Nadia Fragnito is a woman of many talents. A contestant on SBS’s ‘The Chefs Line’ and a renowned vegan chef, she has a vegan cookbook, runs workshops and even runs vegan cooking retreats!
We were thrilled she agreed to have a chat and talk about her Italian heritage and how it has shaped her desire to show just how good vegan Italian food can be.
Tell us what first inspired your vegan journey
Nadia Fragnito: Growing up, I always thought about going vegetarian because the idea of animal cruelty really bothered me. But it never seemed like a real possibility. Then when I moved out of home, I guess I felt like I had the space and opportunity to make choices for myself. After 1 year living on my own, I decided to go vegetarian. A few months later, I borrowed a cookbook from my local library and read the truth about the dairy and egg industry. And I chose right then that being vegetarian wasn’t enough to stop the cruelty. So I went vegan. Later that year I had my 21st birthday party with family and friends. I was adamant that we serve mostly vegan food. I bet I had a lot of relatives wondering what those weird vegan sausages were!
You have been cooking vegan for 19 years, how has the landscape changed in that time?
I think it’s been 18 years. But yes, wow, it’s changed a lot. For starters, I didn’t know any other vegans or vegetarians for that matter. They just didn’t seem to exist! There wasn’t social media at the time, the internet wasn’t the resource it is today, so I didn’t have any groups to reach out to or any recipes to follow on YouTube.
It was quite a challenge to eat out too. That first year I went vegan, Borders bookstore on Chapel Street had 1 vegan cookbook. It included all these interesting ingredients I hadn’t heard of, like liquid smoke, kelp, and vital wheat gluten. I searched high and low for the ingredients and got ridiculously excited if I found one.
Being vegan at that time really helped me become a more creative cook because you basically had to make everything yourself instead of buying it off the shelf. There were many hits and misses in the kitchen, that’s for sure!
You published a book earlier this year, what has the feedback been like?
It’s really satisfying being able to share what you’re most passionate about – so it was wonderful putting the cookbook out into the world and getting people trying the recipes and enjoying them. My goal was to prove that Italian dishes could be veganised, through simple home cooking. The cookbook was the best way I knew how to do this, photos, straightforward recipes, a shopping list of ingredients. I think people really respond to a hard-copy book. It’s tangible and real. I found that once I released the cookbook, my work became more credible. As if this physical book meant that it really was possible to veganise Italian. It’s like going to a restaurant, your experience of eating the meal speaks for itself. In terms of recipes, everyone seems to love the Walnut Ragu Lasagne – it’s a favourite.
Walnut Ragu Lasagna sounds amazing! What is your favourite recipe from the book to cook (hard Question! :))
There are quite a few recipes that I love making on a regular basis. But if I was to make a show-stopping meal to impress guests (especially non-vegan friends or family!) I’d make them the Walnut Ragu Lasagne and finish with the Tiramisu. Along with some great vegan red wine of course.
You will also be hosting a cooking retreat in November in Melbourne, can you tell us what people can expect?
Haha, a lot of eating! I wanted to design a retreat that wasn’t just wall to wall cooking but one that celebrates vegan food in all its forms, a full sensory experience, including a tea meditation ceremony, chocolate mindfulness activity, food memoir writing, a fun ‘MasterChef’ competition, and of course, cooking classes of handmade pasta, cheese and tiramisu. This is a retreat for the foodies, those who love a little indulgence, who love to talk about food, cook food and eat food! At the end of the day, it’s about reconnecting to what brings us joy.
Well, I don’t know what ‘chocolate mindfulness’ is but I want to find out!
When you’re not cooking these amazing creations what’s your ‘go-to’ lazy meal to cook at home?
Minestrone for sure. It’s one pot, throw in whatever veggies you have in the fridge, add some beans or lentils, a sprinkle of pasta maybe, canned tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, maybe some chili. Bubble away. Top with some nooch or cashew parmesan. A comfort bowl of nourishing love.
Who inspires your work?
I think it’s less about ‘who’ and more about ‘what’ inspires me. A memory, a feeling, an image in a cookbook, an experience. Even just the act of creativity. My Italian heritage and the Italian way of cooking is also one of my biggest inspirations. The Italian philosophy is about generosity, making others feel warm, welcome and satisfied. Through my recipes, food writing, cooking classes, retreats or even a meal cooked for friends – this is what I hope comes through.
However, my number one inspiration for my work is to prove how vegan food can be just as satisfying as non-vegan food. That animals don’t need to be harmed in order to fill our stomachs. I guess right now in my life, food is my form of activism.
Amazing! If you could cook with another vegan chef it would be who and why?
In terms of locally, Mark Ebbels, he is creating stunning plant-based dishes at Tarrawarra Estate and I would love to learn from him in how to create beautiful dishes. If I could go further afield, Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist monk and chef (who was featured on The Chef’s Table) – I would love to learn how to infuse my cooking with spirituality, patience and elegance. And any Italian nonna who may not be vegan but has all the secrets to creating the best traditional homemade pasta.
Where do you go out for a great vegan meal locally?
There are so many new amazing vegan restaurants and cafes popping up in Melbourne that I’ve yet to visit them all – so I feel like I can’t answer this one accurately! For good vegan Italian dining, Maccaroni Osteria Italiana or Shop 225. Whilst they both aren’t 100% vegan – they make it a priority to offer excellent vegan options as well as gluten-free. So they’re really accommodating. And I’ve gotta give a shout out to Vegie Bar who’ve been serving up generous helpings of vegan food long before it was cool to do so. More locally to where I live now (and I move around a fair bit!) – I love popping into Wholefood Merchants for vegan brunch and then picking up some specialised vegan ingredients.
Who should we interview next?
I think Lucy Stegley is doing inspiring things and now along with the support of the Doctors for Nutrition team. When I think about the influence vegans can make in a multitude of areas – Lucy is campaigning to help change the way the medical industry is approaching nutrition.
Nadia, thank you so much for sharing your story and inspirations with us! You are clearly incredibly passionate about showcasing just how delicious vegan Italian food can be!
Now for those interested (based in Victoria or who want to travel from interstate) If you would love to join Nadia for the Food Lovers Retreat, there are only a few spots left! For more details and bookings go to: https://www.theveganitaliankitchen.com/food-retreats
Also if you want to get your own copy of her ‘Discovering Vegan Italian’ cookbook in print or digital, you can download it from the link below: https://www.theveganitaliankitchen.com/books
Want to read about more incredible vegans? Visit our Vegan Chat section HERE.