Give Praise to Seitan: Interview with Brian Manowitz, Vegan Black Metal Chef

Vegan metalheads may sound like a strange, niche, and in a way almost precious community. And, admittedly, it is. But as someone who has been both for decades, I’ve watched with a mixture of surprise and diabolical joy as more metalheads are going vegan. 

Although Brian Manowitz may not be RESPONSIBLE for that growth, he has played a visible role through his character Vegan Black Metal Chef. He started his YouTube show in 2012–I remember watching his first episode, laughing my ass off, and being astonished to find another vegan who was into black metal. 

Since then, Brian (as Vegan Black Metal Chef) has continued pumping out material on YouTube, creating the cooking show that “he wanted to see” and showing people that veganism can be easy to do, tasty, and cheap. With his vegan-friendly black metal warrior gear and characteristic “corpsepaint,” Brian has expanded from just cooking montages to incorporate discussions on his channel. He also has written a book, The Seitanic Spellbook, and he travels around the world doing live cooking demonstrations. 

I’ve been a fan for a long time, and I had the pleasure of meeting Brian in person at the Animal Rights Conference in 2018. He’s an intelligent, engaging, nice person (like many of us metalheads), and his passion for music and veganism remain clear in and out of character. 

Brian was kind enough to chat with me over the phone about his history, his perspective, and how music and veganism coexist for him. [Editorial note: The following text has been edited for clarity.]

When and how did you go vegan?

I’ve been vegan since somewhere around 2000 or 2001. It was in my first or second year of college at the University of Florida. The fast answer I tell people is, I don’t believe in the exploitation of animals. The slower answer is, I had a girlfriend in late high school and early college, and she went vegetarian in high school. After a year or so of that, in college, I looked back and said, “Well, I recognize that as the right way to go, but I’m not ready for that yet.” So I didn’t do anything…didn’t do a damn thing. Then after about a year or so, I looked back and said, “Well…it’s been a year, and she didn’t die…so if I recognize that’s the way to go, then what am I so afraid of?” I recognized it as a fear within myself…not a fear of anything actual, just a deep-seated, conditioned fear…of nothing. I couldn’t live with myself having just this fear of nothing, so I faced that fear of nothing head on and went vegetarian for about two or three months or so. Then I went to an animal rights group at the University of Florida, saw a couple of videos, and said okay, now I’m vegan.

I also went vegan my second year of college…so it’s a good time, I guess.

I think it’s reasonable in a sense in that, that’s when I started having to buy my own groceries, in college. Before that I was far less conscious in the food-making process in general…and the lifestyle process in general.

What about black metal? When did you get into that?

I’ve been a metalhead since kindergarten or first grade. My first couple of tapes were Mötley Crüe’s Dr. Feelgood, the Skid Row album, and a handful of others. Then I got into Metallica and other thrash later in second grade or so. So I’ve been listening to metal for a very long time. I didn’t get into black metal actually until very late, until after college when I heard Dimmu Borgir’s Spiritual Black Dimensions. I was like, “What is this bullshit keyboard in my fucking metal?”…and then woke up the next day and said, “Mmm, I kinda want to hear that again.” So it was probably the early 2000s that I got into black metal in general–I was mostly into old-school thrash (which is also where a decent amount of influence comes from in my music), also Florida death metal and power metal, all sorts of stuff, but I didn’t get into black metal until significantly later.

Do you think there’s any connection between black metal and veganism for you?

The black metal veganism was sort of coincidence for me. The only real connection I see is that, with metal in general, it takes some amount of throwing off social conditioning in general to listen to these genres of music because they’re not in the pop-genre realm. And I tell people, the hardest part about going vegan is not finding delicious food to eat–that’s not hard at all–the hardest part is overcoming the social conditioning. You can take up drinking. You can take up smoking. You can take up doing all sorts of things, and people will be largely okay with it. If you go vegan, they’ll say, “You’re going to die! Why do you hate me! Why do you hate your family!” Shit like that. Every social pressure literally ever–from the advertising you see to everything else–will come down on you and try to scare you away and make you conform. I would say that that’s the closest connection of black metal to veganism is casting off the social conditioning.

I distinctly remember discovering your show as Vegan Black Metal Chef on YouTube and thinking, “Holy shit, there’s another one.” Back then in 2012 it was literally like, oh my god there’s another one. And now it’s changed so much.

That was somewhat of a frequent comment, actually.

I can imagine… So let’s start with the character, what made you want to create a Satanic vegan chef set to black metal?

It sounded like a lot of fun to me, and it’s a facet of me basically. With the Vegan Black Metal Chef stuff it was just the music that I liked and the cooking show I wanted to see. I was combining my passions for making music and cooking. When I started it, I’d been vegan for eleven or twelve years, and I thought, my food tasted pretty good, it’s not that difficult to make, and it’s really cheap. It was kind of three things that people think veganism isn’t. So I was like, I need to tell the world about this because I think it’s a very doable form of veganism for a lot of people. I thought about making a cooking show, but cooking shows kind of bore me and put me to sleep. So I just combined my passions for making music–black metal music in particular–and made the cooking show I wanted to see, and luckily a few other people wanted to see it, too.

What sort of educational and advocacy aims do you have with Vegan Black Metal Chef? In addition to the practical stuff of how to cook plant-based meals, do you have any other goals?

I guess I’d consider myself a light vegan activist, more or less…sometimes more, sometimes less over the years. I’m all for circus protests, and I think that was actually one of the protests where, during the protest, you could see it working, and ultimately it led to the closing of Ringling Bros. circus. There are a few protests like that, where you could see it working–even as people were railing against you, you could see it working. I’ll never tell anyone how to do or how not to do their activism. I think there’s a place for everything. Different people feel called to different activism, and we all have a role.

With myself, a large amount of my activism I call passive-ism, in the sense of just showing people what to do, not just what not to do. I think both have their place–telling people what not to do can be fantastic. But it takes a whole other skill set, mind set, and approach set to show people what to do instead of what not to do. When you tell someone not to do something, it sort of leaves a void that was filled and had a practical reason in their life. It wasn’t some extra action that they did–it filled a purpose. Now that purpose still needs to be filled, and they don’t know how to fill it, or it’s not easy for them…and if it’s not easy there’s a higher chance they just won’t do it and will just find another way.

In my book as well, there’s a lot of sidebars of what I call “practical mysticism” and personal development and things like that, because that’s a big part of my life. I guess I’ll always be showing those things: doable veganism, personal development, and activism by feeling whatever your call to activism is.

It sounds like you’re doing a lot of important activism by dispelling some of the myths about veganism and doing a cooking show in a way that’s amusing and fun and engaging. I think that’s really cool and important.

It’s one way to sort of either yell or speak forcefully at someone that “Veganism is cheap! It’s easy to do! And it tastes good!” And show them that in a longer format through the videos, and convince them of that.

Speaking of the show and the character, what would you say has surprised you the most with Vegan Black Metal Chef?

Well I’m honored and humbled that anyone still gives a damn. That’s been pretty cool. And I’ve traveled the world, doing live cooking demonstrations in front of tons of people all over the world. I’m surprised anyone liked it to begin with. I’m gonna do it no matter what to answer the question of what do vegans eat. At every job I’ve ever had, it’s the question at every lunch period: “What is Brian eating…?” You can’t just say, “I eat chickpeas and onions and other things,” you have to show them entire meal ideas. Some people may have never heard of chana masala or other things, and it’s like trying to explain a hamburger or a hot dog to someone who’s never seen a hamburger or hot dog before.

Yeah, and it’s so funny too how your food landscape expands once you go vegan. I had never heard of so many foods before that I found after I went vegan–like, oh my god what’s hummus? What are chickpeas?

Oh yeah I eat a wider variety of stuff now than I ever did. And better stuff now than I ever did.

Back to the veganism and black metal, it seems that more and more vegans in black metal–and extreme metal more generally–are self-identifying as vegan and being unabashedly open about it and promoting it. And people I never knew have been vegan for years are now happy to talk about–they have no qualms about saying, “I’m vegan and fuck off.” Since you’re a well-known figure in this weird center of the Venn diagram of veganism and black metal, do you feel like there’s a quiet movement happening, and a growing interest? Or is it still mostly kind of random?

It absolutely feels like it’s growing. It’s awesome that it’s far more talked about now. For example, I’ve done cooking demonstrations the last two years in a row at Wacken Open Air in Germany.

Oh…wow…

The reason for that is that Wacken is really awesome, and they listen to the people and the fans, and the people demanded more vegan stuff.

No shit…?

Yeah, and the first time that they booked me they hadn’t even seen my cooking shows. There was a random German Wikipedia page on me. It was a week or two before the festival and they were like, “Hey, do you still do this? We need more vegan stuff.” So they flew me over. Then they had me back again last year as well. It’s an absolutely growing thing there. Even at the veg fests and things where I typically do cooking demonstrations, you see little old grandmothers and then some metalheads sitting next to them…it’s an interesting mixture. I absolutely see it as a growing thing in the movement and not just being uncovered a little here and there.

One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you right now is that I’m sure you’ve seen studies and things on the news saying that we don’t have long before we’re past the climate tipping point where we’re totally screwed. So much is pushing climate change, but over and over again it’s clear that our dietary choices and the animal agriculture industries are huge players in what we’ve done to the planet and are continuing to do to the planet. It’s frustrating because I feel like that conversation so often dances around the topic of going vegan, minimizing individual action. I feel like whatever else is going on, you can go vegan right now! And that’s going to make a difference the more people do it! Do you foresee the Vegan Black Metal Chef addressing that bleak climate issue at all?

I touch on it in the book a bit, but especially with the new format of videos I’ve been making, more of a vlog style instead of just pure cooking instruction, I would absolutely talk about that.

For myself, I like to focus on things that are obviously true and not rely on statistics and things that can go back forth between being “true” and “not true.” I have a science background myself–I have a degree in behavioral neuroscience, I worked at a brain lab as a computer programmer, and I had weekly scientific article discussions. I think science is fantastic and statistical analysis has its place. But I really want to focus on things that will be timelessly true and are obviously true. Like it’s obviously true that there’s huge waste in the animal agriculture industries, even in terms of the amount of food that one has to feed animals before you obtain food from them, as well as all the fuel and other processes. At every point there’s a loss of energy in animal agriculture, as opposed to just eating plants. In a sense, the exact numbers kind of don’t matter, because it’s obvious that there’s huge waste there. As opposed to having the specific numbers being attacked or challenged, if we could all just recognize that it’s obvious there is huge amounts of waste happening, then to me it becomes pretty plain.

I tell people, veganism is the easiest solution to so many of these things. It doesn’t require policing anyone; it doesn’t require any action besides your own. No one has more decision over what they put into their mouth or wear or buy than themselves. A lot of these articles that beat around the bush with this are part of that social conditioning. If people just flat-out said the elephant-in-the-room truth, these articles wouldn’t make money–they exist to make money and have people purchase them. It’s like the third rail of social conditioning that they’re not ready to touch yet. Their amygdala acts as if it’s a personal attack…even though it’s just an idea, the brain reacts like it’s an attack on the person and throws up every defense mechanism possible. Until that whole system gets acclimated to a new reality, it will still be the third rail of social conditioning, and people will fight back as if you attacked their very being.

Yeah, for sure. I wanted to frame all this in the context of black metal because, as you know, black metal is quintessentially bleak (in sound and philosophy), it’s often misanthropic, it’s very much about creating an atmosphere of dread and dark emotions. And that can be a good thing for those of us it resonates with…it can be cathartic. I find it very therapeutic when I’m feeling down to throw on some black metal and get that combination of the visceral jolt of the energy as well as the dark atmosphere that helps me experience and process my emotions.

Yeah, if they don’t come out in a healthy way, they’ll come out in an unhealthy way.

Exactly. And that’s one thing I don’t think a lot of people understand about black metal, the function it serves for those of us who listen to it. [Click here and here for some interesting scientific discussion of metal and positive emotions.] So when you’re faced with all this stuff, how do you use this music when you’re confronting all the bad shit that humanity does and the bad shit that’s going on…do you find a similar sense of using the music you make and listen to for help in what we’re facing as a species and as a planet?

Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. That’s a huge amount of the reason I make music in general and make that music is to express those kinds of things and feel those emotions and be in that space in a way that I can be in that space and then not be in that space–I can experience that and do what I need to move forward. It’s an amazing, cathartic experience for that. It’s essential to feel and express all the aspects of emotion, not just the ultra-positive ones…though it sort of leads to positivity in a sense, by truly feeling the problems and the issues with the world and then being able to do something about it.

Vegan Black Metal Chef with Michael Winslow.

On the same note, it’s really hard to be vegan sometimes…with all you see going on, not just related to climate. Having black metal as something you listen to and create yourself, do you tie that in closely to your experience as a vegan? I’m sure you get frustrated a lot being vegan in the world. Is music something you use as an outlet to deal with that frustration?

Yeah I mean that’s largely what I’m into music for. If I wasn’t making music, I don’t know what the hell I’d be doing at the moment…

Hope isn’t something that we talk about in the black metal world, understandably, but what if anything do you feel hopeful about?

I mean you don’t see fewer vegan products in the stores these days. Like you can focus on numbers and things, or you can focus on the fact that it only seems to be growing in the stores for people to buy. It’s not like the vegan section is shrinking and shrinking… It’s an absolutely growing movement. Every veg fest I go to around the US and around the world, every year is bigger than the last. On the socio-political spectrum, both people on the “left” and the “right” hate it because it’s one of the last bastions of rational thought and truth, of speaking truth to power. Arguments just become weak against it and become silly. So the hope comes because the truth is on our side. You can only ignore facts and ignore truth for so long.

To wrap this up, do you have any words of seitanic wisdom for everyone reading, trying to manage the deep despair and bullshit that we’re dealing with?

It’s all about bringing consciousness to your actions. The more all of us do that, the more the world will suck a little bit less.

Hail Seitan. Thank you.

 

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Published by

Justin Van Kleeck

I am a vegan (since 1999), a curious skeptic, a bookworm, a nature lover, and your garden-variety neurotic. My wrestling with chaos manifests as writing and, with my wife, tending our friends the plants and spending quality time with our rescued furry kids. I am fun at parties (because I am never there) and so unique that I am easy to forget. So take that, modernity.

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