There are many different paths to culinary stardom. Some chefs take the culinary school route. Others work their way up through the dishwashing ranks. But it's a rare food writer whose book flap includes a stint programming Tyrannosaurus rex for Steven Spielberg.
It's all in a day's work for Seattle software engineer and vegetarian food blogger Michael Natkin, who breezed through the Bay Area last week on a book-signing tour for his new cookbook, "Herbivoracious" (Harvard Common Press, $24.95, 320 pages). Both the book and his blog share the same name and the same philosophy, that vegetarian cooking should be a riot of bold, bright flavors and global influences dancing upon the palate. We grabbed a few minutes by phone, as Natkin zipped between engagements, to pepper him with questions -- and discovered that if the guy multi-tasks as quickly as he talks, it's no wonder he's been able to juggle multiple, full-time careers for years.
Q Let's talk about your background, because it's a tad unusual for a vegetarian cookbook author.
A I was a software engineer for 30 years -- started at 16, went to college for that and worked at Industrial Light & Magic on "Terminator 2" and "Jurassic Park."
Q You programmed T. rexes? Dilophosaurs? The velociraptors? (Shudder)
A It was very fun! It was a special place and time to be involved. I went on to (Fremont-based) Silicon Graphics and Adobe, but simultaneously I was
cooking, cooking, cooking, traveling, interning at restaurants. I kept thinking it was time to make the jump and start a restaurant.
Q Any link between your dinosaur experiences and your vegetarianism?
A (Laughs) No.
Q I was hoping for a traumatic story about T. rex chases and bronto-steaks.
A The T. Rex did not bite me -- although I helped him bite other things.
Q How long have you been a vegetarian?
A Thirty years. I started when I was 18 and had the luxury of dating a woman who was vegetarian and a really good cook, and I wanted to impress her. When my mom was dying of breast cancer and was trying a macrobiotic diet, I learned to cook for her. Between those two things, literally overnight, I went from eating meat to not.
Q You were at Green Gulch in Marin for a while?
A I took a year off from college. I'd been living in a hippie communal house, where we cooked dinner for each other every night, and I wanted to continue that. I knew about the San Francisco Zen Center, and the Tassajara cookbook was a big influence, so I fell in love with Green Gulch. Working on the farm, I'd get up at 4 a.m. and make the oatmeal while everyone meditated. The farm literally runs down this beautiful valley to the ocean. Picking vegetables and walking into the kitchen to cook them, it's the ideal we're reaching for with the locavore movement, but it was 30 years ago.
Q So, how did you land in Seattle?
A I met my wife and moved to Seattle to work with Adobe. It's a perfect fit for me. It's a great food place, and (my wife) has deep roots there.
Q You have a couple of young daughters. Are they vegetarians too?
A They are. They're old enough to understand the concept and decide for themselves, but kids take for granted eating what their parents eat. I'm 100 percent vegetarian. My wife's 99 percent.
Q Let's talk about the new cookbook. I know you love everything in it -- but quick, pick two faves.
A One of the ones I love is the Sicilian spaghetti with caramelized cauliflower. Everyone loves pasta, but once you get past marinara and Alfredo, you wonder what to do with it. In Sicily, they have all these other flavors -- orange zest, fennel, pine nuts and raisins.
My favorite appetizer is sauteed grapes and chevre. You warm them up in a saute pan and it brings out all the aroma from the fresh herbs -- tarragon, chives, whatever you have at hand. You can do it in five minutes. It's surprising and fun, and your guests won't have had it before.
Q You've spent the past few years at Adobe, while working on the blog and then the book. What's next for you?
A I quit my job!
Q Ah, so there's a restaurant looming, post-book tour?
A The blog is going to come to life as a restaurant. The typical thing is for a blog to draw people into the restaurant. I'm going to do the opposite, a blog test-kitchen, developing recipes and serving people a few hours a day.