Melissa Elsmo

“Discovery and evolution are key parts of who I am,” says Rich Klevgard sipping iced tea at his Oak Park dining room table.

Avid musician and front man for the local band, These Peaches, Klevgard, gave up his career as an information architect in 2001 to become a full-time dad to his two young sons. Klevgard, who serves as the primary cook in his household, has always embraced creativity to get though his weekly meals, but now he and his wife, Diane, are on the verge of becoming empty-nesters. Focusing on big-batch, meat-based cooking for two growing boys was a part of Klevgard’s daily routine for years, but the impending reprieve in this regular cooking gig freed the devoted dad to focus on food and himself in a whole new way.

A friend of Klevgard’s began talking up the vegan lifestyle and he quietly began contemplating adapting his own diet as he became more conscious of the ethical and environmental implications of eating a meat based diet. Klevgard’s shift from merely contemplating a vegan lifestyle, to fully committing to the choice, came in a moment of pure self-awareness.

A light switch went off.

“One day I just acknowledged that I had been in denial about my health for more than two decades,” says Klevgard candidly. He has been an insulin dependent diabetic for 22 years and did not acknowledge the life-style changes he needed make as a result of his diagnosis. “I found the idea of limitation depressing,” say Klevgard, “and depressed people want to eat all the wrong things.”

According to Klevgard, people don’t talk about the emotional toll a diabetes diagnosis can take on a person enough. Eventually he opened up about his feelings, shared his struggle, and became more honest about the attention and care his health required.

And just like that, Klevgard adopted a vegan lifestyle in January of 2018.

Sure, he fantasizes about eating pizza with real cheese, cheated once with a few Cheetos, and would consider adding a little bit of responsibly-sourced fish into his diet down the road, but for now he is living as the best vegan he can be. For Klevgard that means enjoying only plant based protein; he excludes all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs from his diet. Still, after six months, he doesn’t consider himself a true vegan, but simply committed to making the best choices he can for himself.

“I am not trying to evangelize or convert anyone;” says Klevgard honestly, “I am just doing things my own way.”

Klevgard’s natural understanding of flavor and solid kitchen instincts earned him an annual slot as one of the local volunteer cooks/chefs at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center’s  Rock the House event. After several years he earned a solid reputation for providing masculine meat-forward dishes, but this year brought his newly-minted vegan cooking skills to the party. He served up a memorable smoked Portobello mushroom “poke” with homemade BBQ sauce over a black sticky rice lentil cake garnished with chili-candied walnuts. It was a huge hit and Klevgard considers his sticky rice cake to be one of his go-to vegan dishes.

He was hooked.

Klevgard, who previously used  his smoker to prepare large cuts of slow-cooked pork shoulder, sausages, and brisket, says he focuses less of trying to replace meat in his diet than he thought he would. He plays with texture, color, and flavor in creative ways to keep him interested in the kitchen. Managing diabetes means Klevgard has to be especially mindful of keeping enough protein in his meals as possible and has become adept at creating balanced dishes.

“Homemade seitan has been the biggest surprise on my vegetarian culinary adventure,” says Klevegard. Seitan is a versatile source of protein for vegans and vegetarians made from vital wheat gluten. A three-ounce serving of seitan contains a whopping 20 grams of protein and can be boiled, steamed, or stir-fried. 

As a child Klevgard ate liverwurst and mustard on soda crackers as a snack or squished between white bread with raw onions for lunch. His seitan pate takes him right back to his childhood, but today his slow boiled batch of seitan, studded with chives and fennel seeds, serves as the star component of a vegan banh mi sandwich. 

Klevgard had never made a banh mi before, but builds the Vietnamese inspired sandwich with confidence. He starts with a base of smoky sesame eggplant, Tiger slaw (recipe included below), carrot ribbons, chilies, arugula, and cilantro. He tops the colorful creation with thin slices of the seitan pate before garnishing the sandwich with homemade watermelon-cucumber pickles, green onion, and a drizzle of his versatile tiger sauce. Side dishes of white beans and tofu pad thai salad round out the plate.

“I was so worried for so long I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the splendor of food the way I wanted to,” says Klevgard holding up his vegan bahn mi, “but then I make something like this and I don’t feel like I am missing out at all; this sandwich totally made my day.”

Rich Klevgard’s Vegan Survival Kit:

1. The Wicked Healthy Cookbook:  Derek Sarno and  David Joachim produced a book designed to bring a bold approach to vegetable cookery and the vegan lifestyle. Klevgard has used this book to inspire himself and increase his knowledge of vegan cooking.

2. Elmhurst Farms Plant Milk: Available at Pete’s Fresh Market or online these nut and grain milks are cold milled making them more nutritious and creamy. Klevgard keeps cashew, walnut, and almond milk on hand to enjoy with his homemade granola.

3. A Basic Seitan Recipe: Rich has become so familiar with the components of seitan he no longer needs a recipe, but suggests using an online recipe to give it a try for the first time.

Recipe for Real Life: Rich Klevgard’s Tiger Slaw

For the Tiger Sauce:

  • 1/4 Cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons of chili garlic sauce 
  • 2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 Cup granulated sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons smoked or toasted sesame oil
  • 3 Tablespoons Veganaise Dressing
  • For the Slaw:
  • 1/2 medium size green cabbage, sliced and diced to petite size
  • 1 teaspoon chia seeds for garnish

To make the tiger sauce: Whisk all ingredients together at slow speed increasing speed gradually. Stores up to one week in the refrigerator.

To make the slaw: Combine cabbage and dressing. Mix well and be sure the cabbage is well coated. Chill until ready to serve. Drain off residual dressing into a container or glass jar with top before serving and garnish with chia.

*Don’t forget to add your excess tiger sauce to salads and sandwiches. It can also be used as dipping sauce for crudite!

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