10 Questions: Rip Esselstyn

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He's a former professional triathlete and current Austin firefighter. But Esselstyn is also the author of a vegan cookbook. The Engine 2 Diet

But he doesn't call it vegan. He's eating "plant strong"--and has been for more than a decade. Then, when a fellow firefighter found out his cholesterol was dangerously high, Esselstyn challenged everyone in the firehouse to eat "plant strong" (all plants, no animal products, no added oils, and no processed foods) for a month.

The results were impressive: Cholesterol levels and weight dropped across the board, for both men and women. Esselstyn's premise is based on decades of research done by his father, a heart surgeon. His book, part cookbook, part diet guide, part pep talk has just become a New York Times bestseller itself.

But believe it or not, he doesn't use recipes...

1. Were you always the sort of person who jots down recipes?
No, the first time was pretty much writing the book. The hardest part is actually putting down in the right sequential order and then writing down the instructions. It is an art, writing recipes. I talked to some people that write recipes for a living. A lot of great chefs know exactly how to make the food, but they have no idea how to write it. There's a big difference between actually knowing how to cook and knowing how to put that down on paper.

2. So you're the kind of cook that doesn't use a recipe? You just throw things together?
Exactly. I just go by feel. I kind of go by taste as I'm going through it. I never--before writing this book--owned a teaspoon or a tablespoon.

3. It seems like vegetarian and vegan dishes in the U.S. have changed for the better in the last 20 years. Why?
Over the last 10, 20 years there's many more options out there--veggie dogs, veggie burgers, seitan, tempeh, Boca crumbles...

4. Ever eat packaged foods?
I do, but not often. When I'm in a huge hurry, I'll grab a really clean Boca burger or Morning [Star] burger, but for the most part, I try and keep it a whole food, nutrient-rich, plant-based diet. But yes, if you're vegan or vegetarian, with all the different milk substitutes, cheese substitutes, veggie burgers and veggie dogs and frozen lasagnas and stuff, it's easier to eat this way.

5. And you say you don't do caffeine or alcohol?

6. What was the hardest part about writing the book?
The hardest part was having to write the book in my little 899-square-foot home with my two-year-old running around. Finding quiet time to sit down and really focus. I tried at the fire station, and it was very frustrating. I'd always get interrupted with a call, or we [had] to go out and do hydrants or inspections. It was just not being able to get enough quiet time--three to four hour chunks--where I could focus on the book.

7. How do you manage the diet on the road?
My wife and I were in Las Vegas not too long ago and I called down [for room service] and asked them to send us, sautéed in orange juice, broccoli, asparagus, onions, mushrooms, bell peppers. I asked them to do two big, heaping plates of those, and two heaping plates of brown rice. And they did it. We also asked for some whole-grain rolls and they had them. It was simple, but it was incredibly delicious...and just what we needed after a long day of traveling.

8. Do you have advice for someone who falls off the vegan wagon?
Don't beat yourself up. Don't be guilty. My big thing is, it's not about being plant perfect; it's about being plant strong. Be plant strong, and know that by being plant strong, you are totally improving your health. One meal and one day at a time.

9. What would be your last meal?
It would have to be my Rip's Big Bowl, out of all the things in the world. It is: Bob's Red Mill, Extra Thick raw oats, GrapeNuts, Sam's Flakes--it's kind of like a wheat flake--one tablespoon ground flaxseed meal, half a handful of toasted walnuts,one grapefruit, cut in half and sectioned,seasonal fruit, one banana cut twice lengthwise and then sliced into small pieces, raisins and milk substitute.

10. So what's next?
What is next? Next is--well, my wife's giving birth in a month. I would love to write another book. I don't know what it'll be yet: Engine 2 for Children, How to Eat Engine 2 Really Cheaply. But there's many more books inside of me.

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