Fran Costigan is a renowned pastry chef who is internationally renowned as the authority on vegan desserts. Trained at the New York Restaurant School and Natural Gourmet Institute, Fran was a chef in both traditional and vegan pastry kitchens before moving into teaching over twenty years ago. As the author of Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy Free Desserts, (Running Press 2013) and More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally (Book Publishing Company 2006), Fran is regarded as an authority on delicious vegan meals. She also developed and leads the 90-day Essential Vegan Desserts Course at Rouxbe, the world’s leading online Culinary School, where she mentors international students of all skill levels, from beginners to professionals. Among the offerings are the site are:
- An Introduction to Plant-Based Cooking
- An intensive Plant-Based Pro Certification course
- Forks Over Knives 90-day Course
- Fran Costigan’s Essential Vegan Desserts
Chef Fran recently discussed her career via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for cooking and how did you break into the industry?
Fran Costigan (FC): I grew up eating pretty basic foods. My mom seemed to rotate the same half dozen or so meals. When I began traveling, it was clear that my favorite thing to do was to find the food markets and eat in as many cafes and restaurants as possible. My suitcase coming home was always filled with dried beans, grains, spices, and specialty ingredients to cook with at home. I went to culinary school (NY Restaurant School) a bit later than most and was hooked. I had definitely found my passion. After graduating, I was hired as a pastry chef in an exclusive prepared foods and catering establishment in NYC. I loved the work. This was a dream situation for me.
MM: Why did you decide to focus on vegan cooking per se?
FC: While I was working in the pastry kitchen, the upset stomachs that had plagued me from childhood worsened. In fact, I had to leave the work I loved. During my time off, I read a book by Annemarie Colbin, Food & Healing. Dr. Colbin, founder of the Natural Gourmet Institute was ahead of her time in suggesting that what we eat affects how we feel. It seemed to me that milk was the culprit as I remembered I could never drink it without a problem. I realized that I was lactose intolerant. Statistics show that at least 70% of adults are intolerant to dairy. Overnight I gave up all dairy and all animal foods and it’s now been 25 years since I made that life-changing decision. I didn’t know the word vegan. It was a different time. The choices of plant foods in the market and recipes were extremely limited,but I felt great, and I enjoyed learning about the wide world of plant-based foods.
MM: How did you come up with the ideas for your initial cookbooks?
FC: I missed good desserts. As a professional chef, I relied on recipes that worked. When I became vegan, there were no cookbooks or recipes that made sense. Desserts rely on formulas and quality ingredients. I was determined to test until I had reliable recipes for unapologetically luscious vegan desserts that everyone would enjoy. My first cookbook, More Great Good Dairy Free Desserts Naturally was published in 2006. It is still in print and a good resource. Later, I saw a gap in the market for a specifically vegan chocolate cookbook, one that would rival the best chocolate books in terms of recipes and gorgeous photos. Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy Free Desserts was published in 2016. There are German, French, and Italian versions of that book.
MM: How did you find out about Rouxbe and how did it help you during the pandemic?
FC: The founders of Rouxbe, Joe Girard and Dawn Thomas, contacted me to discuss the creation of a vegan desserts course. While I’d been teaching in-person classes for 25 plus years, I knew of Rouxbe as the leading online culinary school. I was thrilled to join the team of excellent educators as Director of Vegan Pastry and have the opportunity to create and launch the Essential Vegan Desserts Course at Rouxbe. I am very proud of the course. There is no other like it in the world. My students live throughout the United States and around the globe . During the pandemic, it was interesting and quite comforting to be connected to people who were all locked down and had many of the same concerns that I did. We shared stories. Students did their homework which I graded as usual. The interaction in the private Essential Vegan Desserts Facebook group was lively. Additionally, my monthly Rouxbe Live Event was something to look forward to presenting. I was already on board with online learning as an important resource but during the pandemic, we saw increased importance. Rouxbe’s Essential Vegan Desserts is a 90-day self-paced course, and extensions are available. Successful completion earns a Rouxbe certificate, Credly certification, as well as continuing education credits from ACF.
MM: Which are some of the most difficult and/or memorable recipes and why?
FC: My most memorable is my breakthrough cake. It was named by my taste testers as The Chocolate Cake to Live For. I knew I had cracked the code when I developed that cake. I receive letters daily from people, including many who are not vegan, praising this cake. It took a lot of testing to get a cake that was excellent, not just ‘good for what it is.” Another memorable recipe is the Tuile. I was working with an intern at the time and he measured wrong and the cookie batter ran together on the baking sheet to make one big blob. As soon as it cooled though, I broke off a piece to find an incredible, lacy, and delicious cookie. It took us a while to reverse engineer that cookie mistake. Both of these recipes are part of my Essential Vegan Desserts course from Rouxbe.
MM: Be honest, what’s your favorite dessert?
FC: To be honest, it is hard to pick just one. It depends on my mood and the season, but I’d say it is the Brooklyn Blackout Cake. I veganized a favorite cake from my childhood, the Ebinger’s Blackout Cake, from the iconic Brooklyn Bakery. It is three layers of chocolate cake, filled and frosted with creamy chocolate pudding. The fourth layer is crumbed, and those crumbs cover the whole cake thickly. A newer favorite is Baked Alaska. Now that Eggless Meringue can be made from chickpea water (aquafaba) and vegan ice cream is so readily available, this elegant dessert is a breeze to make.
MM: What was the best part of curating cooking content?
FC: I enjoy curating content that answers specific needs and trends. For example, everyone, whether dietary considerations are an issue or not, needs celebration cakes, holiday desserts, or a cookie for comfort. Ideally, I strive to offer desserts with as wide appeal as possible, made with easy to access and real ingredients.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals?
FC: I’ve had such varied and interesting work to date that I’m happy staying open to the amazing opportunities that come my way. My goal was always to empower people to get into or back into the kitchen to make foods that are nourishing and delicious, and that includes dessert. With the help of the Rouxbe platform, I have reached that goal.
MM: What is coming up next for you and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
FC: All my courses and live events can be found at Rouxbe, including Essential Vegan Desserts. I have one coming up focused on how to get started teaching your own classes I am also starting to return to travel teaching, and presentations which is something I enjoy. My calendar is available at FranCostigan.com.