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Beverly Bennett: Author of Eat Your Veggies and creator of VeganChef.comHow did you become interested in becoming a professional chef?
When I was deciding what to study at college and what to do with the rest of my life, I had a talk with my Dad. His advice was, "Do something you really like to do, because you're going to have to do it for the next 40 years!" So I thought long and hard, and I just kept coming back to how much I loved cooking, so I decided to become a chef and I never regretted my decision.
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While in college, I met and fell in love with a vegetarian and I eventually became one myself. I was appalled to learn of the suffering of animals that came as a result of factory farming. I quickly shifted my emphasis in cooking school toward baking and healthy vegetarian cooking. Also, I come from a long line of strong, hard-working people who tend to be a little on the heavy side. I've had to battle my weight for most of my life, but going vegetarian made that battle a lot easier.
Where did you receive your culinary training?
I received my culinary training at the University of Akron, located near my home. My official degree is an Associate of Applied Business in Hospitality Management, specializing in Culinary Arts. While pursuing that degree, I also got a Certificate of Completion from the National Institute for the Foodservices Industry. I also was able to get a Foodservice Operation Manager Certificate from the Ohio Department of Health. Most of what I know about vegetarian cooking, though, I have taught to myself by reading a lot on the subject.
Give us a brief history of your culinary career.
I began my career in the foodservice industry at the age of 12, by washing dishes at the country club that my parents belong to. It really sparked my interest in cooking and I quickly worked my way up through the ranks of prep cook, baker, grill cook, and finally line cook. It really taught me a lot. After getting my culinary arts degree, I managed a few bakeries and franchises, was a baker for a cheesecake company, and a line cook/kitchen manager at many restaurants before focusing all of my talents on just cooking vegetarian.
Where do you work now and how did you end up there?
In 1995, I decided to stop waiting for a vegetarian restaurant to open near my home, and I expanded my search for a vegetarian place to work. I tried my luck that summer working in different restaurants in Colorado, but I really didn't find my niche. Eventually, I accepted a position as head chef/kitchen manager of a vegetarian restaurant, The Zephyr, in Kent, Ohio. After three years of preparing a menu that relied heavily on eggs and dairy products that also came with a 70 mile per day commute, I felt the need again to spread my wings. I eventually learned about a great vegetarian restaurant called Tabor's Thyme, which focused on using organic products (a rarity here in Northeast Ohio) and offered daily vegan options, and was only a 40 mile a day commute. So I quickly joined their team, preparing most of the vegan options, and have been extremely happy working there for the past year.
What is most satisfying to you about cooking healthy food?
I find vegan cuisine to be very challenging, exciting, enlightening, and extremely rewarding. There is a whole world full of flavors from many cultures and I look forward to trying all of them. I also have a clear conscience knowing that no animal had to endure any pain or suffering in order for me to eat. I really enjoy sharing with others how delicious food actually can be when it's free of animal products and chemicals. I find it easiest to sway peoples' opinions toward vegetarianism after I have filled their stomachs with my low-fat, healthy delicacies.
What are your favorite dishes to cook? Why?
My favorite dishes come mainly from within three cuisines: Chinese, Italian, or Mexican. These types of cuisines are usually low in fat, flavorful, easy to prepare, and have a strong emphasis on the use of herbs and vegetables, while properly combining food groups. However, I have always enjoyed baking the most. Now that I am a vegan, I push myself to create vegan versions of all of my former high-fat, dairy-packed favorites. Sometimes I even surprise myself with the substitutions that I come up with!
What advice do you have for parents to help them cook healthy, delicious meals for their children?
I helped raise my 2 younger sisters, and one thing that I learned was never to force kids to eat what they don't like, or when they aren't hungry. Usually when you try to force something, you're going to be met with resistance. Most parents know what types of foods their kids like, so prepare foods that you know your child likes, and do so often. Also, include them in the preparation of the meal, most children enjoy learning to cook. If you start to worry about the variety in their diet, try to sneak in other foods in some of their favorite dishes. For instance, if they like pizza, don't call your local pizza parlor, make one from scratch with them. You can use homemade dough, slices of bread, or pitas for the crust. Top it off with some homemade or jarred marinara sauce, load on the veggies and some soy cheese if desired. Let your child make their own individual pizza, and they will usually load on the toppings. Make it fun, it's a great way to get some quality time with your kids. I also think it's very important to involve them in the preparation of their meals. Some of my fondest memories are of cooking with my great-grandmother, mother, and sisters, and of all of the great concoctions we prepared together. Another way to encourage healthy eating is through the use of substitutes. Choose to use soy products instead of dairy products in your favorite foods, as they are usually lower in fat and offer more health benefits. At your local health food store, you can purchase soy or rice-based milk or cheese products, or you can prepare your own at home with tofu. Use canola or olive oil instead of butter or margarine, as they are lower in fat and cholesterol. Try to bake, broil, grill, or quickly saute foods instead of deep-frying. Encourage them to snack on raw fruits and vegetables, crackers, or pretzels, instead of grabbing for chips or cookies. The easiest way to keep kids away from junk food is to just not buy it. If you don't have it in your house, they can't eat it.
What are some good vegan dishes you recommend serving at holidays?
"What do you eat for the holidays?" Non-vegetarians ask me that question every year, and I often answer "I eat a lot of the same things that you do: mashed potatoes, yams, stuffing, green-bean casserole, and other side dishes, just not the turkey or ham." I make everything from scratch, but arranged a little differently and prepared more creatively. For instance, sometimes I serve peppers, squashes, or small pumpkins stuffed with a vegetable and grain pilaf, or bread stuffing with fruit and nuts. Occasionally, I make a lentil and rice or Textured Vegetable Protein-based "meat loaf" for Thanksgiving. I often make a large batch of onion gravy for the mashed potatoes and use it to prepare the famous Durkee Onion Green Bean Casserole. Tofu can be used to replace the eggs in a pumpkin or a sweet potato pie, or flax seeds or agar-agar to bind a pecan pie. Recently my husband and I started our own tradition by having an Italian-themed Christmas meal. We have a vegetable lasagne or baked pasta casserole with oven-roasted vegetables, marinated artichoke hearts, sautéed greens, and a lemonilla tofu cheesecake for dessert. I think the holidays are a great time to pay homage to the earth, life, and to celebrate the family, so don't be afraid to start your own traditions. Get the whole family involved in preparing some of your family's favorite dishes instead of the normal holiday fare.
What are your future plans regarding your culinary talents?
I really enjoy working at Tabor's Thyme, but I dream of someday moving to California, which I consider to be an organic and vegetarian utopia compared to Ohio, and working in a vegan restaurant there. I am currently working on two of my own cookbooks that I plan to make available through my Web site. Hopefully they will catch the attention of a publishing company, as I want to continue to bring vegan cuisine to the masses. In my spare time I enjoy entering cooking contests, and have been a finalist or first-place winner in every contest that I have entered with one of my vegan specialties. I really want the world to know how awesome vegan food can be, and will devote the rest of my life to spreading that message!