It was Paul McCartney and an avocado that changed the course of Toni Rodriquez’s life.
When he was 17, Toni’s sister gave him a Paul McCartney DVD of the concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of PETA. She was a vegetarian, and she played the DVD while Toni sat nearby, eating a pork loin. At the end of the concert there were images of slaughterhouses which made a big impact on him – Toni could not justify loving his dog Kobi while continuing to eat the meat of other animals. At the time the only two vegetables he ate were artichokes and his father’s raw lima beans. But on that day 18 years ago, Toni gave up meat for good.
As for the avocado, people used to tell him to put a few slices in a sandwich, but he couldn’t see the appeal (even though he had never actually tasted it). Once he did, however, it changed his life, because he then understood if an avocado was that good alone, imagine what it would be like when he combined it with other ingredients.
So, he quit his computer science job and started washing dishes in a vegetarian restaurant, spending eight hours there and another eight hours testing vegan recipes at home. His dogged determination paid off –eventually he opened his own business in Barcelona, a vegan bakery called Lujuria Vegana, or ‘Vegan Lust’. Today he owns and operates, along with his wife and partner Sara Pennacchio, Wildslice Academy, a vegan pastry school and research center in Barcelona where Toni teaches the art of vegan pastry to students all over the world. Recently Toni took time out to reflect on his vegan lifestyle and his quest to educate the world on how to make top-notch vegan desserts, from macarons to entremets to croissants, and everything in between..
You started experimenting with vegan desserts way before others in Europe did. What motivated you to do that?
Twenty years ago this summer, I became a vegetarian. One year later I became a vegan. At that time, nobody in Europe was making vegan cakes. There were some vegan bakeries in America – in Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, Chicago and California, but not here. I was an animal rights activist who became vegan. During the first year of being a vegetarian, I ate a lot of eggs, but no dairy, because I don’t like it. When I became vegan a year later, it was harder without eggs. I found many vegetable ingredients such as cereals, lentils and avocado which I didn’t know how to cook with. I fell in love with cooking after initially working in IT, which I hated. After work, I went home and cooked for my friends, and being an animal rights activist, I explained the reality of slaughterhouses and how animals suffer, and that we needed to find a solution, because it was difficult for people to change their ways without knowing how to cook. There were a few vegan restaurants in Barcelona, and I started washing dishes in one of them. Then I started peeling carrots and onions – all the dirty jobs that chefs dislike, I would do. In 2004, I tasted a vegan carrot cake and I fell in love with baking. At that time, there were no vegan bakeries in Europe. I wanted to move to the U.S., so I contacted a few bakeries, but none accepted me, even though I offered to work 16-hour days without pay, just so that I could learn. So, in 2005, I started my own business in Barcelona – it was called Lujuria Vegana, which means ‘Vegan Lust’.
Was it difficult to find vegan ingredients back then?
Not only were the ingredients hard to find, so was knowledge. Everything is easier when you have the knowledge. Today many people find it easy to make a vegan macaron by using potato protein. I created it, and without that knowledge you would be lost. There were also no good books covering vegan baking then.
You are known for your vegan macarons –was that your first big success?
I created the vegan macaron when there was nothing else like it in the world, but I also created a simple carrot cake and sold thousands of slices of that cake every week in my bakery. There are desserts for chocolate, fruit and nut lovers, but my carrot cake lies in the middle – everyone loves it. I am more proud of my carrot cake than my macaron!
Americans love carrot cake – how does your cake differ from ours?
My first trip to the U.S. was in 2007. I tasted many carrot cakes there, but they were all too sweet for my palate. The main difference in my cake is the sweetness of the sponge. I also needed to create a different cream cheese frosting, because it was also too sweet for the Spanish palate. Americans use three parts icing sugar to one part cream cheese, whereas we do the opposite in Spain.
Tell us about your vegan dessert school, Wildslice Academy, which you opened in Barcelona in 2018.
I opened the Academy with Sara [Pennacchio], my wife and partner, because I love to share knowledge. I was doing many master classes, and Sara suggested we open a culinary school. Initially we combined savory food and patisserie, because for many years I was involved with fine dining, but today I prefer simpler, well-cooked food. All master classes at Wildslice Academy are exclusively patisserie, but we still consult to restaurants on savory food. We offer both on-site and online classes. The benefit of our online academy is the 24/7 availability. The academy offers two master classes, each of which takes two evenings to complete. We cover croissants and basic items such as tiramisu, tarts, muffins, chocolate bonbons and cookies. Our most important class is the intensive 40-hour class called Contemporary Vegan Pastry, which covers a lot of theory and food technology. We teach the theory of techniques and how they work. In addition to everything being vegan, most of our products are also gluten-free. We try to reduce allergens as much as we can, because we want to be a more inclusive patisserie. Our sponge is free from soy, gluten, egg and dairy, and we are happy because that attracts more customers.
Is there a big demand for gluten-free products in Europe?
Yes, many people want them, which is why I try to make my products gluten-free, as well – to include more customers in one recipe. I also explain that to my students who own cafés, and sometimes offer gluten-free and vegan or gluten-free and non-vegan products, which is too complicated for a business. Instead, they should offer a product which is super good while being gluten-free and vegan. Our recipes are all gluten-free, vegan and soy-free, not only for celiacs and vegans, but for everyone. Europeans generally read the ingredients because they want to know what they are eating.
What are some of your favorite ingredients you use in your baking?
Spain is the largest producer of olive oil, so I am a freak about olive oil. When I travel, I always return with lots of olive oil. I am also a vanilla freak, which is much more expensive than olive oil! I also love nuts, and I am very connected to pistachios, almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts. If I make a pistachio crema, it must taste a lot like pistachio. If I do a raspberry crema, the flavor needs to be just raspberry, with a little lemon juice for acidity. I am currently very focused on fruit and nuts, which are basic in patisserie. We tend to include these ingredients in pastries, but we never capture enough flavor from them. In classic pastries, it is very common that a raspberry cream tastes like cream, butter and egg, but we are missing that raspberry flavor, which is really what we want – something super fruity and delicious.
You make a beautiful croissant, which must be one of the hardest things to make vegan. What’s your secret?
Croissants usually taste like butter, but a friend who is a master boulanger in France told me that croissants are much more complex than butter alone. Another friend in Spain said the same thing, and he won best Spanish croissant twice. He uses honey and brown butter, which gives it more flavor. He also mixes yeast and sourdough to get a more complex flavor in the dough. Even his croissant doesn’t taste like butter – instead, it is very complex. He told me to find another way, which I did by testing many things to find something tasty. We use a fat which is very neutral for lamination, but we incorporate a lot of flavor in the dough. I use a poolish and add maple syrup from Canada. Instead of maple syrup, you can use coconut sugar or any syrup that has a lot of caramel flavor. I also use vanilla, and I incorporate a lot of extra-virgin olive oil in my dough. I tested over 30 olive oils, even blending some. The best thing about olive oil is that it depends on the year, altitude, and the variety of the olive. Picual, Picudo, Royal, Cornicabra, Arbequina – they all give you different kinds of aromas. I used Hojiblanca last year for my croissant, which was slightly spicy, a little bit green, fruity and bitter. This year I am using a blend of Hojiblanca and Picual. At the end of this year when that is finished, I will use Picual which is very common, from Jaén, to give more flavor to my dough. So, I created another way to give flavor to my croissant, instead of relying on butter or margarine. It took me a long time to go through the evolution of that product, but in the end, I got it right.
I was excited to see your book The Vegan Pastry Bible is now available in English. Did you enjoy the process of writing it?
It was both easy and difficult, because it happened during COVID. It was easier because I had more free time to take pictures, but it was difficult because I couldn’t go to the studio to take 60% of the photos. But I had more time to think about the recipes and change them. I prepared everything at the academy, then gave the boxes to my photographer, Becky Lawton. We used masks and gloves, and she sent me the pictures which showed the evolution of the book. It was originally done in Spanish and then translated to English, and there are 100 recipes, including macarons, creams, fine pastries, cookies and cakes. I thought about including more fine pastries, but I decided to make it more about the basics. It was difficult because the U.S. audience differs from that of France, Italy or Spain, and we wanted to please everyone.
What’s next for you?
We want to launch more online courses, which we are currently preparing. I would love to be involved in other projects, but we need time. My main goal is to put vegan food in people’s mouths. That is my favorite moment in the final buffet of the masterclass – let’s taste, because it is more about food than Instagram. You can offer a lot of theory and make a super nice cake, but if it’s not tasty, everything else disappears. We remain focused on the academy and online courses and will continue with our R&D. In 2024, I hope to find more time to feed the world.
(This article appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)