Long before vegan food even piqued mainstream curiosity, chef Ann Gentry was blazing a plant-based trail with her novel approach to fresh, seasonal, animal-free food. As the founder of Clean Plates-approved Real Food Daily, Los Angeles’ iconic, organic, vegan restaurant, today she’s a household name in the dialogue about sustainable, plant-based cooking and dining. (Read our review of Real Food Daily.)
Gentry opened Real Food Daily in Santa Monica in 1993, a West Hollywood location five years later, and has tirelessly championed the personal and planetary benefits of a vegan diet ever since. In between publishing cookbooks—most recently Vegan Family Meals—running her restaurants and lecturing, she took time to chat with Clean Plates about her vegan conversion and the importance of sustainable farming practices.
Q: You’re a Tennessee native; tell us about your evolution as a vegan chef?
A: After a childhood spent eating a typical American diet, Southern-style, and later surviving on sweets and cigarettes in college, my life took a profound turn in my twenties. I was an aspiring actress in New York City, waiting tables at a vegetarian restaurant in Greenwich Village. My food journey began then and is still continuing.
Q: When you started out was it challenging to find vegetarian or vegan ingredients?
A: By the time I started eating well, an industry of health, natural, organic, and macrobiotic foods was in full swing. Companies like Eden Foods, Erewhon, Ohsawa and White Wave were the leading brands in quality natural foods. Today there are many more choices from companies with integrity and vision that are committed to producing clean foods.
Q: You’ve been an outspoken advocate for organic farming. What can individuals do to support it?
A: As consumers we need to become educated about the Farm Bill 2012. If we don’t pay attention and actively engage our representatives in Congress, this bill is going to pass and a lot of people are going to wake up and wonder what happened to how food is grown.
Another arena to get educated about is GMOs. We have to stop passively buying into the belief that GMOs have always been in our food chain and our health hasn’t been hurt yet. This is what the GMO lobbyists want us to believe. We need to stop purchasing packaged and processed foods made with GMOs. Look for the Non-GMO Project label on food products.
Q: You’ve traveled widely. How do you maintain a vegan diet while traveling? Any places you found surprisingly abundant in options?
A: Traveling can have its challenges, but traveling while vegan is an adventure unto itself. Packing is always an issue. When traveling by plane, I stuff a large carry-on bag with nuts and seeds, granola bars, and a few fruits and vegetables to tide me over.
If I were driving, you’d swear I have a mini Whole Foods Market in my trunk. From the looks of my over-packed car with several full shopping bags, an ice cooler and gallons of filtered water, you’d think Armageddon was around the corner.
I’ve always found great healthy places to dine in Portland, Austin, San Francisco, New York, Seattle and even in my home town of Memphis.
Q: As a mother of two, can you share some tips for getting kids to eat their veggies?
A: A plant-based diet encourages creativity in the kitchen with a rotating palette of fresh, colorful, ripe produce. Prepare the best local and seasonal ingredients with a variety of cooking methods and you’ll have more interesting and diverse tastes and textures on your plate.
Image courtesy of Ann Gentry.