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Riding The Vegan Wave: ‘Spork’ Sisters Jenny Engel And Heather Goldberg Bring Vegan Cooking Ideas To The New York Produce Show And Conference

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 13, 2014

How ought the produce industry address Veganism? For the most part, mainstream produce promotional groups and companies have shied away from addressing this segment.

Quite reasonably they don’t want their organizations or products to be marginalized or perceived as fringe or irrelevant. Yet it is a significant mindshift when you have people such as President Bill Clinton declaring himself a Vegan. Yet it is also true that his own doctor, Mark Hyman, has advised President Clinton to occasionally eat some fish and lean protein.

Still, it is a trend that is worth watching, and so we were pleased to accept the “Spork” sisters to come and do a vegan demo on the main floor Celebrity Chef Stage at The New York Produce Show and Conference.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more about these two Vegan superstars:

Chefs Jenny Engel and Heather Goldberg
Spork Foods
West Hollywood, California

Q: Tell us about your vivacious sisterly collaboration with Spork Foods. How long has this gourmet vegan food venture been in the making? Have you always been passionate “partners in crime”?

A: Heather: We were raised by an entrepreneur. Our self-made Dad came from nothing and worked his way up. We were always taught to work really hard, and weren’t handed anything either. He lived in Brooklyn and built himself up, and he wanted to instill that perseverance in us to make a beautiful life for ourselves.

We always wanted to have a sister business. We admired our Grandma and her twin, who would hang out and have lunch together every day, so we wanted to do the same thing.

Q: How have your like-minded philosophies and compatible educational paths and skill-sets helped push you forward to realize your vision? Jenny, you trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Culinary Arts in New York City, and attended UC Santa Cruz, where you earned a BA in Environmental Studies. Heather, you have a decade of experience in the environmental non-profit world and study of food history and medicinal benefits of food. And you both embrace veganism…

A: Jenny: The way our business format took shape is that we wanted to inspire and educate people on how to make vegan recipes in their own home kitchens. If you go to a restaurant and are provided with the food, you don’t necessarily understand what it takes or what kind of energy, love and attention is going into making that food on your plate. So we wanted to open up classes to educate people on how to feed their families and their friends in a healthy way and make sure first and foremost that the food tastes very good.

A: Heather: Our goal is really to empower people to take their health into their own hands. When you eat vegan, you definitely make a positive effect on the environment, and you’re also leading an animal cruelty-free life. Those three pieces are essential to who we are and what we do.

So we started this business eight years ago this January. It started slowly. We’re very careful entrepreneurs. It’s scary to start a business, but the fact that we have each other, rely on each other and possess different skills that we’ve shared with each other has helped us grow.

At the current time, we’re teaching about 10,000 people a year, not only in our school in West Hollywood, but also around the world training chefs. We go to universities, resorts, hotels, and health care companies like Anthem Blue Cross. And we teach home cooks how to cook vegan. So our business has expanded over these eight years to reach a wider audience.

A: Jenny: For example, UCLA hired us to introduce 13 new dishes to about 30 of their chefs, and we did an all vegan dinner for 1,500 people a couple of months ago. It went so well that they kept all of our dishes on the menu at one of the restaurants there. Along those lines, we just introduced a menu at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. We trained the chefs, and now our selective dishes are on the menus at the hotel.

Q: Is produce at the heart of your mission? What are your favorite produce items, and why?

A: Jenny: Our business is based off of produce. It’s the most important part of our business. We use produce in a vast number of ways. Almost everything we use is a vegetable in some form or another. Being from California, we do love avocados, but we’re always experimenting. When I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Culinary Arts in New York City, the Green Market was really incredible, and I got to try all kinds of produce, such as fiddlehead ferns when in season and amazing things like that. Picking one kind of produce as our favorite is like having to choose which one of your children is your favorite! It’s too hard to choose. It’s an impossible decision to make.

A: Heather: We’re teaching people to cook, but we’re also teaching about the medicinal qualities of food. For instance, cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable with sulfur compounds, which are known to help treat some forms of cancer, particularly ovarian cancer. Within each little bit of produce we talk about, we fall in love with all the different elements and all the beautiful benefits.

We’re also fascinated how produce gets around; the fact that potatoes are from South America and have been transplanted all over the world; how coconuts get to different shores. They fall off the palm trees and roll into the ocean, flow through the currents to different islands…These kinds of things are completely interesting to us and to our students as well. These aren’t things we learned in school.

Q: Jenny, you’ve stated that vegan cuisine is maturing and that you want to teach it to walk in high heels… Can you elaborate?

A: Jenny: What happened is a lot of people thought vegan was bland and boring. It had a stigma of macrobiotics cooks in the United States with a diet of brown rice and tofu.

What we’re doing with our classes is to show how sophisticated and gourmet and approachable vegan cuisine can be. So we take any kind of produce and we highlight it in dishes that people can easily replicate at home. They can get excited about eating fruits and vegetables and incorporating natural foods into their diets but not feel they are on a diet or sacrificing.

Q: Heather, you’ve delved into food history and the medicinal benefits of food. Could you discuss more about what you’ve learned? How do you integrate these lessons into your cuisine and company strategies?

A: Heather: Sure, absolutely. For us, most of our clients are not vegan or vegetarian. That said, we make it very positive. We don’t talk about what’s wrong with this or what’s wrong with that. We’re presenting produce in a beautiful light and people can take what they want from that. That’s our approach.

Q: Your online cookbook segments are incredibly amusing and engaging…

A: Heather: Part of that approach is putting on a real show. You don’t just come to our cooking class and sit around, where we stir things in a bowl and it magically comes out. We want to provide a well-rounded education, but it’s also very entertaining. It’s somewhat of a performance. I was a musician in my past life, which is 10 years ago or so, and my sister and I have worked in front of a crowd for many years. We’re constantly honing our performance and trying to get better.

A: Jenny: For instance, if we’re making cashew cheese, we’ll actually take cashew apple from our freezer. The cashew seed comes from the cashew apple, a fruit native to Brazil, and that’s why we never see cashew apples here. We talk about how it’s a relative of poison oak or poison ivy, so it takes a human being heating it up in the right way, putting gloves on and extracting the cashew seed, a laborious process. We explain that it’s technically a seed not a nut, although it’s called a nut in our culture, and there’s only one seed per apple. Just that whole experience is showing people why nuts are so expensive.

We integrate these fascinating facts to give people a new appreciation of the ingredients they see at the store and they have at their house. It helps them understand in a more well-rounded way what they are eating and where it comes from. A lot of people know about eating their protein and their carbs, but don’t understand that eating produce has so much to do with getting a wide array of vitamins and minerals in their diets. We discuss why it’s important to eat a lot of different produce colors, to provide different nutrients in the body.

It’s more than just a cooking class. We owe it to our world to know exactly what we’re eating and how it’s dealt with by people.

Q: Do you connect back with the growers and supply side of the business?

A: Heather: People who grow the produce understand how the crops need to be treated, the different climates, and nutrients that need to be in the soil to yield a good crop. In some ways, we serve as intermediaries, teaching people how to appreciate produce and ways to make it taste good.

And for other uses as well. For instance, pistachio shells can be recycled and used as a fire starter for kindling, or can line the bottoms of pots containing house plants. So we teach ways to benefit from produce, not only for the body, but in housewares, and in many other ways that we like to get into in our classes.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions about eating vegan?

A: Jenny: People think that if you eat this way, you won’t get enough protein. Most Americans get double the amount of protein they need each day, which actually has a detrimental affect to a lot of functions in the body. When you eat a balanced diet and you’re consuming natural fruits and vegetables and whole grains and seeds, you can get enough protein and nutrients. It’s very easy to do. Heather, can you think of other misconceptions?

A: Heather: I think 10 years ago the perception was that vegan was boring and bland as we discussed earlier, but that’s changed. Most people have had some kind of vegan meal, I would hope, where that’s proven wrong. I think in the last 5 to 10 years, vegan cuisine has gone from the cuisine people shy away from to even if you’re a meat eater, going out for vegan cuisine is like gong out for another genre — do you want Italian, do you want Mexican, do you want Vegan. We’ve seen it growing and growing and growing.

Q: What do you think of the raw foods movement?

A: Jenny: With regards to the raw foods movement, we definitely believe in incorporating raw foods into your diet. As far as being completely raw, it’s not for us. It’s not what we want to do personally. But there are reasons why some people want to eat raw foods, and we support that wholeheartedly.

A: Heather: When you look at the cold climates and you want to be nourished and comforted in the dead of winter, you might not necessarily be nourished with just raw foods. But you have to look at your own body and the climate you live in, and the value to you. It’s particular to the individual, and we encourage people to listen to their bodies. If someone has a stomach ache, figure out where it’s coming from, and don’t just take a pill.

Q: Could you talk about organic versus conventional produce?

A: Heather: we understand there is a huge pressure for produce growers to provide enough crops to feed massive populations with limited amounts of space. Growing organic has its limitations and isn’t always the easiest way to accomplish that. We like to focus on particular produce items, where we think it’s important. For instance, onions produce a lot of sulfur compounds naturally. That’s why when you cut open an onion you cry. Therefore, onions don’t need to be sprayed with the kinds of pesticides berries do.

In our own lives we prioritize eating organic, but we understand the challenges. Whether it’s organic or not, it’s important to educate consumers and it’s a good conversation to have. We always talk to farmers to find out what their practices are, whether organic or not.

Q: In your business, could you share any stories where your work has had a transformative impact on people’s lives?

A: Jenny: We’re constantly surprised and amazed by our students. A few months go by and they’ll come back to share with us how they lost weight, or decreased medications or they just have a glow in their face because they’ve made a lifestyle change and feel better because of our classes. One student reversed his diabetes through diet. He felt empowered, and then he went on to teach his friends and family.

A: Heather: We’re inspired by individuals making a change within their own body, becoming healthier, and preventing illness. At the core of what we do is helping to prevent pain, not only in humans but in animals as well. There are a lot of things going on in this world that make us sad. You actually make a choice three times a day. You eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you’re making a huge impact on your body and on the planet with every bite you take.

A: Jenny: Of course we encourage people to see their doctors. We can’t give medical advice. And it’s tricky to pinpoint the source of ailments, but we try to steer people in the right direction.

On a personal level, my sister and I find ourselves doing these crazy things like cooking in a celebrity mansion for the afternoon ---it could be for a famous actor, a huge pop star or professional athlete, and we are so appreciative, and just start laughing and having a great time with it.

People are more willing to give vegan a try now, more than ever before because there are all these options. Bill Clinton going vegan to reverse his health issues had a big influence. Beyonce doing vegan cleanses opens people up to the idea of going vegan so it’s not so scary.

Q: Do you have any children’s programs to channel healthy eating behaviors early on, before bad habits take over?

A: Jenny: We do educate a lot of parents who have young kids. It’s up to parents to get their kids comfortable in the kitchen. What’s happened is that so many parents are working that they go to convenience foods to feed their families, and there’s been a gap in education on how to cook and the fundamentals of cooking in a nutritious way. We have a lot of new moms come to us. We would love to do more.

A: Heather: We recently dropped off vegan meals for about 100 children at the Covenant House, a homeless shelter, and we are committed to charitable causes. We go to communities without access to as much fresh produce and high quality ingredients. We’ve done cooking demos, for example, in libraries of low income communities to help educate parents on how to feed their children. This topic is deeply political and very complex and not easy to discuss in a brief way. There are government programs, and subsidies that encourage certain ways of eating, and a lot of money goes into lobbying, adding to the challenges.

A: Jenny: We’re so excited about the opportunity to participate in the New York Produce Show and connect with people who have a similar mission to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables for a healthier world. 

******

You have to love people with such passion — especially when they are talking about your own products! Still you have to be careful. For example, we love cauliflower, and there are even some studies indicating that higher consumption of cruciferous vegetables could be associated with lowered risk of certain types of cancer. There are none that indicate that eating cruciferous vegetables is helpful in treating cancer.

Equally what specific pesticides certain items need and in what amounts is very complicated and not really amenable to simple rules for consumers.

The dedication to teaching people how to cook and acknowledgement of the benefits derived from people cooking their food is substantial. As Michael Pollan has pointed out, back when making French Fries meant peeling the potatoes, dumping the oil, cleaning up etc., they were a special treat, not an everyday snack from a restaurant.

Still, we are reminded of the dinner we had long ago with a CEO of a big supermarket chain in which we lamented the loss of staff in produce. He let us talk and then said we ought to get used to it because it wasn’t going to get better; it was going to get worse.

The Food Network etc., seems to not lead to more cooking but, rather, to cooking as a special activity. Indeed, one reason Bill Clinton has had relatively little problem with his new lifestyle of eating: He has a personal chef!

Still, one would be dismissive of the trend at one’s peril! There is a large population yearning to use food as a pathway to health. Veganism combines that trend with the desire to be ethically and environmentally responsible.

We hope you will come to New York to watch the Spork sisters cook and learn from the direction they are driving as an important piece of the food movement.

You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

Get info on the Global Trade Symposium and “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum right here.

Get info on the Spouse/Companion program here or access to our discounted hotel room block at the headquarters hotel right here.

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