Yesterday, I did something I've been meaning to do for YEARS. I stopped by GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon. (This is the point in the post where I'll get the call from my mother-in-law, because I was a mile from her house and didn't stop by to say hey and raid her garden. Grandma, I had to run to pick up kids from camp, I'll make it up to you by taking you there for lunch!).
First, some background. I have been stalking a plant-based lifestyle for nearly a decade, largely because I have done so much nutrition research around my son's asthma and food allergies, and it's crystal clear: vegetables and other plants are your ticket to good health. That being said, I was raised in the South on fried chicken and red velvet cake. So I could never quite commit. I was also a baker for three years, so mine wasn't exactly a whole foods lifestyle. I've eaten more cake than I care to admit. For me, the wake-up call was a speedbump in my own health road a few years ago, and that's when I became a mostly plant-based eater. I say plant-based instead of vegan because, heck, OREOS and potato chips are vegan (so were many of the cakes I made), but they're not exactly disease-fighting. Now, let me quickly address something:
Don't worry, if I'm your health coach, I am not going to make you "go vegan." I respect your choices. My job is to walk alongside you and help you make incremental, positive, sustainable lifestyle changes, NOT to turn you into me. My food choices are based on my particular biology and, yes, choices. The same is true for you.
That being said, you're going to love GreenFare Organic Cafe as much as I do. Opened in November 2015, GreenFare is "an innovative community restaurant and learning center that serves organic, whole plant food in concert with medical professionals, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates who recognize that this optimal diet can positively transform the world... [The cafe] strives to provide a local, sustainable and seasonal menu that is delicious, fresh and locally prepared, along with catering and a variety of events including cooking classes, book signings and Kickstart programs, among others, to stimulate thinking about the impact of our food choices on ourselves, our families, the environment and animals." You can read more at their website, but let me tell you, they're not just striving to do it, they're DOING it. I grabbed one of their ready-made meals on my way out, organic spinach and sweet potato lasagna ~ it was delicious! But I digress . . .
I met with the CEO and owner, Gwyn Whittaker, for a few minutes mid-afternoon during a lull in the restaurant action. As soon as I walked in, I felt relaxed. And I was thrilled to see a bookshelf full of some of my favorite reads by Michael Greger, Michael Pollan, Joel Fuhrman and Kelly Turner. I grabbed a glass of water and sat down to take it all in while Gwyn finished a meeting. The cafe feels like what it is: more than a restaurant. It's relaxed, calming and full of things to explore. Gwyn greeted a few regulars as she made her way over to me. I only had a few minutes to spare, but it didn't take long for me to recognize Gwyn's energy, ambition, warmth and vision.
If you're already a plant-eater like me, I encourage you to make GreenFare one of your regular spots. And if you're just curious, or ready to take a bigger step, take a look at GreenFare's website for a wealth of information, classes, resources, meal delivery options and kickstarter programs. In the meantime, I had a whole bunch of questions for Gwyn after we met, so here's more information!
Have you always been a plant-based eater? What and who inspired you?
Most people were not born vegan, they discover it over time. My journey began in my early teens when I saw a vein in a piece of steak and made the connection. I stopped chicken and turkey in my twenties for the same reason; then seafood after reading The Ethics of Food Choices. The myth of needing protein and calcium from animals was finally dispelled when I watched the film Forks Over Knives. I’d lost a partner to heart disease and so the documentary really resonated.
How did you decide to start a restaurant that exclusively serves plant-based meals?
I did a pilot with 45 people for ten days; basically the Jumpstart that is shown in the film PlantPure Nation, that I had helped to fund. Changes in health were so dramatic in ten days, that I decided to pursue opening GreenFare as an educational restaurant.
Did you have experience cooking plant-based dishes? How did you know where to start?
I’m not really a big cook; I love the Forks Over Knives app that has quick and easy recipes! I hired Pericles Silva as an Operations Manager from Whole Foods; he’s a Sports Nutritionist who has been plant-based for decades. I found a space that had been a restaurant before and bought equipment from a vegan food truck that had gone out of business. I had started and run an IT business for ten years, so I tend to focus on what I know and hire people where I don’t have experience.
How do you choose your menu offerings? Do they change seasonally?
We have a seasonal and local menu (we’re one of six USDA Certified Organic restaurants in the US); our produce mostly comes from Amish organic farmers in Lancaster, PA. Our recipes are inspired by the many books that we carry at GreenFare.
How has the community responded? Do you ever meet with resistance from people who are trying it for the first time?
I think the community has responded well; we continue to see a groundswell of people who want to try plant based and who come not because of this but because they love the food.
We prepare our dishes without the tools that the food industry uses to get people addicted: salt, sugar and fat. So, we cook without oil, and keep salt on the table for people to add to their taste for optimal health. We also use whole dates as a sweetener and not simple sugars that trigger these addictions. We focus on optimal nutrition with organic, minimally processed fresh plants, without these additions that cause harm over time.
I love the idea of your kickstart programs. So many people are curious about plant-based/vegan diets, but they feel overwhelmed about taking that first step. How did the kickstart program get started, and what have you learned along the way?
PCRM.org (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) offers free classes in their 21 Day Vegan Kickstart online. We enable it with the same book and videos, except that we provide live interactive classes as well as two meals a day for 21 days. We see people lose weight, normalize blood pressure and cholesterol and a whole host of other health improvements in a very short time frame.
Tell me about your nutrition classes. Who have some of the teachers been? Are there other things GreenFare is doing to educate people about the benefits of a plant-based whole foods lifestyle?
Most of the books that we have at GreenFare have been presented by the authors; most of the greats have come through: T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Neal Barnard.
What are your favorite cookbooks?
I love PlantPure Nation by Kim Campbell and Quick and Easy Forks Over Knives.
What are some of the ways you’re getting your message out to the community?
Mostly classes at GreenFare (I do a newsletter that you can subscribe to at www.greenfare.com), a weekly Reston Farmers Market on Saturdays, a Fairfax Veg Fest that we’ll be doing again next April, and events with local companies where we cater and do lunch and learn talks.
Most of us were brought up to finish our meat and drink our milk. Do you have any advice for people who have made the choice to go plant-based, but can’t seem to convince their friends and families of its benefits?
Read How Not to Die, watch Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, What the Health, and the upcoming Game Changers (www.gamechangersmovie.com). It comes from a decision to focus on your own health, the environment, and for many, loving animals. You can’t say you love animals and then choose to eat them or their products. There are more vegans and vegetarians from ages 12 to 22 than there are 22 and up, so a huge movement is driving change in the industry.
What’s YOUR favorite dish at GreenFare?
I love all of them, but my favorite is the Organic Spinach and Sweet Potato Lasagna. We have a meal plan too, so I always have GreenFare meals in my refrigerator ready!