, and then I was like, oh, you know, I haven’t really had good vegetarian pho, maybe I should play around with that as well. It kind of led then to bibimbap and then I was like, oh, these all have a bowl in common, now there’s the bowl thing happening. And so maybe that’s what the book is and that’s how it all came to be.
ALICIA KENNEDY: That’s great. How was the response to that one?
LUKAS VOLGER: That was, I got so lucky because there were lots of bowl books, and mine happened to be the first for that wave of bowl food. So it was, it was great.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What is your recipe development process like?
LUKAS VOLGER: I usually, oftentimes I’ll just be cooking with what I’ve got, and I’ll make something that I like, and like, “Oh, that was good,” and then I’ll jot down what I’d done. I like to always have, when I’m formally recipe developing, I like to have a document that I’m working with. So once I have those notes, then I’ll go and have my, like, laptop in the kitchen, or I’ll have my notebook in the kitchen and try to cook it again and do proper, you know, process of measurements and times and all that stuff.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You’ve had separate photographers for your books?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I think that’s kind of coming up a lot with cookbook authors is like, whether they shoot their own book.
LUKAS VOLGER: Oh I’m so not a photographer. That’s so, yeah, I’m really glad that that’s not a skill. I feel like they’re so taken advantage of. It’s so much work. The shoots are so much work.
ALICIA KENNEDY: No, I can’t imagine doing both at the same time it seems. Yeah. So you recently did 28 days of oatmeal, in February. What was the inspiration behind that?
LUKAS VOLGER: It was in January, the start of the year sort of came, and then it was like already the start of the year had passed. I was like, “Oh, I wanted to do something,” and I was like, “Oh, I guess if I did it for February I could do that.” And then I was like, if it was cold weather, I eat oatmeal a lot and it was like, and I love, I’ve been getting into savory oatmeals. I’d always liked that better than sweet oatmeals, anyway. I was like, “Oh, you know what, why don’t I just try a different oatmeal every day and make a hashtag out of it.” It was organic in that way.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What makes for a good savory oatmeal, do you think?
LUKAS VOLGER: I think it’s like bowls. It’s the combination of, you have, this sounds so, I’m sure if you’ve read any of it, like, I’m quoting myself for data, but you have your body vegetables, which in oatmeals like, leafy greens, chard or kale or something, or accent vegetables which might be some shaved radish or some sprouts or something like that. Then a nice garnish which could be a spice blend or some toasted nuts. And then like a protein, which is the egg, it just kind of has, like the right topping has, you create like a full meal on top of your oatmeal, which includes your oatmeal.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Then you made a zine out of all these recipes.
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah. Which was definitely not the plan at the beginning. I had agreed to run the New York City half marathon for Team Housing Works. I had to raise $1,500 and between like Kickstarters that I’ve done, and Jarry stuff, I feel like I’m constantly asking people for money for stuff. And so I was like, “Okay, what can I do that might make people more inclined to just give me $15?” And then I had the idea to do a zine.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Was that your first zine?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, it actually was. Well, I don’t know, it depends on how you define a zine.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right.
LUKAS VOLGER: I’ve always been into like self-publishing. I’d certainly be online and then growing up, I liked making little recipe booklets and stuff.
ALICIA KENNEDY: When did you start, when did you make your first recipe booklet?
LUKAS VOLGER: I did one, well with like my mom’s recipes, it was a Mother’s Day project that we did a school and then I kind of took it to an extreme.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So can you tell me a bit about how Jarry came about and how it’s evolved?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, I have, so I’ve sort of like seen food, as we launched Jarry in 2015 and then the five or so years before that, I’ve sort of seen food from these various angles from the publishing side, a little bit from the kitchen side and the front of house, back of house side… To some extent, the media side just doing publicity for my books. And I’d always been aware that that has been this magnet for gay people. The food in general has, and then I wanted to, I thought there should be like a community for that, and it was one that I really wanted to participate in and be part of. And then at the same time I’ve been over my own education as a cook as I’m going back and reading James Beard and Craig Claiborne, then realizing as a footnote that some of these people are like gay guys, and significant figures and the fact that they’re being gay is, like feels like a buried fact.
And so it seemed like there was a lot of history there that could be explored, and it was just, and then these were things just kind of like in my head, and then I read that article on The Cut, it was coining the term “the doodie,” the “dude foodie,” and it was, and I thought it was really funny and I liked it, but it made me think, “oh, maybe there should be food magazine called Goodie,” like a gay foodie. Then I met Alex who, and Steve, who we founded the magazine together, when I met them I mentioned that this idea for a gay food magazine. I was like, “oh, we should talk about that,” and just kind of like, one thing led to another.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right, and what does the name a, a reference to?
LUKAS VOLGER: It comes from the vernacular, Polari, would use in the west, sort of western Europe during the 20th century, mid-20th century, sort of like theater scene. It’s like, sort of like ballroom, the language of the ballroom, that kind of vernacular. But “jarry”in Polari means food, and like, to “zhuzh” your hair is a Polari word, or Morrissey’s Bona Drag is Polari. Yeah.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Cool. How do you feel about Morrissey these days?
LUKAS VOLGER: You know, I was never a huge Morrissey fan. I need to like, I feel like I have some, like, work to do to catch up.
ALICIA KENNEDY: He’s, it’s OK.
LUKAS VOLGER: I’m aware of, like, him causing some scandals.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You wrote a piece for Taste about whether cookbooks should have nutritional facts, and I was wondering if you feel any pressure or like a stigma around doing vegetarian cookbooks, and the idea of health and how attached to that is to vegetarianism, and whether you’ve tried to work against that or work with it or how you feel about that generally?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah. That’s like exactly where that piece came from. I would get emails from people asking me why I don’t include nutrition facts in my cookbooks, and it had never occurred to me. It was like, I, you know, I worked in restaurants and I certainly, like, feel good when I eat vegetarian food and to that extent, it feels like healthy to me, but I’d never thought of it on that sort of granular nutrition level. And then I’ve heard, it’s something that I would see as comments on like Heidi Swanson’s blog, or other vegetarian blogs, that to me it was like, this is not really a health website, but people want this information. So, yeah, I’d always like, coming from a little bit of a restaurant background or like learning to cook in restaurants and loving all kinds of cookbooks, it, I just wanted to, yeah, I don’t think of vegetarian food as like, per se, healthy cooking. For me, it’s always just about it being delicious and a recipe that like offers something new in terms of technique or combination of ingredients and it is like doable for the general home cook.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right. What was the response like to that piece?
LUKAS VOLGER: Well I think Taste being the publication, like, they’re sort of a foodie-forward rather than how, everybody was like, “No, don’t include in the cookbook.” I had put a question on Facebook where I was asking, that’s where I realized that there might be more of a story to explore, but I just asked of my Facebook friends, if they thought that cookbooks should include nutritional information, and it was like so split without, no one was really indulging a gray area at all. And it was like anybody who’s ever been, other, like, people who were doing Weight Watcher points or people who are on any kind of diet, they’re like, “Oh my God, would you please just include it in the cookbook, then I don’t have to go do it through my app or online?” And then everybody else is like, “No, you’re ruining my cookbook experience.” As I was saying, I’ve been now thinking about food in a little bit more of a gray, granular level than I had before.
And it was like, well, why, you know, we include all these dumb conventions in cookbooks that, you know, all this front matter and the pantry items and little serving sizes that really mean nothing, and why wouldn’t you include nutrition information? It’s like, you know, food is fuel for our body and it kind of makes sense, and then ended up coming to a different conclusion once I realize that how different people interact with that information is sometimes in complicated ways.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yeah, no, certainly. Well, in the magazine, has there been a piece that you’ve been really proud to publish?
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah, there’ve been lots of them. One of the, the first pieces that I commissioned was John Birdsall’s story, “Straight Up Passing,” about looking at the state of chefs being out in restaurant kitchens. And it’s funny to think about it now because that was like 2015, and he sort of begins the piece with a pride thing that he was, a pride section of the, I think the alt-weekly that he was working on in San Francisco, and reaching out to all these people that like he knew, all these chefs that were lesbians and gay, or gay, and they didn’t want to participate in it. And then, so he recalls this and then find some chefs to talk to. And finally said sort of, the, things hadn’t really changed that much in the, I can’t remember how many years it had been, but enough years. And he, I don’t know, you should read it, it’s up on jarrymag.com, but looking back, that was only 2015 and I feel like at that time we had to do so much work to try to find queer chefs. Gay chefs were like, we had this whole process of like going through that who they’re following on Instagram and who is following them. Like, “OK, this person is probably,” and now we get pitches from publicists and stuff.
So I think the dynamic, it certainly isn’t the liability that chefs used to think that it was before, but anyway, I’m proud of publishing that story because then it went onto a win a James Beard Award. There’s other ones. We did this great piece with Neil Santos who lives in, he’s mostly a photographer, he works mostly as a photographer. He lives in Philadelphia, and he profiles these five different people who are urban farmers in Philly. And it’s just, I hadn’t really thought about the legacy of urban farming and what it has to do with the migration from the south after the civil war and through the 20th century, and then I thought that, and then the social justice undercurrent of urban farming, and how they are so much more than just farms, but community centers and like hosting, these are all queer people who are doing them at the helm of these great farms in Philly. We also did, let’s see. There’s a lot of stories. They all threaten to blur together sometimes. We did, for our second issue, a really fun piece that Mike Albo wrote. He’s a, like a performer and a humor writer, but he wrote about like the life and death of gay restaurants, so looking at like Big Cup in Chelsea and it’s kind of fun. It’s a bit of a light piece, but it’s a really fun piece to that people that seem to enjoy.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Awesome. What do you think accounts for that shift since 2015, since you launched?
LUKAS VOLGER: I think that, I mean I have been thinking, so one of the conversations that Steve, my magazine partner and I have a lot is like, how do we, the stories that as I was framing them when we launched, are now, I’m seeing them framed like the same way in Bon Appetit and Saveur. So it’s like, I know Bon Appetit is doing it through like their healthy edition, basically sub, sub-verticals or whatever they’re called, but let’s say there’s one about the profile of Charlie who, “I’m a queer trans person, a chef of color, and this is what it’s like to be a line cook,” and Food and Wine just did this great story about drag brunch.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Natalie wrote that.
LUKAS VOLGER: Natalie wrote, that was a great piece, but it was how do we have to do something, what can we do this different now with all these other food magazines are doing? I think that part of it is how the appetite for food writing is such, I think, very identity-driven right now. And then, so it’s like some, a chef’s identity, whether it’s like a female chef or a gay queer chef, that becomes like the angle for the story. Whereas it used to be the food or the restaurant or some other aspect of their story. Yeah, that’s what I think it is.
ALICIA KENNEDY: It is. Yeah. No, it’s very strange. I remember when I wrote a piece about a trans chef in Puerto Rico in 2015.
LUKAS VOLGER: I loved that piece.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, thank you. But I barely touched on their identity. Other than, I used a gender-neutral pronoun but didn’t point to it, and then it only came up very late in the piece, but then, of course, they framed it, Munchies, as “this trans chef” and it’s like, “why did you do that?” But now it’s like everything is like that. So it’s like if you have a complicated relationship with the selling, I guess.
LUKAS VOLGER: Yeah. I think what we have at Jarry that’s different from what Bon Appetit is, is we know who our audience is. So it’s like we get to write directly for them.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. Yeah, I think that’s a huge part of it. Jarry has been doing, kind of, more work in community spaces, or you did a soup night recently. So how, how has that stuff coming about and what has the response been?
LUKAS VOLGER: It’s good. So, and you’d asked me about the evolution of Jarry, so we launched as a gay food magazine, and the tagline was “men plus food plus men,” we’re three gay, cis-gendered gay guys. And we thought, you know, this is what we can speak for. Then pretty soon after launching it was like, “oh, this is going to be a lot better if we, and the story of the magazine is going to be a lot better to expand that scope.” And so we dropped the “men plus food plus men” and now it’s a queer food journal. I’ve spent, in the past two years, a lot of time just kind of on the ground because it’s not, I mean, not that my network has ever been all gay men, but I’d certainly, I know that like, the gay and lesbian scene in New York and the queer scene, that there’s some overlap. But there’s also, like they’re separate scenes.
I think Jarry just coming out twice a year. Kind of like serve everyone. I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know people and partnering on events. And so we did do a queer soup nightthat like Liz Alperin is one of the organizers of that, which was really fun. And then we just did this fundraiser for the Dream Cafe at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. It’s been good. I think that our original readership is a little, has been a little thrown off. We’ve tried to address it. Well, first we tried to just kind of like slowly just incorporate a little bit more, like, queer content rather than gay men, because, well, I mean if you look at our Instagram w we launched, and it was very easy to get engagement doing like, hot shirtless person with a tray of cupcakes or something. And then now we’re trying to be a little bit more considered about that and we, I think we’ve lost some of our original people, but it’s making for much better stories in a much better magazine, I, I think, and something that will have a lot more value in the years to come.
ALICIA KENNEDY: You don’t have to name a name, but like has anyone gotten mad at you guys for this, for this change?
LUKAS VOLGER: Not that I’m aware of. Yeah no, I haven’t heard directly from anybody.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, that’s good.
LUKAS VOLGER: I did hear from one writer, he was like, “I know you had to do that,” as if we’re just being PC, but I don’t know. I’ve learned also you just can’t please everybody. So just do what your gut says to do.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Yes. So what are you working on right now? Are you working on a new cookbook?
LUKAS VOLGER: I’m working on a new cookbook. It’s called Start Simple. It’s a building block cooking. So the idea is rather than menu planning for the entire week, you just remember to pick up these core set of building blocks. You have them on hand in your fridge and your pantry and then you can do all these other, there are these very simple recipes, and slightly more elaborate ones, but it’s intended to help simplify weeknight cooking.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, wow. How far along are you on it?
LUKAS VOLGER: I’m not very far. Maybe a third of the way through the recipes at this point.
ALICIA KENNEDY: OK, cool. When will that be out, do you think?
LUKAS VOLGER: Probably it’ll be either fall 2019, or winter 2020.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I remembered what I was going to say before, which was, those pantry sections in a cookbook, like are those necessary?
LUKAS VOLGER: I think it’s like, it’s like a liability thing. You want, I mean it’s never something I’ve like talked to my editors about, but it’s like you have, you want there to be like this sort of invisible footnote for like neutral oil, and then like neutral-tasting oil and then you can like go back to the pantry items and be like, well here’s why, here’s the neutral oils to taste. It kind of helps to lay the groundwork for the ingredients that appear or the, you know, if you need, like in Bowl, you, it’s really important to rinse the noodles after you cook them, which you don’t often do when you’re making Italian-style pasta. But I, you know, when you go eat ramen, they have these like, I can’t remember what they’re called, but they have these great devices you could like pull each single serving and you know, push it into the boiling water, pull it out, rinse it off, dunk it, get the starch off and then reheat it really quickly before putting it in the bowl. And I figured out this way to like sort of jerry rig that at home. But it required getting your little, like, a steamer insert. So just having a place in the pantry items to explain like, this is what this is going to be for and all that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So, to you, is cooking a political act?
LUKAS VOLGER: I had not, you know, to be completely honest, it’s not something that I had really thought about until the last couple of years. I’ve always loved cooking. I think of myself as a, an aspirationally creative person. Like if creativity is on one side and pragmatism is on the other, like, I lean so far on the pragmatic side that I long to be a more creative thinker and a more creative person, but in the end, I just kinda like to get shit done, and what I really like about cookbooks is the whole application aspect of them, and I like servicey journalism and so it’s always been, like, I’ve assumed my reader has this problem and oftentimes it’s that they just want to eat more vegetables and they don’t know how.
And I teach these classes, and I know that these are actual problems that people have. But I’ve always, it’s always just been about like helping the reader out and giving them some new ideas in the kitchen and new ways to make it easier and new ways to make it, make dinner or lunch or breakfast more satisfying. But I think with, and even with Jarry, it wasn’t necessarily that I, certainly, there was like a political subtext to it, but we’re like a lushly-designed magazine. I think, especially when we started, we thought of it as like a lifestyle magazine more than a political one. And it’s just, that’s always been, to me, a more seductive way to bring somebody in. But in the past couple of years it’s, I mean, with Bowl, I think about Bowl and me being the person to write about vegetarian ramen, and I now see that is like problematic in ways, it really didn’t occur to me. It was just like, “Oh, I know that people want delicious vegetarian ramen and I’m going to figure out how to do it.” And so I did, but now I think that I would approach that completely differently just having been made aware of the complications of it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Lukas.
LUKAS VOLGER: Oh, thank you, Alicia.
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