From omnivore to vegetarian: ‘No gray area’

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Diets can be hard, especially in the food industry

A chef and 3 food writers describe making the shift from omnivores to vegetarians

CNN  — 

Atlanta Chef Linton Hopkins wanted to eat healthier and lose weight.

As a cancer survivor, he tried all kinds of diets, but the calorie-counting and portion-control did not work for his busy lifestyle, he said.

By comparison, giving up all animal products was easy to understand: “There’s no gray area.”

Nudged on by his wife, he began experimenting with veganism in June 2014.

Diets can be hard, especially if eating is your livelihood. Surprisingly, perhaps, some in the food world have found the path of least resistance through cutting out meat and, in some cases, dairy and fish.

As their experience shows, changing up your regimen does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. But, if the best diet is the one you can stick to, making a lifestyle change that you believe in might be easier than cutting out one or two things at a time.

Making vegetables ‘crave-able’

Vegetable cookery was familiar terrain to Hopkins, a James Beard award-winning Southern chef. Despite the region’s reputation for BBQ and fried chicken, Southern food leans heavily on vegetables, even if they are often cooked in fatback or butter.

The vegetable plate at his fine-dining eatery, Restaurant Eugene, consistently receives praise from vegetarians and was named one of the best in the South by Southern Living. It also can be prepared vegan upon request.

To eat vegan at home, the challenge was to create vegetable dishes free of animal fat or flavoring that were as “crave-able as BBQ,” Hopkins said. As a chef, he was absolutely willing to take matters into his hands.

Instead of butter, he mastered vegetable stocks and glazes for roasting vegetables. He experimented with essential oils of nuts to bring out flavor in sautéed vegetables.

Within 11 weeks he lost 20 pounds and felt great. But he’s a chef and business owner, and he’s not running a vegetarian establishment. He still takes bites of meat in his restaurant kitchen to ensure it’s up to his standards, especially in new presentations.

“I believe it’s my responsibility as chef to taste and ensure flavor is all there,” he said. “You can see and hear the flavor in the pan and smell it, but you have to bring all senses to the process.”

Still, his regimen at home is influencing his restaurants. At Hopkins’ latest outpost, H&F Burger in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, he offers a veggie burger on the menu alongside his famous double-stack burger.

“I never want anyone to feel limited in their ordering experience,” he said. “If you come in as vegan or with a wheat allergy, we don’t want to make you feel like you only have one thing to order.”

Eating ‘lean and clean’

For food writers, overeating can be an occupational hazard. That’s what drove Washington Post food writer Joe Yonan to become a vegetarian: a desire to eat “lean and clean” at home in response to all the “fat and dirty” eating in restaurants.

While the past few years have brought more interest in plant-based eating, a countervailing trend has been to celebrate meat by using all parts, nose to tail. At the same time, he noticed his freezer was filling up with farmers market meat that he kept saving for a “special occasion,” he said.

“That’s when I realized something was going on.”

After spending a year on leave from the Post to learn about homesteading in Maine, he had a completely new view of food that pushed him to be a full-time vegetarian.

He said he hesitated at first, wary of the label vegetarians have as picky eaters. He also knew some people would question the appropriateness of the editor of a mainstream newspaper food section not being an omnivore.

He considered all the angles and baked them into a 2013 column, “A former omnivore comes out as vegetarian.”

Most of the response was positive, he said. As for the skeptics, he assured them his 30 years as a meat-eater would inform his editorial judgment. They could also count on balanced coverage from the rest of the Post staff, which includes a BBQ columnist.

“I don’t find the idea of meat to be personally off-putting, I just don’t want to eat it,” he said. “If there’s a meat-centered story I don’t consider it any differently than a story about a community garden or making tofu.”

If anything, being a vegetarian has made him receptive to a broader range of story ideas in agriculture and food policy.

“I think the section is probably more well-rounded than before,” said Yonan, the newspaper’s food and dining editor.

“I think people who call themselves omnivores are not as attuned to vegetarian topics as the other way around. I was a meat-eater for long time, I’m familiar with those ingredients and I think now I’m familiar with a new set of ingredients and new trends in a way that I wasn’t before.”

It’s been good for his career, too. He published a cookbook and gets frequent requests for speaking engagements. Most often, the topic of discussion is his shift in perspective, and not being a vegetarian writer.

Focusing on the rest of the plate

“The Flavor Bible” creators Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg also turned their journey from omnivores to vegetarians into a cookbook. But it started on a mournful note.

From 2000 to 2009, the couple lost all their parents to cancer.

After a “hedonistic” three decades chasing food trends, they decided they could no longer ignore the headlines “linking nutrition and wellness,” and started paying attention to what they were eating when they weren’t “eating professionally,” Page said.

They started experimenting in 2012 but they didn’t do it overnight, she said. Cheese and eggs were the hardest to give up, and they started out with a lot of quiche and vegetarian lasagna.

Living in New York with access to a wide array of ethnic cuisine made it easier to evolve away from French and Italian-inspired meals toward plant-based Asian and African fare. They discovered they were addicted to “flavor profiles,” like the crispiness of bacon or the smokiness of beef, not the actual meat itself.

They’ve been eating “99% vegetarian” ever since. They eat vegan at home and prefer it in restaurants, but if nothing is available they go for the closest vegetarian option.

Their experiment turned into a lifestyle and the inspiration for their latest cookbook, “The Vegetarian Flavor Bible.”

“The truth is once we stopped eating meat all the other ingredients on the plate take on so much more excitement,” Page said.

“My dining experience is so enhanced I don’t feel like I’m giving up anything.”