Name: Zacchary Bird
Hustle: Food scientist, plant-based chef, author and online sensation
Hood: Nomadic Melbournite, at time of interview obsessively reading recipe books and scribbling ideas in an Air BnB in Kensington
Take me for dinner at: Woking Amazing food truck at Welcome to Thornbury, Sable in Richmond, The Cornish Arms in Brunswick
Saturday Date Night – Drag bingo and vegan jalapeno poppers at Evie’s Disco Diner in Collingwood
Caffeine Dealer: Admiral Cheng Ho Coffee Roastery, Fitzroy
Buying fresh togs from: Vegan Style on Brunswick St, Fitzroy
On the speakers: Vintage 70s funk like George McRae when I’m in writing mode, Christine and the Queens, and Maude Latour.
When I catch up with Zacchary Bird, he is on even more of a high than usual – which is saying something. He’s just released the second batch of his plant-based meat cook book, The Vegan Butcher, recently returned freshly baked from his Collingwood-based publishers at Smith Street Books following a sell-out first run. Zac is everything I love about a human. He’s quick-witted, brave, curious and funny, backing his cause unwaveringly, but without being preachy. His straight-talking attitude is delightfully offset by a wicked sense of humour and a mad scientist meets “fuck-your-diet-because-life-is-too-short” style. Be prepared to rethink everything you know about plant-based cooking.
“Plant based meat is the definition of a niche topic, but the book has flown off the shelves and clean sold out since our first run in November 2021.” he says.
“We’ve had to go to reprint. It’s heartwarming to see how popular it is, that there’s quite literally enough appetite for people to engage with this lifestyle choice and try these recipes at home.”
With a snazzy new cover diagrammatically dissecting Lion’s Mane Mushroom into meatballs, Watermelon into sashimi and Banana Blossom into pulled pork, The Vegan Butcher Take 2 hit shelves in September 2022.
“The publishing team at Smith Street Books are magicians,” says Zac.
“The new version is physically larger, but still has a lower price point. No idea how they did it, but cheaper and more accessible is a writer’s dream. If you’re ever in Collingwood, go check out their Happy Valley Book store – you can easily lose an afternoon browsing their shelves for books on food, queer culture, kooky art and photography. Each author has their own unique story.”
From self-published to sellout second editions
The same could be said for Zac’s journey to become a published author, which only began quite recently.
“I had written an e-book called Meals for Mere Mortals in 2019,” he says.
“It only sold about 96 copies, but due to its specialist subject matter, it was noticed by Smith Street Books. They were looking for contributing authors to write a section of a book they had begun working on called Vegan Junk Food and were on the hunt for someone who had the capacity to take up the opportunity to get the book done by deadline. I stupidly said I could get whole book done in six weeks. It was my first time working with a print publisher. It was a massive effort, but I did it. I had to. It’s a rare and almost unheard of opportunity to get a publisher on board like that. I got to skip over the pitching and relationship building from the start and get straight into the writing. Lucky me.”
Zac’s drive and hunger is infectious in many ways. His culinary wizardry comes from a dedicated background working as a food scientist, as a plant based meat developer. If you’ve picked up plant based meat in Woolworths or Coles in the last few years, it’s likely you’ve sampled his work.
“It gave me such great insights into the magic plant based food can give,” he says.
“It allowed me to bridge the gap between understanding the wild science and then breaking it down into something a vegan at home could get some value in and turn into something delicious and most importantly attainable.”
Understandably, picking a favourite recipe creation would be more difficult than picking a favourite child.
“I just couldn’t,” he giggles.
“All of the other recipes are sitting next to me listening. It’d be so awkward to pick.”
“I guess if I asked the people to decide, I seem to see the most joy out of those who bake up and munch on my focaccia. Nothing makes me happier than seeing all of the Insta stories of people brandishing a giant tray of oil soaked, rosemary and cherry tomato studded vegan bread. What could give me more serotonin than that?”
Another of Zac’s especially addictive cult favourites is his notorious take on a plant based fried chicken – Colonel Sanders eat your heart out.
“I certainly blew the lid off the secret herbs and spices. For the first five years of my career nobody would let me cook anything but that recipe. You’ll still find it in the Vegan Butcher and Vegan Junk Food. I need to spread the love far and wide.”
“People have so many excuses on why they can’t go vegan: say ‘I couldn’t let go of my Friday night KFC’ – my recipes offer viable and achievable alternatives. People don’t have to miss out. Why not have the guts to try something different?”
You’d think maybe a hard and fast vegan would scoff at the idea of a fast food giant like KFC having a go at putting a plant based chicken on the menu as they did a few months back. But for Zac, it’s all about steps in the right direction, no matter how small.
“Plant based KFC makes veganism more accessible and opens up space for all of us. Regardless of whether a vegan would eat there or not, it’s a great leap forwards from where we were, say, prior to the pandemic. In supermarkets too, we see the vegan shelf turning into a vegan aisle. It’s getting bigger! The world is finally admitting plant based food is a viable alternative. Even in the mainstream, we are not the “other” anymore, we are right there on the menu or on the shelves. We have stolen a bit of space back for the animals.”
The seitan samurai
It’s no coincidence that seitan sounds like some kind of ninja ultimate boss from the days of the samurai. Zac heroically battles the dumb preconceptions of veganism on the daily like a fierce herbivore warrior, fueled not only by the tastiest treats but a razor sharp slew of clap backs to bust myths and kick as many derpy, narrow minded jack asses as possible. You don’t have to wither away on lettuce leaves and lead a joyless, dry nut roast kind of life.
“The problem arises with the misconception that there is a doctrine of veganism. That we are all the same. People go wrong thinking there is a homogenous view of plant-based eating. When I first went vegan everything was smoothie bowls and bliss balls. I really hate that kind of food. One of the main myths of veganism is that it has to be healthy. The first book I wrote for Smith Street Books, Vegan Junk Food, certainly goes a long way to disprove this theory.”
“It’s 2022. We have options. If you want to eat indulgently, come check out my deep fried pizza and BBQ ribs. If you don’t like that the guy next to me is turning banana peels into plant-based pork rind. There are cool and exciting ways to showcase our diversity and get the nutrition you want. You don’t need to eat a block of tofu to get your protein. It’s 2022, we have options!”
Umami please mami!
“You can cheat your tastebuds in so many ways. The secret weapon in any vegan butcher’s arsenal is the ability to harness umami. It’s the flavor profile that is most elusive to the vegan diet that people don’t associate with it. Savoury food is charred meet and bubbling cheese and it’s just not what we are allowed. I love sharing hacks to find the flavour vegans miss from a previous like that can be found through cooking with things like mushrooms or nutritional and torula yeast and yeast extracts or seaweeds. It’s killer plant-based ingredients like these that not only give you the umami flavour you crave, but also make your cooking more exciting than that of your average Joe.”
How to troll a troll
When you read the amount of abuse Zac cops online from your average Joe, merely for thinking outside the battery hen box and daring to do things differently, it’s almost embarrassing to be a human. But he doesn’t rise to it. In fact he manipulates it in his favour.
“I actually engage with my haters,” he says with a wry smile.
“I turn their grossness into my future content. I take control of what they do and publicly name and shame. I screenshot their rants and make them into a joke. By owning the moment, I can reclaim a shitty situation to showcase the best of myself, turning negativity or bullying into a positive through humour, dance or as fuel to develop a new recipe. It also gives me the option to correct misinformation publicly. It’s an opportunity to educate people.”
“And honestly, they’re sitting ducks – they set themselves up for it. It’s a meal ticket when they provide that kind of low level, almost unbelievably rude tirade. It’s like thanks, this is going to be great to screenshot – perfect for social media. Someone being dumb and me sassing them back and sharing it, the only effect is a deeper, positive engagement for me, more exposure to my Tiktok, more people cooking my recipes, more people trying new vegan things. Thanks pal!”
“They try and start a fire but it just ends up fuelling mine. If you’re going to try burn this down, well I’m going to push the fire in my direction so it keeps me warm.”
You can’t help but admire the dazzling smile, relentless innovation and thick skin.
Slaying in front of the camera
Hungry for more? You’re not the only one. Chef du jour Zac’s talents don’t end at food science, writing and comedy. His star-studded life just keeps blossoming. Earlier this year he had his first live TV debut on Studio 10 Freshly Picked as the Ambassador for No Meat May, where he was asked to rustle up a delicious plant based burger live on TV.
“The hosts were lovely,” he says.
“But the most amazing thing came as a complete shock. The American magicians Penn and Teller just happened to be on set at the same time. Unbeknownst to me, Penn is a vegan too. When he heard what I was making, he came running out on camera and stole my burger out of the hosts hands. Could you think of a better promotion for No Meat May?”
He’s no stranger to TV as a regular feature on Channel 10’s Freshly Picked, which is all about plant based food.
“I was lucky enough to film season 1 in the middle of Melbourne’s lockdown. We found a sweet spot where they let us come out of lockdown to film. The worst thing was that the hairdressers weren’t open, so I looked a right mess. So good to be able to go back with a fresh hair cut for Season 3. Freshly coiffed as well as Freshly Picked is a much better combo.”
Fast track to the red carpet with Stefania
For someone whose career in the spotlight began just before the pandemic, it’s all got red carpet ready at a staggering speed. Zac is often spotted around Melbourne with his BFF, model and activist Stefania Ferarrio, celebrating the delights of deliciousness at vegan friendly restaurants like the Cornish Arms and Vegie Bar. When I caught up with him, he and Stefania had been running riot on one of the most glamorous red carpets they could wish for.
“To say I’ve always been a big Ru Paul’s Drag Race Fan is putting it mildly,” he says.
“My life revolves around waiting for another episode to come out. Not only did Stefania and I get to go to the official premier, but we wore matching head to toe gold lame and meet all our favourite Queens. Seeing the new episode early was a dream come true.”
“Drag is such a jewel in the crown of Australian culture and I just love to celebrate it. Art Simone is my number one drag queen, without a doubt the epitome of Melbourne Royalty. I actually used to be events manager at The Greyhound, in my mind Melbourne’s most iconic gay bar, where Art used to perform regularly. It’s such a shame it’s closed down. My favourite place to go now on a Saturday is Evie’s Disco diner, which has a great vegan menu, including vegan jalapeno poppers, and drag bingo. What more could you wish for in life?”
“We can be exceptionally proud that Melbourne is fast turning into a vegan mecca,” says Zacc, whose mouth is beginning to water.
Melbourne’s God tier plant-based eateries >>>
“There’s so much popping up. One of the first places I ever worked was with the OG vegan gods in the Woking Amazing foodtruck at Welcome to Thornbury. They do an incredible vegan calamari, duck pancakes and some zingy burgers. Northcote Fish and Chips do a mean Vish and Chips. And if you’re after something a bit more fancy, I recommend Sable in Richmond, a totally vegan fine dining experience. I went there with a friend recently and went right into the Lasgane Fritters. My friend ordered Penne a la Vodka and I’m not going to lie, I was like “WTF, who orders tomato pasta in a vegan restaurant?” Anyway when it came out I ate my words. The fire roasted tomato sauce was food of the Gods.”
“This is my favourite topic to talk about. I could keep going.. so I will. I have been working with the Cornish Arms in Brunswick on revamping their vegan menu. They’ve added my Guinness pie to the menu. You can’t get past the vegan baos at Vegie Bar too – a Melbourne institution. I also adore Yeah Boy in Windsor, which is super vegan friendly, and has the degustation of a lifetime. Their panisse is to die for. They also do the most unbelievable Macadamia sour cocktail. I didn’t know macadamia was an Australian native until I went there, what a beautiful thing to come from this fine land.”
It really was a buzz to speak to Zac. A man who truly sticks to his guns, and literally drools with passion and commitment to his cause. Vegans and non vegans alike should have a nibble on his book and try their hand at something new – the revolution is coming! Now, who’s hungry?