Published On: Mon, Jan 8th, 2018

Meet the chef behind Tesco’s Wicked Kitchen vegan range, Derek Sarno

Sally FitzGerald talks to the Wicked Healthy chef and discovers he has great things in store for us at Tesco…

Introducing Derek Sarno, Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco

Photo credit: Amy Levin

Introducing Derek Sarno, Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco

There’s a new chef in town. His name is Derek Sarno and he’s come from the US on a mission to transform the way we shop and eat vegan food in the UK. Derek has been known for flipping plant-based foods on its head in the US for years, thanks to his passion for cooking flavorful, sexy vegan food with a healthy twist. In his hands, vegetables shine in a way they never have before and the concept of plant-based cooking is completely turned on its head.

Derek was brought to the UK in the middle of 2107 by Tesco to play a leading part in their plant-based plans for the future. He explains, “I’ve partnered with Tesco as their new Chef-Director of Plant-Based Innovation to support plant-based foods. We will see all this hard work in the first or second week of January. We’re still deciding on final dates to work to, but it will be in time for Veganuary. You can bet we’re going to put our best foot forward and vegetables will take centre stage like never before. I’m determined to take advantage of the opportunity Tesco has given me to support and elevate the vegan market in the UK. My brother and I want to help bring the compassionate side of cookery to the mainstream.

Introducing Derek Sarno, Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco

“The partnership with Tesco goes beyond just product development and brand ambassadorship. I’ll be helping to revamp and expand the full range of plant-based foods that we offer. A third of the UK population identifies as ‘flexitarian’ and the number of those following a flexitarian diet is set to increase by 10% this year [Forum for the Future, 2016]”. 

Mushroom for change

The exact details of Derek’s range for Tesco may be top secret until 8th January 2018, but one ingredient you can guarantee will feature heavily is mushrooms. To say Derek is a fan of this versatile funghi is somewhat of an understatement. Living in Portland, USA, he’s used to popping to the market to make use of around 20 different varieties, and the things he can make from them are impressive.

Derek uses the techniques he learnt as a meat-cooking chef, and applies them to vegetables (and mushrooms) with outstanding results. We defy even the biggest mushroom hater to wrinkle their nose at Derek’s perfectly seasoned mushroom ‘steak’, and his pulled mushroom has to be tried to be believed.

Introducing Derek Sarno, Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco

Derek explains, “When I was in Portland, I just loved Lion’s Manes and found they had an uncanny ability to replicate certain meaty textures I was looking for, like in my crispy-tender-juicy Lion’s Mane filet mignon with beet-blood. Since moving to the UK I’ve found particular delight in working with all of the oyster mushroom varieties – pink, grey, brown, yellow and king (aka eryngli’s). They’re all wicked varieties and allow me to transform them into really fantastic dishes that are guaranteed to please even the people that dislike mushrooms as they know them.

“I haven’t met a mushroom I’m not fond of and the way we prepare them is unlike anything we grew up with, so all those haters out there can’t knock them until they try them. These ones we’re talking about are nothing like those white button mushrooms people are used to. There’s a whole world of other fantastic mushrooms to cook with and we’re just getting started. Prepare to see the game changed.”

Something wicked

As well as being known as an amazing chef in his own right, Derek is also one half of the vegan company Wicked Healthy, alongside his brother Chad. Derek reveals all. “Chad and I really joined forces about 15 years ago when I was on the farming chapter of my life. He was helping me plant and harvest everything on our vegan organic farm. It was there we started cooking together more and we were both interested in each other’s style. Wicked Healthy was formed and really took shape over the years to come.

Introducing Derek Sarno, Director of Plant Based Innovation at Tesco

We both worked at Whole Foods, leading their healthy eating initiative, educating and training team members and suppliers on how to cook healthier. We worked with a board of doctors, all the ones we’ve seen on Forks Over Knives and What the Health documentaries. It was then that we solidified the concept of Wicked Healthy and decided to make it our mission to develop craveable, sexy and nourishing foods that people were longing for. You can learn all about it when our first book – Wicked Healthy Cookbook – comes out this Spring.”

The pair are also working on a new venture, GoodCatch, with Eric Schnell and Marci Zaroff, aiming to provide delicious vegan alternatives to seafood, such as shredded tuna, crab cakes and fish-free patties. This is set to launch in 2018 and will help to further turn the vegan menu on its head!

Compassion

For Derek, one of the most important aspects of veganism, and life in general, is compassion, and if you’re lucky enough to meet him you will discover that this emanates from his every pore. It’s clearly visible on his Instagram feed too, through his passion for helping wild animals.

Buddy the fox

To any of his followers, the names Mildred and Buddy will be very familiar (Derek often jokes that people are more interested in these two characters than they are him). “Mildred is my baby backyard ninja squirrel I rescued and fostered. Her eyes were barely open when I got her and her brother Hank. I had just left my position as Global Chef for Whole Foods Market in the US and had some time to do what I’d been dreaming about and that was to raise a couple of squirrels, bake bread and learn photography while I experimented in the kitchen, mostly with mushrooms.

Mildred now lives in the back and comes around every day to visit and chow down on her nut supply. She is the sweetest thing and we have such a bond. I miss her dearly and my friend sends me photos of her regularly.

Mildred the squirrel

“Since moving to London I’ve become quite attached to an urban fox named Buddy. He came to visit me the first day I moved into the new place. He was in very bad shape and had a really bad case of mange. I’ve since taken it upon myself to do some research, get some meds and spike his food to help him when he comes around. He’s doing 100% better than when we first met and he comes round regularly to feast on whatever I’m working on.”

To check out Buddy and Mildred or be one of the first to see Derek’s range for Tesco, find him on Instagram @dereksarno. He’s also made 31 videos for Veganuary, so pick up some top tips on the Veganuary Facebook page, or learn more about Derek and Chad at wickedhealthyfood.com. Make sure you keep an eye on this man, because he is set to change the way we eat in 2018!

Photo credit: Wicked Healthy. 

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