by Raul Dhanani

I’m Raul, a vegan chef currently living in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I develop plant-based, refined-sugar-free, and clean-ingredient recipes. 

A little background story:
My upbringing relative to cooking & food

I was born in Sint Maarten (a beautiful tiny island in the Caribbean) and grew up there until the age of 18. Believe it or not, up until and even a little passed that age, I had never cooked a single meal of my own. And in hindsight, as much as I unknowingly admired watching food being prepared, the kitchen was not my place. It was territory that I never needed to step into, nor dared to step into. At the very young age of about 8, I had already decided to turn vegetarian, but even so, vegetables and fruits were not my first choice of foods. I grew up on junky, processed, predominantly carb and fat based comfort food. I was by no means a healthy vegetarian. And to top that, I was a very fussy eater too. Since then though, I have come a very long way in terms of my ability to cook, as well as my dietary choices.

A new chapter: Discovering a hidden passion

So how did I go from having missed out on cooking the first 19, almost 20, years of my life to working in a professional plant-based kitchen and starting a food blog at age 26? Well, let’s revisit the 19-year old version of me. I had freshly moved to the Netherlands in pursuit of studying for a bachelor’s degree in hospitality – hotel management to be specific. Living away from home and not having homemade food readily available actually came with a sense of excitement for me. Why? Because it would have meant challenging myself to create the kind of foods and flavors I grew up with, all on my own. And when I did, it would come with a sense of accomplishment. If I could learn about my own palette and create foods to match that, surely, I could learn about others’ palettes and create food completely new to me as well.

It was also around then that I had felt a pull or calling, so to speak, to eat more plant-based. I had watched one too many videos on the different reasons to go vegan, and it just resonated with my entire being. And relative to cooking, it felt as though a whole new world of possibility had opened up for me. I began experimenting, recipe after recipe – only a few successes in a pool of failures. The only thing that would motivate me to get out of bed every morning was the idea of creating something new. In fact, I had spent more time in my tiny kitchen at the time than I had attending classes all year. My university at the time required us to work as students on an internship basis during the very first year itself, and this included working in a professional, fine-dining restaurant. This was my first real, hands-on exposure to professional kitchen. However, after the first year, I decided that I should go straight for what I want. Dropping out of university came at the worthy expense of discovering my passion for being in the kitchen. 

Turning the passion into a job: Vegan Chef in the making

To my disappointment, there were no plant-based culinary courses available at the time anywhere in the Netherlands. After much searching, I came across an online platform with a professional, fully plant-based certification course. I thought to myself, I have nothing to lose. In fact, this course happened to be just what I needed on my journey. I learned so much of what is covered in culinary school, online. This is a high quality course, with premium technique videos and chef instructor support. I gained all the fundamental knowledge I needed to prepare me to work in a professional plant-based kitchen. I learned to use so many more vegetables than I had ever before used, in creative ways that satisfied my picky palette. I learned the value of technique in cooking, because as much as cooking is an art, it is also a skill.

At the time, I was still a vegetarian, however I would only cook and eat plant-based at home. While completing this course, I was also voluntarily working at a vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant in Rotterdam. It was a small lunch and supper spot, with only one chef who ran the entire kitchen on her own. Working directly under this lead chef, I learned a lot about running a professional kitchen. Every once in a while, I was given the opportunity to test smaller items that would eventually be sold. I remember baking scones and cinnamon rolls; it was rewarding to watch them sell.

Shortly after having completed my certificate course, I had begun working at a start-up catering company that specialized in no-bake, gluten-free, refined sugar free, and vegan dessert bites. For two years, my job was to prepare big batches of layered desserts that needed to be frozen in order to set, unlike baked goods. I was also the one responsible for experimenting with and coming up with new flavors, some of which are still being made and sold up to present date. However, my job function didn’t stop at sweets; I was also responsible for whipping up lunch for the entire staff, which would help me gain some experience cooking for others under stress and time management. It was around this period (March 2016) that I officially turned vegan.

After two years of working in the no-bakery, the owner of the company opened up a restaurant, with a fully plant-based kitchen. I was offered to be one of the first and leading chefs of this brand new restaurant. This was an opportunity of right place and right timing that I simply could not pass. For the next almost 3 years, I would have worked side by side with multiple chefs, who stepped into the kitchen with their own experiences. I learned something new from every chef I worked with. I have seen myself grow as one, as well.

Creating a Platform to Share: The Free Vegan

Although I had dabbled with the idea of starting a food blog years ago, it wasn’t an action step that I dared to take. The time was somehow never right. In retrospect, there would have been no right or wrong timing because I was waiting for the circumstances to be perfect, when in reality, the circumstances are never perfect. For years, I have always had people ask for recipes, and I’ve always had people tell me I should start a blog. Somehow I never put two and two together. Around the first quarter of 2019, I finally took the step to create this platform to share many of my tried and tested recipes. I am a perfectionist by nature, so every recipe I put out, I put a lot of thought into, with attention to the finer details. My wish is for this website to be a source of inspiration to every one who either cooks already or doesn’t cook at all, but would like to get into the kitchen more. A source of inspiration for anyone, vegan or not, looking for comforting soul food. I believe that food, like everything else, is energy. And the kind of energy we feed our body matters. I hope for everyone to have a great relationship to food and a great relationship with their bodies, and that this platform will be of use in getting there.

Why refined sugar free? And what is “clean” exactly?

I believe that anyone who wants to improve his or her relationship to food and eating, must start asking questions about what is right or wrong for his/her body individually. One size does not fit all, and neither does a diet. Every single body has different needs and wants, and the only way to find out what your body needs or wants is to tune in and listen. Personally, refined sugars do not sit well with my body. Refined sugar, to me, means cane sugar, white sugar, artificial sweeteners, etc. The sugars I consume, aside from those found in vegetables, fruits, and grains, are usually coconut-based (such as coconut sugar or coconut nectar), date-based (date paste or date syrup), or maple syrup. One can argue that these are also refined sugars, and I have to agree that to some degree they are. But not only do they affect the glycemic index differently (more positively), they also personally sit well with my body. Therefore I choose to create recipes using these sugars, when required.

Clean food means different things to different people. Again, this is a highly subjective topic, and no two diets will look the same. Clean to me, means foods that barely contain (or contain none at all) of unnecessary flavor enhancers, preservatives, conservatives, or additives (E-numbers here in Europe). Clean, for me, is a diet of mostly grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits. Oils are fine with me, if used in moderation. However, many of my recipes can easily be made oil-free.

Why The Free Vegan?

Although food is the main focus on my website for now, I do eventually hope to include more than that. The ‘free’ in ‘The Free Vegan’ comes from freedom. The vegan who is free. I identify as a free spirit with a strong connection to authentic and conscious living. To me, this means reducing suffering where possible while still being grounded in, or tethered to one’s truth. It’s a fine balance between doing no harm and tolerating no bullshit. And treading the Earth so lightly in this manner equals freedom to me. A free mind is a free life and a free life is a free planet. It wouldn’t truly be a free planet if we continued to support the animal industry in its unethical practices. So the free vegan, is really anyone who stands for freedom for all life forms. I hope that what The Free Vegan stands for resonates with you, at least a little. And again, I hope that this platform will be of use to you in some way.

— Raul,
The Free Vegan