by Mitchell Clute
Ann Gentry is arguably the most influential vegan chef in the world. Her flagship Santa Monica, California, restaurant, Real Food Daily, continues to draw crowds more than twenty years after its opening, while three newer locations, including one at LAX, show that plant-based foods have mainstream appeal. Gentry’s cooking helped put vegan food on the map as a cuisine, not just a collection of greens, beans and whole grains. Dietary fads come and go, but Gentry’s approach to food is really an approach to life—a life of balance, simplicity and radiant health.
First Encounters with Cooking
Being a chef was not part of Gentry’s youthful plans. But even though she didn’t learn to cook until well into her twenties, she knew real food from her Memphis childhood. “Food was a big deal in my family, and everything was cooked from scratch,” Gentry tells Calmful Living. “We had big family gatherings and the food was always made and served with Southern hospitality.”
It was acting, not food, that brought Gentry to New York City in her early twenties. But a waitressing job at the Greenwich Village vegetarian restaurant Whole Wheat ’n Wild Berrys would ultimately change the path of her career trajectory from the stage to the kitchen.
“That two-year experience totally changed my life,” Gentry exclaims. “I became aware that food had something to do with how I felt and how I looked. I was fortunate to have customers who were my greatest teachers and who shared the changes they’d experienced via diet. It just clicked for me.”
Gentry immediately gave up meat products and became a vegetarian—though she says giving up dairy took a little longer. Her encounter with macrobiotic cooking eventually helped her go entirely vegan.
“Macrobiotics wasn’t only a style of cooking, it was a whole life philosophy,” Gentry explains. “It was about achieving balance of yin and yang, and using the theory of the five elements for how we look at our lives and the foods we eat.”
It may surprise devotees of Real Food Daily to learn that her early attempts at macrobiotic cooking did not go well. “I learned by trial and error,” says Gentry. “I burned things, overcooked things, undercooked things, usedtoo much or too little water—but I was so determined!”
The Birth of Real Food Daily
In the late 1980s Gentry’s acting career took her to Los Angeles, and her pristine diet came with her. “[pullquote]I started taking my own food along whenever I had a job, and other actors would ask me where I got it[/pullquote],” relates Gentry. From this interest a cottage business evolved. In fact, she says, “It took over my life.” She cooked every evening for a growing list of people in the film industry, providing $10 box lunches and $25 bags of food. Actor Danny DeVito, singer Tina Turner and Beatle Paul McCartney were early customers. “After a few years, I had twenty-five customers a day and I realized I was onto something. So I decided to open a restaurant.”
At the time, Gentry knew nothing about running a restaurant. She had no financial or management background. But, she says, “I was determined to figure it out. Back then, it was a very different PR and marketing world. We didn’t have social media; we didn’t even have cell phones. I didn’t do any marketing at all, yet word of mouth drew a hundred people on the first day.”
However, just as Real Food Daily started to boom, seven months after the grand opening, an earthquake struck. The business was closed for four months, and for another year and a half the restaurant’s façade was ensconced in scaffolding. Instead of breaking her spirit, the setback only steeled her resolve—and convinced her that what she was doing went far beyond merely serving food. “It was a tough time,” Gentry recalls, “but it was a turning point. People would leave messages or notecards by the front door, asking when we’d come back and what they could do to help us reopen. Something clicked, and I realized that this was bigger than just a restaurant. People were so hungry for this approach to food, and they wanted a place to eat at that resonated with their values about food and health.”
Focus on the Food
Of course, Real Food Daily didn’t simply bounce back; it flourished. Gentry opened a West Hollywood location in 1998, a Pasadena branch in 2012, and a satellite spot in the American Airlines terminal at LAX last year. Vegan food at an airport—Gentry’s influence had broken new ground.
Of all the reasons for her success, the biggest is the food itself. “People just want clean, simple food,” she says.
Gentry’s menu has undergone changes over the years, but it still blends the disparate elements of her own background—the Eastern philosophy of macrobiotics with Western medical knowledge about healthy plant-based diets, and the comfort-food staples of her Southern upbringing—reflected in selections such as a Reuben made with marinated tempeh and horseradish cashew cheese, and a lentil walnut pâté with tofu sour cream. Customers can also build their own meals, combining basic elements such as veggies, beans, grains and plant proteins.
At her restaurants choices have gradually evolved, offering sandwiches and salads as well as a list of seasonal specials. Over time, Gentry says, she’s seen trends come and go, including the Zone diet, the Atkins diet, the low-fat craze, and the recent emphasis on wheat-free and gluten-free options. Through it all, her focus has remained consistent.
All the vegetables, fruits, herbs, oils and grains Gentry’s kitchen uses are certified organic; the restaurants are kosher certified; and everything is cooked in mineral-balanced, triple-purified water. But just as important as what she uses is what she doesn’t use: every item on the menu is free of meat, dairy, eggs, butter, cholesterol, saturated fats, preservatives, pesticides, artificial sweeteners, food dyes, trans fats, soy isolates and GMOs.
“I see all kinds of people coming into the restaurant,” Gentry notes. “Some are motivated by personal health, some by environmental issues, some by animal rights activism. Others come for the organic produce, even though they may be carnivores. A small percentage of customers are hard-core vegans, but the majority are mainstream people ready to explore something new. Showing them that this cuisine can taste good is a motivating force for me. [pullquote]From the very beginning, I’ve wanted to be the antithesis of what people think a natural foods restaurant is[/pullquote].”
She has reached many people through her restaurants and many more via her writing and vegan advocacy, including appearances on The Today Show, The Talk and a variety of Food Network shows, such as Bobby Flay’s FoodNation, as well as two cookbooks, Vegan Family Meals and The Real Food Daily Cookbook. Gentry is the executive chef for Vegetarian Times magazine and has her own cooking show on the Veria Living channel on the DISH Network and Verizon FiOS.
Change, One Plate at a Time
For most people, Gentry suggests, becoming a vegan is not an overnight change. Before people can really appreciate clean, simple food, their palates require some reeducation. “We live in an excessive food world,” she reflects. “Our taste buds are dulled by the excessive fat, salt and sugar in everything. There’s also the whole supersizing trend, which is still around. We overportion; we gobble and don’t chew, then wonder why we have indigestion. We’re obsessed by food. Everywhere you go it’s in your face, calling out, ‘Buy me! Eat me!’ In some instances, you might think of it as a free drug.”
Though restaurants like Real Food Daily can show customers how fresh food tastes, real change is going to require a commitment, says Gentry. It also requires self-forgiveness, as we will inevitably stumble on the path to healthy eating. “We’re hard on ourselves, especially around food,” she observes. “So you ate the whole box of cookies—get over it and move on.”
When someone makes the commitment to healthier eating, they need to have the tools and the skills to follow through. Gentry recommends farmers’ markets or natural foods stores; but if organic produce isn’t available, she says, then buy what’s at your local store and start eating more vegetables. “In the beginning, you’ll find them dull and boring and tend to oversalt them or need sauces; but eventually your palate finds balance, and you start to taste how sweet and satisfying vegetables can be.
“People have to learn how to cook,” indicates Gentry, “even if it’s just basic simple cooking. You don’t need to be a gourmet chef.” But you do need the right tools, she says, and a dedicated workspace, even if it’s small. Her own catering business began in a tiny turn-around kitchen; so it clearly doesn’t require a show kitchen to get started. She recommends that everyone start with a cutting board, a quality knife, a couple of stainless steel pans, and a few cookbooks for inspiration.
“Learn from your mistakes,” Gentry advises. “[pullquote]You may ruin the dish, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad cook. You just need to work on your basic skills[/pullquote]. There’s a real beauty and a healing element in learning to cook for yourself.”
Gentry admits that cooking from scratch takes a bit more time, especially at first as you’re learning those basic skills. “But you pick up speed the more you cook,” she says, “and you begin to realize that cooking is a great meditative action that can bring joy and a sense of satisfaction to the end of a busy day.”
Small Steps to Well-Being
Gentry knows it can be overwhelming to try to change everything about your diet all at once; so she advocates a straightforward, step-by-step approach grounded in moderation. “Our typical American diet is poor quality and high caloric, loaded with refined flours, corn syrup and additives. We are overstimulated or numbed as we get high from eating it; then we crash. Poor food like this feeds our immobility of both body and mind,” she remarks, “and as a result of our diets, we’re not living to our full potential.”
Gentry points to all the health issues that result from our contemporary diet—
diabetes and the growing obesity epidemic in particular—and bemoans our culture’s tendency to rely on medications rather than changing the underlying habits that cause disease. “We’re in a culture consumed by food,” she says. “So, why not empower yourself to choose the best foods available? Even junk-food junkies, with time and discipline, can change the way they eat.”
And it doesn’t have to happen overnight or all at once. “If you think you can’t become a vegetarian, then how about eating less meat? Meatless Mondays? Meat once a day, or once a week? And when you’re not eating meat, how about eating cleaner, simpler foods, less laden with salt and sugar? As you eat better, you lose weight; and as you feel lighter, you want to be more active,” Gentry says. “It’s a synergy between exercise and diet.”
As an example of this approach, Gentry cites Mark Bittman, the New York Times best-selling author whose recent book VB6 chronicles his unique take on dieting—eating vegan before 6:00 p.m., then having whatever he wanted for dinner. As a result of this pragmatic approach, Bittman lost more than thirty pounds, lowered his cholesterol, and ended up feeling great.
Now a mother of two, Gentry has taken this same no-nonsense eating approach with her children. “It’s hard with kids, because there’s pizza everywhere they go; but it has no nutritional value, and drinks like Gatorade are nothing but sugar water,” she says. Although her kids have always been vegetarian, they tended to go heavy on rice and pasta, without a balance of plant proteins. “Organic sugar is still sugar. So I got rid of all the fruity drinks and granola bars in their lunches and started putting in salads and veggie sushi with whole soy, like tofu and tempeh. There was some kicking and screaming at first, but now it’s not an issue.”
Healthy Self, Healthy World
Making more conscious food choices doesn’t just improve our personal health—it also impacts the planet. “[pullquote]If people get really conscious about what they eat, they’ll see what an impact their choices can make[/pullquote],” states Gentry.
For her, the original impetus to embrace a grain- and vegetable-based diet was personal health; but now there is an increasing awareness of how our food choices affect the earth as a whole. “When I started out, there was no talk of environmental issues or treatment of animals. But in the last decade we’ve become much more educated about how industrial livestock are treated and the tremendous amount of energy it takes to feed these animals just to make a steak. We’ve also learned that factory farming means vegetables devoid of nutrients, grown in depleted soil.”
Twenty-five years ago, Gentry had a vision of how organic, plant-based cooking could change our lives and the world around us, and she’s pursued that vision with focus and tenacity—without ever growing too rigid in her proscriptions. “When you’re young you have too many rules, but I’ve grown far more flexible,” she concludes. “I want people to feel empowered to eat the way they really want to eat, in spite of their personal history and the marketing power all around them. We can make changes for our health by cooking and eating simply each day. Then there are celebratory times when we enjoy and eat whatever we want. We can find a balance. It’s all part of the evolution of our food journey.”
For more on Ann Gentry and Real Food Daily, visit www.realfood.com.
Find Ann Gentry’s books Vegan Family Meals and The Real Food Daily Cookbook at the Calmful Living bookstore.