Amanda Fox started out making vegan soap in middle school, a hobby that she began with her mother in the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Soon the hobby was built into a brick-and-mortar business called The Fanciful Fox, which moved to Bushwick in 2014.
About a year ago, a friend had asked for help filling out an order of seitan for the Orchard Grocer, an all-vegan deli and market in the Lower East Side. Working with the recipes her friend had left her for the gluten-based meat substitute, Fox didn’t think she was half-bad. “I grew up on Pennsylvania comfort food—I just want something you can throw on a skillet and make it taste good,” Fox says.
Shortly after, came Seitan’s Helper, its name was born in the middle of a late-night episode of Ash vs Evil Dead. Its logo is a ghoulish incarnation of death that seems to be smirking outside of its fatal robes. Fox calls the decision to land on seitan a happy accident. “For me, tempeh and tofu were the ‘OGs’ that I remember turning to when I went vegan but seitan was different. It has more of a bite to it and you can do so many more things with it,” says Fox.
A gregarious entrepreneur with a dash of the mad scientist (Who starts a business in middle school? Who never stopped believing?), Fox lists these things with thrilled ease and is very glad I asked. Where the Fanciful Fox was the idea she began inside her childhood home with her mother, Seitan’s Helper is its more grown-up companion—a project she runs with her wife, Cheyanne. We go into the weeds with one of her later inventions, her take on corned beef. She reveals that she has no idea of the actual taste of corned beef, but has done intense homework on the subject.
“I end up doing a lot of research about the actual meat, where it popularly comes from, what it goes with. All the seasonings,” Fox says of her process. “I found this website that goes through all these different kinds of meat and without pictures and that was perfect. ‘This I can look at without feeling sick.’”
When a cafe abutting Ridgewood’s Trans Pecos suddenly shut down in April, through a friend who knew one of the venue’s owners, Fox set up shop. On the menu that month: a scramble of tofu and seitan mortadella, a seitan ham sandwich, and seitan layered into those pseudo-corn beef strips, piled onto a vegan hero.
Seitan has a tough, bread-like mouthfeel. This makes sense because it is made from baked wheat gluten, which rises like a homemade sourdough. But it also gives seitan the kind of chew you would expect from thick and rare-cooked steak. As a meat substitute, it can survive on its own, unhidden under salad leaves or fried to gooey oblivion.
The pop-up in the former Trans Am cafe, which ended in early May, was a thrilling experience for Fox, whose prior culinary experience consisted of the shifts she would take at the Clementine Bakery in Clinton Hill, where her sturdy dedication had made her general manager.
Right now, she’s on the search for a permanent home for Seitan’s Helper and has big ambitions to expand its wholesale operations. Currently, you can buy her line of seitan meat substitutes at the Orchard Grocer and over at Riverdel, a vegan cafe in Prospect Heights. She is also hard at work on a new seitan sausage recipe.
“That’s the thing about this area, there’s nothing vegan going on,” Fox says, hoping she’ll change that.
Follow their Instagram for upcoming goodies and pop-ups.
All images courtesy of Seitan’s Helper.
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