Monday, December 5, 2022

Vegan Chef Derek Sarno: A Wicked Kitchen, But Make It Altruistic

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Chef Derek Sarno, co-founder of the beloved vegan food brand Wicked Kitchen, talks about expanding to the U.S., why he gave up eating animals, and why he thinks you should, too.

It’s been nearly four years since the U.K.’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, became the envy of Wicked Healthy’s global following. The popular food blog and cookbook brand helmed by chef brothers Derek and Chad Sarno, launched Wicked Kitchen, the Tesco-exclusive vegan food range developed by Derek for the supermarket chain.

Sarno left the Pacific Northwest in 2017 after years as the Global Executive Chef for Whole Foods Market to launch the Wicked Kitchen range for Tesco. It’s been a nonstop ride ever since.

“Wicked went bonkers in the U.K.,” Sarno tells Ethos. Launching the brand was a gamble; a mainstream supermarket chain hadn’t yet embraced in-house labels for vegan food at that scale before. But it was an instant hit. The brand’s success led to rapid line extensions and another plant-based brand for Tesco, Plant-Chef.

With Wicked Kitchen well established, Sarno says it was finally time to bring it to the U.S. The brand recently made its U.S. debut, landing in more than 2,000 stateside Kroger stores and 350 Sprouts Markets.

Wicked in America

“Our approach is like the U.K.,” Sarno says, pointing to the brand’s first two partnerships with the leading U.S. supermarket chain Kroger, as well as the smaller discounted chain, Sprouts. Sarno says here, they’re “going deep” with the brands “to help them lead and differentiate from other retailers.”

Ahead of the U.S. launch, the brand raised $14 million in a Series A funding round—a move Wicked Foods’ CEO Pete Speranza says supports the brand’s “next giant leap in growth.” According to Speranza, Tesco was the first stop in the brand’s journey “that will span the globe,” he said in a press release last July. “[T]he breadth of offerings Wicked Kitchen brings to market allows motivated regional retail partners to commit to multi-cross-category adoption.”

In the U.K., Wicked Kitchen now spans more than 15 categories including its flagship ready meals, frozen pizza, salad, sandwiches, ice cream, and cupboard staples like sauces and instant noodles.

In the U.S., it’s started with an impressive range, about two dozen items including its shelf-stable sauces, as well as the brand’s Korean-Style, Mexican-Style, and Shawarma-Style mushroom shreds, shiitake ramen broth kit, pesto sauces, chili mac, and porridges, among others. The U.S. launch also includes several items that feature Beyond Meat; Wicked was the first supermarket brand in the U.K. to use the popular vegan meat in its own recipes.

But it’s the mushroom-based dishes—Sarno is not shy about his love for mushrooms—that have become his calling card. On Instagram, he cooks up meaty-looking mushrooms, putting them into every meal imaginable, including as a stand-in for Thanksgiving turkey.

Chad and Derek recently released the second volume of their “Mushroom Manifesto” —a collection of recipes for what they call the “most sustainable, mightiest meat of choice.”

The brand cemented its identity in the U.K. in what now feels like ages ago, although it’s not quite five years. At that time, vegan burgers still weren’t in major fast-food chains like they are now; oat milk was just starting to build a following in the U.S.; Hershey’s was still years away from its first vegan milk chocolate bar.

Wicked hit the ground running, setting much in motion for other supermarket chains to follow suit. And they did—often mimicking Wicked Kitchen but never passing the brand by. Sarno says it’s hard to follow the success Wicked has had in the UK.

“I really try managing expectations,” he says, “we’re in this for the mission.” And that means the more Wicked Kitchen plant-based items that make it to the shelf, the more options there are for consumers to choose something made without animals. 

“It makes us feel good, but that isn’t a reason to rest,” Sarno says. “Animals are suffering every day and we want to put an end to that, so the more delicious plant-based alternatives we can make, the better.”

Courtesy Wicked Kitchen

Momentum in the U.K. isn’t slowing down either; Sarno and his team have played instrumental roles in the UK’s booming vegan food scene. Wicked is rolling out more items in the U.K. including 30 Christmas lines across Tesco’s aisles from the bakery and frozen sections to prepared foods and even gifting options.

There’s more to come in the U.S., too. “We have big plans for Wicked. More products. More partnerships. More of everything. There’s a lot in the works,” Sarno says. “Compared to the U.K., we’re just getting started and product reception has been awesome and we’re anticipating big things.”

International Vegan Film Festival

Lst year, Wicked was the title sponsor for the Vegan Film Festival. (Ethos was the festival’s media partner.)

For Sarno, it was a no-brainer. “We support all things vegan and our creative director is a James Beard award-winning filmmaker,” he says. “So it seemed like a natural fit to partner with IVFF. Our whole team has been moved by some of the documentary films that have come out like Game Changers, Forks Over Knives, Food Inc, Seaspiracy, and Cowspiracy. We’re looking forward to seeing what the International Vegan Film Festival will turn up next.”

international vegan film festival
Courtesy Priscilla du Preez

Films, like food, are an entry point to change, Sarno says. He went vegan for the animals. “It’s too much suffering and it’s just so wrong what we do to animals. It must change,” he says.

At the end of the day, that’s what keeps him going. A plant-based diet is optimal for the planet and human health, but he says that first and foremost for him and Chad “is the animals.”

Sarno doesn’t mince his words. “I think everyone should go vegan,” he says. “But I understand that it’s a big change. That’s why Wicked exists: To make it easier for people to choose plant-based food. Whether they’re using our recipes to cook at home or choosing Wicked products, our goal is to show people how amazing plants can taste and make it easier to choose to eat them.”

The Wicked Healthy cookbook is one of Ethos’ favorites. Check out the full list, here.

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