Gastroplant, created by NYC-based Thomas Wehner, is a fantastic place to go for globally-inspired, plant-based recipes. Thomas offers a truly unique and passionate perspective in his dishes, whether it’s a lush and alluring bowl of ramen or a stunning fresh salad. Read on to learn more about his culinary heroes, and how travel influences and inspires his cooking.
When I first visited Gastroplant, I knew that the creator and cook behind it really, really loved food. This person was someone who delighted in the discovery of new ingredients. He uncovers innovative ways to coax out flavors in dishes and just loved the process of cooking. Thomas brings a fresh and unique spin on plant-based cooking. Gastroplant shines with all of the endless possibilities that it offers.
I love a good bowl of ramen, and the his variations on vegan ramen on Gastroplant are stunning! Thomas created a creamy and savory Vegan Tonkotsu Ramen Broth. He then built upon that umami-rich base with his delicious Vegan Tonkotsu Ramen. I love that he experimented further and created ramen dishes with kimchi, curry and soy sauce. Thomas goes beyond just explaining what the recipe consists of and describing his thought process and why it works.
Read on to learn more about Thomas, and how ingredients and the process of cooking create a sense of connectedness and beauty for him. I’m so happy he’s here to share more about his passion for plant-based cooking and how it has improved his running career.
His words are powerful and this is definitely an inspirational read! Be sure to check out more of my Why I Cook interviews with other vegan and plant-based bloggers. They all provide unique perspectives and add strong and solid recipes in the vegan food blogging space.
Gastroplant: A globally-inspired food blog that celebrates the sensory experiences that cooking creates, with dishes that teach and inspire
When did you start to cook and what about the process kept you interested in it?
I did some cooking in high school as a way to share things I liked with my family, though that usually consisted of cooking eggs for breakfast, grilling something, or helping a parent with whatever they were making.
Cooking was an occasional activity for me until my third year of college, when I would try to cook new dishes as a way to procrastinate on my studies. I had one housemate from China and one from India, and I was always peeking over their shoulders as they cooked, asking questions and learning how I might recreate what they were whipping up.
I’d go to Buford Highway Farmers Market in Atlanta, which is still my favorite supermarket anywhere, to buy ingredients and just explore and witness all the possibilities of food from around the world. They have a uniquely vast offering of ingredients from different regions, including produce and prepared foods. I’m pretty sure I’d get into at least a low-level state of fascination every time I went there.
Early on, cooking (and food in general) was a chance for me to attempt a small glimpse into what life could be like for people in different places. In those days it was really the sense of novelty and connectedness that I’d get from cooking something new that would keep me interested in it.
On How Cooking Can Connect Us to the Past and Present
The reason I continue to cook today is less about novelty, but the connectedness aspect of it is still really important to me. Every time I cook, if I do it well, it’s an opportunity to experience a small sliver of beauty – a combination of appearance, texture, flavor, aroma – only made possible by the work of countless generations of humans cooking and sharing food before me.
I used to compare a good meal to time travel or teleportation, since it can bring you to another time or place in a powerful way. But now it’s less about escaping and more about connecting with the present time and place and realizing that the distant past and faraway places are still with you.
How do you come up with fresh and new ideas on a regular basis?
The change of seasons is one thing that I’ve always found to be a good spur for new ideas. The first really hot day of the year makes me want to make the most refreshing salad or cold noodle dish I can imagine. Cold weather makes me want to make soups and spiced baked goodies to enjoy with hot coffee. And springtime and its longer days made me want to cook bright, energetic recipes using spring produce.
For those seasonally inspired ideas, it helps me to spend time outdoors, don’t overuse heat or AC, and listen to what my body is telling me it wants.
Other inspiration comes from memories of foods I’ve tried, whether yesterday or long ago. Food has a special way of sticking in my memory, so some recipes I develop might come after a 10-year incubation period. Exploring new places and foods, whether in my own neighborhood or on another continent, helps plant the seeds for these types of ideas.
As far as “on a regular basis” goes, I couldn’t tell you, since my ideas are so sporadic. Ideas seem to occur to me, or I’ll go through periodic fits of brainstorming and exploring. I do really like The Vegetarian Flavor Bible as a creative aid. It’s awesome for creating unexpected flavor harmonies.
What Influences Thomas’s Cooking
What influenced your love of cooking?
My parents were probably the biggest influence there. Despite being really busy and having three kids to take care of, they’d cook pretty much every night of the week when I was growing up, usually from scratch. Because of their example, cooking always seemed like a really normal everyday thing, so I didn’t feel any hesitation to just jump into it myself.
As I started cooking a few times a week in college and just getting lots of practice, I’d eventually figure out how to avoid ruining a dish (for the most part). With the downside minimized (or at least considered), it would become a joy to either cook something new or try a new twist on something I was already familiar with.
Still today, the love that I feel for cooking stems from either trying something new, whether a totally new dish or a new approach to an old one, or from cooking food that is deeply rooted in positive memories.
Thomas’s Vegan Tonkotsu Ramen
Describe the best dish you’ve ever made.
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I think my Vegan Tonkotsu Ramen is a strong contender. It came about as the result of my goofing off in the kitchen one evening, not long after I had learned about cashew cream for pasta sauce (from The Happy Pear). I started to make a cashew cream in the blender and without much thought started adding Asian flavors to it too see what I could come up with. I can’t remember exactly what I added, but I’m pretty sure there was miso, dried mushrooms, sesame oil, and gochujang.
What came out of the blender was really tasty and somehow vaguely familiar, but it didn’t occur to me right away. It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized it had a lot in common with Tonkotsu ramen broth, which would traditionally be made from pork bones. That experiment led me to create the recipe that’s on my blog now, and it spurred my series of different vegan ramen recipes, which have been among my favorites to develop, as well as shamelessly slurp down.
For most of my recipes I have an end goal in mind from the start, and I fill in the blanks from the top down. This one was special because it was really bottom-up—trying random stuff without a clear goal and then asking “What does this remind me of?” and going from there. Creating this way is harder but it helped me make something I probably wouldn’t have thought of, had I had a goal in mind from the start.
I wrote Vegan Tonkotsu Ramen when I was just starting to blog, and it’s been my most popular ever since.
Do you have any culinary heroes or influences?
Anthony Bourdain, for sure. I don’t know much about him as a chef, but as a storyteller he showed us how much all humans all over the planet have in common and how deeply interconnected we are, with food and culinary traditions being central to everything.
He helped me see that food is one of the most fundamental and accessible means of connecting with someone from a different tribe/city/continent. Earlier in my life, watching one of this shows would make me want to travel and explore as much as possible but now it makes me want to cook something special and share it with people.
The Sarno brothers, Chefs Derek and Chad at Wicked Kitchen, are my heroes as far as plant-based cooking goes. They do some spectacular things with mushrooms – grilling, pan-searing, barbecuing – that are impressive visually and create such good flavor.
This beauty of simplicity is something I try to strive for in my own cooking. The Sarno brothers have also done much to advance the plant-based culinary scene with their cooking courses and Wicked Kitchen brand and I applaud them for that.
You mention that you’ve done some traveling. What are some of your favorite places and best dishes/food experiences while there?
I lived in China for a few years, about 10 years back, and the food there would blow my mind on a weekly basis. Yu Xiang Eggplant (fried eggplant in a spicy, savory garlic sauce) and Di San Xian (“three treasures of the earth” – stir fried potato, eggplant, and pepper) are two very simple dishes that you could find in tiny, cheap diners as well as fancier high-end restaurants. They’re both really delicious and quite unlike anything you’d find in a “Chinese restaurant” in the US.
I’ve named two dishes that I really like, but all over China, people enjoy all kinds of fresh veggie dishes that make the veggies truly shine, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of dishes like these that are fairly common. Chefs in China can make a simple stir fried cabbage taste like heaven.
That I could go to a restaurant of any price range with some friends and order a whole tableful of delicious dishes made from fresh vegetables helped reframe what a meal could look like.
Vegan Food in Estonia
More recently, I was in Tallinn, Estonia to run the local marathon and had the chance to eat at Vegan Restoran V a couple of times. For me, it was super interesting to see their Nordic/Baltic perspective on global vegan cuisine and they execute so wonderfully on it. The dish that stands out in my mind had fried celery root and an herbal emulsion. I think the idea was to imitate seafood, but it was tastier and more nuanced than seafood. I’d rate the quality and innovation here as high as, if not higher than my favorite vegan spots in NYC.
Running Marathons on a Plant-Based Diet
You mention that you run marathons. How did switching to a plant-based diet support your goals? What would you like other runners that are skeptical of eating plant-based to know?
The most obvious difference is that I have been able to recover more quickly from workouts and need to take fewer days off. Going from running 3-4 days per week to 6-7 makes a huge difference in what I’m able to do, and the quality of workouts improved alongside that increase in volume.
Previously I’d do a hard workout and make meal choices afterward that prioritized indulgence, like I somehow deserved a whole pizza and a pint of ice cream for my effort. And then I’d spend more time recovering from that meal on top of the time recovering from the workout. I found that vegan pizza and vegan ice cream, while still junk food, didn’t have quite the detrimental effect.
From there, I learned to load up on sweet potatoes, lentils, greens, tofu, brown rice, etc, and found ways to make those into tasty meals. That’s when I really found that my energy can have a very different quality depending on what I eat. Prioritizing those nutrient-dense foods helps me run well, which translates to better energy throughout the day.
Having more energy and running more frequently also created a virtuous cycle for me where I dropped body fat, which made it even easier to run.
On Small Adjustments and Making Plant-Based Eating More Vibrant and Varied
To a runner skeptical about eating plant-based, as long as you’re at least a little bit curious, you can start to see if there’s a benefit for you there, without taking much risk. Runners are constantly making small adjustments to routine, so it should be easy to experiment by nudging your diet a little bit in the plant-based direction. And you can explore ways of making food more vibrant and abundant with plants, regardless of whether you exclude anything from your diet.
- Aim for variety over volume and find ways to make your meals more colorful. Use fruit and nuts in your savory dishes. Keep kimchi and/or sauerkraut on hand and eat it alongside everything.
- Learn to use vinegar and fresh citrus to make dishes pop. Become familiar with soy sauce and miso outside their usual contexts.
- Find one veggie soup recipe and one salad recipe that you love enough by itself that animal protein becomes an optional side dish.
- Try lots of different stuff and pay attention to anything that makes you feel particularly amazing (for me this is often a baked Japanese sweet potato with no seasoning). Listen to your own energy and prioritize the foods that improve it.
Stay connected with Thomas!