A few words with.... Beverly Lynn Bennett, AKA The Vegan Chef
Ever since landing on her website, I always wanted to ask a few question to the woman, no, the chef, no, the brave food inventor, who started a site called The Vegan Chef. On her page, on my internet perusing among people who made of their veganism their job as well, I think I first found out that working as a vegan chef is possible, that a career in the cooking industry must not necessarily be a veg*n-free zone, thing that I thought not possible since in many vegan restaurant today the chef is a (male) meat eater who just settled with a job in a vegan eatery. Beverly proved me delightfully wrong! And shared some of her very inspiring experiences in being a vegan chef in a painfully oh-not-vegan-at-all cooking world.
Lynn, you have been a vegan chef for some time now. Did you go to cooking school as a vegan or vegetarian or you became one after? Was it difficult to be at cooking school as a vegetarian?
In the late 80’s, I became a vegetarian while pursuing my culinary arts degree at the University of Akron in Ohio. I had to deal with handling animal products to varying degrees while finishing my education, which was really awful. Most chefs are required to take classes on butchering techniques, not to mention all of the ways to cook meats. Fortunately, we were allowed to work in teams, and I was able to have other students do most of the things that I was opposed to. It was still horrific to even be in the same room. I began to focus more on baking, and less on the various line cook positions and stations, which allowed me to deal with meat as little as possible.
That's awful! I cannot image how bad butchering must be for a meat-eater, let alone for a vegetarian! When and how you became a vegan? What were your motivations?
As a teenager, I ventured into eating vegetarian with the influence of my synchronized swimming coach, both for the health benefits and to drop a few pounds, but unfortunately I did not stick with it then. It was meeting my husband Ray, who went vegetarian when he was 16, that changed everything for me several years later. Through him, I began learning more about the moral and ethical aspects of vegetarianism, especially the horrors of factory farming and animal abuse and suffering, and I began to question our society’s heavy reliance on animals. I began educating myself about all sorts of issues from animal rights and the environment to the health benefits of a plant-based diet, organics, and even special diets and food allergies. Ray and I began to eliminate more and more animal products from our diet and our lives, and in the early 90s we went vegan for good.
Your job definitely poses some challenges to a vegan: vegetarian restaurants are not very widespread (yet!!!). Has this been a big hurdle? Have you moved around more than your meat-cooking colleagues because of this fact? Were you ever forced to settle with working at a non veggie restaurant after you became a vegan? After graduating, I worked for various bakeries and took jobs in cafes that had as few meat offerings on their menus as possible, and I always tried to incorporate more vegetarian dishes wherever I went. I’ve never let being a vegetarian and now a vegan stop me from cooking or baking professionally. Rather, it encouraged and inspired me to independently develop my own style, talents, recipes, a website, and a writing career. Fortunately, I started working in vegetarian restaurants and natural foods store kitchens, and for the last decade I have been able to prepare only vegetarian food with almost all of it being vegan during the past 6 years. Wanting to cook or bake only vegan foods has dramatically reduced my number of opportunities as a chef, which is one reason I left Ohio, where I was born and raised, to relocate to the more veg-friendly city of Eugene, Oregon. The opportunities are still limited for vegans here, but there are still more than any other town that I know of. Things are getting better throughout the country for vegan culinary professionals as more and more people embrace the lifestyle and way of eating, so I am very optimistic about the future for myself and others that share my passion!
Chefs are often looked at as celebrities, the more our life revolves about food and the least we cook at home: how do other chefs look at you? Are they interested in your living and working choices or they just fail to understand? How different is your career when compared to theirs?
Reactions of non-veggie chefs to my chosen vegan path have ranged from ridicule to respect. Some have a genuine interest in the vegan approach to food preparation, while others can barely hide their disapproval or amusement. In recent years, with plant-based cuisine gaining more attention and acceptance than ever before, I’ve noticed an increase in a genuine and respectful interest in the way I cook (or uncook, if it’s raw) among fellow chefs. In terms of how a vegan chef’s career compares to that of a traditional meaty chef, we generally get paid less, for one, and we have fewer employment opportunities, for another. Ethical and moral concerns generally don’t figure a whole lot into the reasons that a traditional chef goes into the restaurant biz, whereas it’s usually the driving force behind a vegan chef’s. That and a lack of enough vegan restaurants to work in can often add another layer of complexity to one’s career. As vegans, we often have to create our own opportunities rather than have a wide assortment of already-established restaurants to work for. Traditional chefs may consider it just a job or paycheck but for me it’s more like a mission. I don’t always get paid as well as someone with my experience should, but money isn’t what motivates me. I love being and cooking vegan, and I want to share this with everyone else for their health, the animals, the planet, and our future.
There seem to be a tragical luck of a proper and established vegan cooking school. Yet, the demand seems to be pretty high! Vegans cook a lot, both because of interest, control over the ingredients and lack of vegan resources out there and many would like to attend cooking school. Why do you think a proper school has not been established yet? When will you start one?
Cooking schools are way behind the times in keeping up with food trends, to say the least. Veggie food sales have been increasing exponentially for the past decade or two, yet only a very few schools even offer vegetarian cooking as a course of study with maybe one or two classes thrown in on vegan, raw foods, or special diets. Why? I wish I knew. Vegan cooking schools are usually what people ask me about the most, whether in person or through my website. I direct them to the various schools that I know of, but many are expensive and not what they are looking for. It’s for this reason that I have been toying with the idea of starting something on my own here in Eugene. Not necessarily a formal cooking school, but more of a vegan cooking and baking instructional series focusing on specific topics of interest and skills that one could use in their everyday life as well as professionally. As vegans, when we see a void or the need for something, in this case a cooking school, we have to try to fulfill it ourselves. If we wait for someone else to do it, particularly those who don’t share our passion, it may never happen!
I was jaded to discover that a proper vegan cooking school may just be a few months away. As Beverly would out it, peas out!
Beverly Lynn Bennett has a more than excellent 'vegan pedigree' and I am in trouble listing here all her accomplishments. Here are just a few: beside for having her own website (which I am sure most of you are already familiar with), she is the co-author with her husband of the recently released The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegan Living, has just relased her e-cookbook "Eat your Veggies! Recipes from the Kitchen of The Vegan Chef" with new, never released recipe, since 2002 has a regular column on the vegan oriented VegNews Magazine titled "Dairy-Free Desserts", which also recived the 2005 Veggie Award for favorite VegNews column.
And finally, along with personalities like T.Colin Campbell (authoer of The China Study), Carol J. Adams (author of The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory) and my beloved Dan Piraro (the vegan cartoonist), she is one of the invited speakers at the Vegetarian Summerfest happening between July 5th and July 9th in Johnstown, PA.
For anyone in the area with nothing to do for the upcoming weekend, the Vegetarian Summerfest is still accepting registrations: in the participations fees all food is included and, you guessed it right, all food provided will be vegan and delicious! Unfortunately participations is not particularly cheap, but it included accomodation as well (doubles as well, if you are thinking of taking hubby along), if you are driving to get there. You can register for either the full lenght of the event of just for the weekend. If anybody end up there, please give us a shout: we want to hear your report!