Low-graphic news index |
Saturday, August 4, 2012 - Page updated at 11:30 a.m.
Find fields of flavor at Seattle's Field Roast Grain Meat Co.
By Providence Cicero
DAVID LEE is often asked when he became a vegan. It's an obvious question for the founder of The Original Field Roast Grain Meat Co., but it's not an easy one for him to answer. "Veganism is so absolutist, and I'm not an absolutist," he demurs.
He would rather reframe the question: How long has he held compassion as a guide to what he eats and how he conducts his life? The answer: more than 30 years.
Lee, 53, is an entrepreneur with a strong streak of altruism. In 1988, after more than a decade cooking in restaurants, he started Common Meals, the forerunner of FareStart, a culinary job-training program for the homeless and disadvantaged that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The idea for Common Meals stemmed from his commitment to pursue a vocation in the food industry on his own terms: a two-pronged fork, if you will, of creativity and compassionate intent. "There is so much suffering around food," says Lee. "I've always thought it could be different, from the way we treat those who prepare our food to the foods themselves."
He launched Field Roast in 1997, at about the same time he began practicing Buddhism. His mission was to make a vegan product that could stand up to animal meat. He dislikes terms like "meatless" because "that's the language of scarcity." If you look up "meat" in the dictionary, he points out, the first definition is "solid food."
His grain meat is made from Canadian wheat. At the mill the grain is soaked in water, removing the starch and leaving behind pure protein, which is ground into flour. Huge sacks of it are stacked in the Seattle company's prep kitchen, convenient to the giant Hobart mixers and other equipment that will transform the dough into roasts, sausage links, meat loaves, cold cuts and the hand-breaded cutlets Whole Foods stocks in its deli cases.
The company's newest acquisition, a bowl chopper so big it had to be lowered into the kitchen through the skylight, is used to make frankfurters. (Look for the "Ichidog" at Safeco Field.)
Lee contends that many early producers of vegan foods took the "kitchen sink" approach. "They didn't just make it vegan, they made it salt-free and fat-free, too. You're left with cardboard." As a chef, he puts flavor first, and that means using fat and salt, along with herbs and spices.
He fussed over perfecting the grind of his sausages and is pretty pleased with the result. Donning latex gloves, he grabs a handful raw from the mixing bowl to let me inspect it. The meat is tinted pale pink from red wine. I can see eggplant, onion and fennel seeds, and smell the earthy aromas of spice. They have a true, sausage-like texture, too, I discovered, tasting each flavor (Italian, chipotle and apple-sage) hot off the grill at home. (Find the variety pack at Costco.)
Lee points out the block glass and white tile original to the factory's handsome brick building on South Jackson Street, once home to Lucerne Dairy. He loves that people have been making food here for almost 100 years. His first business plan projected $35 million in sales within five years. He's still a long way from that, but with his son, Malcolm, handling operations, and more people leaning vegetarian, Field Roast's future looks as bright as Buddha's smile.
Providence Cicero, Seattle Times restaurant critic, co-hosts "Let's Eat" with Terry Jaymes at 4 p.m. Saturdays on 97.3 KIRO FM. Listen to past shows atwww.KIRORadio.com/letseat. Reach Cicero at email@example.com.
John Lok is a Times staff photographer.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company