Two cookbooks in 12 months. Half a million YouTube subscribers. A new executive chef gig. It’s safe to say the UK’s Gaz Oakley, founder of Avant-Garde Vegan, has had a breakout year. It may seem like he burst onto the scene (and into your Instagram feed) out of nowhere, all winning smile and on-point style, but his arrival has been years in the making. It started in his family’s kitchen.
When he was growing up in Cardiff, Wales, Oakley’s favorite meals were the Italian pasta dishes his dad would cook. “That was quite often what we ate—really simple food,” the now 25-year-old vegan chef remembers. “Just home comfort, lasagna and things like that.” Oakley would help his dad, enjoying the creative process of making a meal.
Today, a photo of Oakley’s vegan lasagna can rake in more than 15,000 likes on his Instagram page, @avantgardevegan. Since starting his Avant-Garde Vegan account in 2016, he has transformed his social media hobby into a career, taking him from an ex-restaurant-chef-turned-salesman to the rising vegan lifestyle star who has captured our imaginations.
The kitchen wunderkind
Oakley knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue cooking as a profession. In school, he took cooking classes, a subject he excelled in compared to others.
“I wasn’t very good in school. Really, the only things I really liked were sports,” says Oakley. “And then art and cooking were my favorite. Anywhere I could be creative and free is what I liked to do in school.”
Outside of class, he studied cookbooks and watched YouTube videos to hone his culinary skills. At 15, he did a week of work experience at New House Country Hotel’s restaurant near his home. That led to a part-time job working during the evenings after school when he was 16. Shortly after, he decided to quit school to work at the restaurant full time. “That was a very young age, thinking back, but I just wanted to become the best chef possible and learn as much as I could,” Oakley says. “What I learned there in my first week was more than what I’d learned in my whole two years of cooking in school.”
At New House, he soaked up as much knowledge from the other chefs as he could, having fun despite the grueling kitchen hours. His next move took him to Le Gallois, a French fine dining restaurant in Cardiff.
“I learned the majority of my skills there,” Oakley says. “We were trying to get a Michelin star, and the food was excellent.” His first position was tackling the vegetable station, and next, cold starters. “It was a cooler part of the kitchen, and I could really present my food [with] the flair that I really wanted,” he says. “I love making things look beautiful.”
The schedule was still brutal for the young cook, totaling 70 to 80 hours a week. It started to get to him. He wasn’t sleeping properly or exercising, just grinding away in the kitchen through holidays. Oakley left Le Gallois after just over a year, hopping between a few kitchen gigs before taking a break from cooking altogether. He took a 9 to 5 job loading trucks at a builders’ yard. He wasn’t passionate about the work. Still, it had its perks.
“It was a huge change, but I was actually working half the amount of hours and [earning] double the money that I had earned being a chef,” he says. Oakley worked his way up in the company, ending up in a sales role selling civil engineering materials around the UK. In the back of his mind, his cooking ambitions remained.
It wasn’t until he went vegan that those ambitions crept closer to the foreground.
A change of heart
In 2015, after watching a YouTube video about the meat and dairy industries and compassion for animals, Oakley immediately cut animal products out of his diet. He didn’t find the change difficult. “I just thought, okay, I don’t want to be part of this anymore. I’m going to go vegan,” he says.
Cooking at home wasn’t a problem, but going out with friends to restaurants or on road trips presented a challenge to the newly minted vegan. The obstacles served as inspiration. “Not having the offerings there drove me to start creating more recipes,” he says. “I just wanted to help people when they’re going vegan. That’s why I decided to start doing my recipes—because I realized that there wasn’t much out there.”
Oakley started sharing his creations on his Avant-Garde Vegan Instagram page. The colorful content was perfect for the visually driven social media platform. He eventually stopped using his iPhone to capture pictures of his dishes, switching to a higher-quality camera to better represent his work. He watched YouTube videos to improve his photography skills. Once Avant-Garde Vegan hit 7,000 followers, Oakley knew he had tapped into a new opportunity.
He quit his sales job to focus his attention on his social media endeavors. Fans amassed as he shared his vividly shot photos of dairy-free, meatless food porn. For cash, he began making vegan cakes and donuts and selling them at vegan festivals. “I was just spreading my name and sampling my food to people,” he says.
A YouTube star is born
When his Instagram account reached 35,000 followers, Oakley started a YouTube account to put a face to the food and show people how to make his recipes. It wasn’t immediately natural for the chef. “I’m quite shy and reserved, I guess,” he says. “The thought of being on camera really made me nervous, and I was very awkward. I didn’t really enjoy it at first at all, to be honest with you.”
Oakley looked at being on camera like any other skill: It was something he needed to practice. Eight seasons of recipe videos later, he’s noticed his improvement. He’s more comfortable in front of the camera—without putting on an act like some other YouTube personalities. “I think that you need to be true to yourself and be natural and normal, and I think it comes across much better if you do,” he says.
His audience seems to think so as well. His videos get millions of views. One on high-protein vegan meal prep has been watched more than 2.5 million times.
Beyond likes and follows
An agent took notice of Oakley’s talent and growing fan base and reached out to represent the chef and land him cookbook deals. In under a year, Oakley released Vegan 100 and Vegan Christmas. The latter is perfect for spreading good cheer over the holidays, with dishes like Parsnip & Vanilla Soup and Festive Nut Roast Wreath.
This past fall, Oakley became executive chef for London-based vegan burger restaurant The Vurger Co., and he plans on opening a restaurant himself when his YouTube account reaches 1 million subscribers.
Oakley wants to take his video skills to a television show and do more to promote veganism as a lifestyle that spans beyond food.
“I’d love to get into the health and fitness arena and do fitness videos and fitness cooking and things like that. I’d love to do some ethical fashion; I’d love to do my own clothing line. And travel—pretty much do everything I can,” he says. “I’d rather not be that vegan chef; I want to be that vegan creative. I want to do everything. I’m not closing my mind. I’m not putting myself in a box. I just want to do as many things as possible that help and entertain people.”
What does the YouTube star recommend new vegans keep in their kitchens?
- Cooked beans. “Things like chickpeas, lentils, butter beans, cannellini beans—things like that, because they’re very central to a vegan diet. And they’re very efficient.”
- Leafy greens. “Spinach, kale, broccoli—because you need to get some iron in you. It’s very important to eat a well varied diet full of leafy greens.”
- Nuts and seeds. “I’m making it sound very boring, but I assume the intention is to be very healthy.”
- Hearty carbs. “To help fill yourself. Lots of rice to accompany meals, pastas, quinoa, sweet potato, potato.”
- Easy-to-make proteins. “Things like tofu, tempeh, soya pieces. They all can be found in the supermarket these days, and they can just replace meat if you want something quick.”