Ahead of the launch of his first book, Sauce Stache’s Mark Thompson talks imposter syndrome, Gaz Oakley, and the love story that sparked his YouTube channel.
In Europe, most of us spent last Sunday watching Euro 2020. Even in the US, the Italy-England final was the most-watched Euro game in history. The world’s eyes were on Wembley.
Mark Thompson, however, spent his Sunday sat in what can only be described as a large closet, filming and shelving a video. He was trying a new format — instead of cooking away plant-based concoctions in his kitchen, the video was an explainer, focused on the science and process behind his experiments in the kitchen.
Why did it not work out? “I ended up talking for an hour,” he tells me from the closet-room over Zoom, laughing.
It validates the geeky image viewers have envisaged and come to love from watching his channel, Sauce Stache. Instead of full vegan dishes like most YouTubers do, Thompson has carved a unique space in the area for himself. His videos focus on recreating — primarily — plant-based meat products with industry-grade ingredients and techniques.
He once tore apart the Impossible Burger to find all the individual ingredients and how it’s made. “What do they do?” he wondered. “What is methylcellulose?” He laughs, explaining: “It’s funny because now, I feel like I’m a methylcellulose dealer.”
He wasn’t always the vegan kitchen-Walter White. Before he started his YouTube channel, the YouTuber was working in the IT department at Florida’s Full Sail University. Full Sail’s roots are in Ohio, which is also where Thompson grew up, in the city of Youngstown.
The 40-year-old is conscious of not calling himself a chef. Instead, he is a tinkerer. “I’ve always been somebody that likes to take things apart, build my own things, learn how things are made and make them from scratch,” he says.
Before Sauce Stache, Thompson’s Instagram was called the Cheaper Jeeper, where he would make parts for his Jeep Wrangler from scratch. At one point, he also developed an iPhone app to avoid sunburn. It’s that creative and entrepreneurial spirit that drove him towards starting a food channel.
Well, that and his now-fiancée, Monica Stone. It was at the university where he met Stone, who had a yoga blog at the time. “It just was so cool to me that she was making a living off of this blog she created about her passion, and I really wanted to get into that,” he recalls. “That’s how the ball started rolling with creating Sauce Stache.”
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Thompson credits Stone as the reason why the channel exists. After she left her university job to teach yoga full-time, they stayed in touch and soon started dating. When Thompson would cook dinner for their dates, he would make a sauce to go along with it. “And she was like: ‘Why don’t you just make a blog based on your sauce recipes?’”
So he put his cellphone atop a kitchen cupboard and filmed himself making some chipotle mayo. “It wasn’t anything crazy, you know? It was just going to be overhead videos of me making the sauce recipe.” Like Tasty? “Exactly. Hands and pans.”
That explains the “Sauce” part of the channel’s name. “I don’t even know where the ‘Stache’ came from,” says Thompson. “There was no real meaning behind it. I think it was just because I’ve always had a beard. But just ‘Sauce Stache’ sounded fun. It was also a play on ‘sauce stash’.”
Read our interview with Buzzfeed’s vegan YouTube star Merle O’Neal, who launched Tasty Vegetarian.
Thompson and Stone, who are set to tie the knot in October, are pescetarians. “Our plant-based journey is a little tough because of medical reasons,” says Thompson. But, he adds, the Sauce Stache channel has almost always been fully vegetarian, and now vegan: “I didn’t want to label it that way. I wanted it to be for everybody. Just sneakily, nobody needs to know that this recipe is vegan, even though it is.”
When he did put up the odd pescetarian dish, he felt uncomfortable promoting it. “I do believe that people eat way too many animal products. I want to get more people to just eat less animals.”
He was already doing some vegan videos, but the lightbulb moment came when he deep-dived into king oyster mushroom bacon. “I think this is it, this is what I want to do moving forward,” he recalls thinking.
Since then, he’s had a go at making vegan bacon with a host of ingredients, some common (banana peels, coconuts, carrots and rice paper) and some truly wild (daikons, yuba, watermelons, potatoes and — get this — mochi). It’s a result of extensive research on ingredients and techniques, some of which takes over a year.
Thompson admits that his experience means the need for deep research is on a case-by-case basis. The channel, video structure and his knowledge have all evolved vastly in the last few years.
But it’s always been a one-man production. Before shoots, he’ll have a concept planned on his Apple Notes (“so completely disorganised, it’s unbelievable”) and tests he’s conducted in the prior days. “Usually, I start filming early afternoon and I do probably six- to eight-hour shoots,” he tells me. “Even for like an hourlong recipe, it takes a full day of filming.
“There are a lot of times where I’ve done full tests of recipes, everything works, and then when I go to film it, it comes out different. That might be just because I’m filming and there’s a lot more involved — I’m trying to cook and move cameras around. I like to have that little bit of live aspect in it because I like to show the mistakes and when I need to tweak something.”
The one time he didn’t have to worry too much about testing was when he made a smoked watermelon harm. “I almost wish I had shown the behind-the-scenes of my video. That was so much fun to do.”
It was around the time when New York’s Ducks Eatery created the viral recipe. Living in Orlando, he was glued to every video that came out, analysing different ideas and techniques. He likens it to putting together puzzle pieces to come up with a close enough replica: “It was a long process, and there were a lot of times throughout filming where I was like: ‘Oh, this isn’t gonna work. This is a big waste of time. Gosh, dang it.’ But when it was done, I was like: ‘This is it.’”
It’s funny we’re talking about watermelon-based meat alternatives, as just a week before our conversation, in a video featuring watermelon tuna, British YouTube star Gaz Oakley said: “Some people do some weird things in the vegan community… I saw someone the other day making steak from a radish. That, to me, just doesn’t make sense, because the texture just won’t be like a steak.”
Viewers believe it was directed at Sauce Stache’s daikon steak video. When I point this out to Thompson, he smiles knowingly. “I don’t know if that was towards me or not. And if it was, it’s totally fine. Monica and I tasted the radish steak at the end, and we both said: ‘This isn’t a steak.’ It tastes like a steak, and it did have some really good texture,” he says. “it’s the same thing with the watermelon ham. It’s good, but it’s not ham.
“Gaz and I approach things very differently. He definitely approaches things as a chef. And he makes incredible, beautiful-looking meals. But he’s also done the watermelon ham. He’s made those videos.”
Thompson says he views Oakley’s videos as ones you can recreate verbatim, while for his own videos, he hopes people “recreate things I do, tear them apart and make them their own”.
He appreciates where Oakley is coming from. “I think the joke was a little funny — and I’m just going to take it as a joke,” Thompson says, but he does have one rebuttal: “He was like: ‘People just try to make stuff look like food!’ [But] that’s where I come from, because I do want it to look like that.”
Appearance is an important sensation. “With the radish steak, it kind of looked like a steak,” he says. “Like the Gordon Ramsay eggplant that just looked like a steak. And that was as far as it went.”
Read our interview with Bon Appétit’s first vegan YouTube host, Chrissy Tracey.
Thompson is quiet and composed throughout our conversation — far from the excitable and affably loud YouTube host. But hints of that persona come out when we talk about his Korean fried jackfruit chicken video, which he calls his favourite.
“It’s so good!” he says, visibly exhilarated. “What I’m doing with the jackfruit when I make chicken is using commercial-level production. Essentially, I’m using jackfruit with the ingredients I’ve learned from what Beyond and Impossible are doing, to combine jackfruit in a way that forms a plant fibre.”
The idea came from Zacchary Bird’s original recipe, which Thompson took a few steps further by adding binders, methylcellulose and adding a fat to put it together.
He calls it one of the closest plant-based recreations he’s made to conventional meat: “I really do believe it’s one of those things you can slice up and give to somebody and they’re going to enjoy it just like they would meat. That was one of the first ones where I was like: ‘Whoa, this is mind-blowing.’ It’s in the book. That’s the one I want everybody to try.”
The book is called Making Vegan Meat, which is billed as a “plant-based food science cookbook”. It’s 160-odd pages of in-depth explanations and experiments, including some of Sauce Stache’s most famous recipes. Among them are a watermelon steak (not a radish version, though), hibiscus taco meat, cashew-based cured egg yolks, the mochi bacon, and fried celery root fish.
The book has been a year in the making. “I wanted to do something that was just a place where I can put all of the recipes and ways to tweak them and experiment,” says Thompson. “A lot of people have always asked: ‘Hey, what are the essentials? What do you have to have?’ There’s just no way for me to make a video about all of that information.”
When he was approached by the publisher, the original idea was something different. “It was recipes on how to use plant-based meat,” the YouTuber says. “And I’ve tried doing that stuff in the past, but anytime I do it, I almost have that imposter syndrome. I really just need to leave this to a chef.
“I told them about my idea, and we just kind of ran with it. I’m really happy about the way that it all came out.”
The book also mentions two YouTubers close to Thompson in its acknowledgements. One of them is Emma Fontanella, whose baking channel Emma’s Goodies is nearing two million subscribers. The other is Steve Cusato, the face behind Not Another Cooking Show. “He teaches you like your grandma would teach you how to cook,” says Thompson.
He also follows the work of Candice Hutchings (The Edgy Veg) and Brian Watson (Thee Burger Dude). And he says he would love to work with Healthy Junk Food’s JP Lambiase and Julia Yarinsky, as well as Guga Foods’s Gustavo Tosta. “He’s the ultimate steak guy,” Thompson says of Tosta. “So if I can get a seal of approval from him for a plant-based steak, I just think that would be so cool.”
Read our interview with The Edgy Veg’s Candice Hutchings.
I ask him what he feels is the highlight of his career. He pauses, then lets out a sigh. “Ah, that’s such a hard question,” he says, before offering: “Honestly? Every day is mindblowing.”
He gives an example: “I woke up today with 400,000 subscribers. That was just incredible. It made my day.”
Thompson has been in deep research mode looking into mushroom mycelium, which he feels is where plant-based meat is headed next. “I would really love to get a homemade product out before there is a mass marketing effort,” he says.
He wants to continue experimenting and trying new things. Someday, it “might be neat” if he’s doing stuff in a lab. Currently, he’s in the process of converting this closet into something more to reflect the explainer-style videos he’s introducing on Sauce Stache.
He and Stone bought this house a year ago. In the old home, he filmed his videos on a set. “I really miss it,” he says. “Hopefully, one day, I could build another set again, because right now, this is our actual kitchen. I have to clean everything up after dinner to get it ready for filming the next day.”
A few years down the line, he believes we’ll be seeing a lot more commercially available plant-based meats. Lab-grown too. “My content is going to be very different,” he predicts. “I don’t know what it’s going to look like, and I’m excited to see what it is.” So too do 400,000 others, it seems.
Making Vegan Meat: The Plant-Based Food Science Cookbook by Mark Thompson (Mango Publishing) is out July 20.