Veganizing the Mainstream with Vegan Chef Leslie Durso

For vegan chef and healthy living educator Leslie Durso, it’s not all about eating vegan – it’s about eating right.

 
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good, and this is the Hollywood Goes Green is Good edition with my friend and partner, Debbie Levin, who is the President of EMA. Ten years you and I are working together, and we’re in Los Angeles at the beautiful SLS Hotel today. We’re doing a whole edition with Debbie Levin today as the co-host of Green is Good, which is really an honor and really going to be fun today. Our first guest, back for a second turn, is Leslie Durso today, the vegan chef. She’s based here in LA, so we asked her to come in and thank you for joining us at Green is Good today. LESLIE DURSO: Thank you for having me here. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Leslie, for our listeners and our viewers who haven’t had a chance to see you before, why don’t you talk a little bit about yourself first? Talk a little bit about the Leslie Durso journey and how you became a vegan chef and what inspired you to become a cook. LESLIE DURSO: That’s a long story. It’s radio, so I’ll pare it down. I’ve been obsessed with food ever since I was a little kid. I stopped eating meat at 8 years old in a huge Italian meat-eating family, which was quite the drama to start my life. It was always something that I was very, very conscious of. I always loved eating healthy. It was a big part of my life. As I got older, I went into the modeling industry, and I found that I was a vegetarian. I ate really healthy food, so I was able to stay the size that I needed to be. Actually, a lot of people were struggling with it. Then, I moved into the acting world, and same thing. I kept cooking and food kept being a huge part of my life. It was co-hosting an environmental science show with Bill Nye the Science Guy, called Stuff Happens. I used to be Leslie the Lab Girl. That’s what got me into the science of food. Bill was very encouraging to have me explore my passions of food, like he explored his passions of science. When that show got canceled, I said that’s it. I’m becoming a chef and food is going to be my jam for the rest of my life. DEBBIE LEVIN: I have a question about your family. You have this big Italian family, big meat-eating Italian family. Has anyone sort of come over to the-? LESLIE DURSO: Yeah, I haven’t pressured anybody. It’s just about making really good food, and they’re always my taste testers. If I make a recipe, it has to go through my family to know that it’s a really good recipe for the masses. I have an uncle who’s now vegan, who’s actually a surgeon too, which is interesting that he decided to be vegan. DEBBIE LEVIN: That says a lot. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Was he inspired by you? LESLIE DURSO: He was, and I’ve got a couple cousins now that are vegetarians. It’s really interesting. They’ll all call and be like, “OK, I’m going to try this.” I’m like, OK, here. Here’s all the information I give people and here’s my website and here’s some encouraging words. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many years ago did this journey start? When did you start cooking actually? LESLIE DURSO: Being an Italian, food is obviously a major part of our lives. Every single day, we sat down at the dinner table at 6 pm for dinner. You could not miss it or be late. I got in the kitchen really early with my mom and my grandmother and my great-grandmother, and we grew a lot of our own food. We were out in the garden a lot, and we made everything from scratch. That’s the foundation of my food philosophy, is eating real food and cutting out the processed foods in your life. That all started with my family because that’s the way that we ate. I remember being like five or six years old, standing on a chair, rolling out pasta and pizza doughs with my great-grandmother, some of the best memories I have. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Is almost everything you learned as a child and everything you ate, can you veganize it now? LESLIE DURSO: Yes, I love veganizing. That’s such a huge part of what I do now, is travel around the world, finding all of these food cultures and veganizing the food and bringing back flavors and cooking techniques to the U.S. and figuring out how I can tweak it a little bit to make it accessible to people in my world. DEBBIE LEVIN: Do you feel that there’s a real opening for that great vegan chef in terms of identifying yourself? I think that there’s a lot of vegan restaurants in town and there’s a lot of vegans, but I don’t know that there’s that “Oh my God, this is the vegan chef that does the most amazing food, I don’t care what it is, it’s just yummy and fantastic.” LESLIE DURSO: I would love it if that was me, but there are. There are some really, really great vegan chefs out there. I think what sets me slightly apart is that I really don’t cater to the vegan world. I love the vegan world and I’m in the vegan world, but I was the first vegan chef to do a food and wine festival, and I’m really trying to take the vegan message and my style of eating into the mainstream world. It’s been really well received so far because I don’t preach at people. Food is a personal choice. I don’t believe in telling people what to do; I believe in educating people in where their food is coming from. DEBBIE LEVIN: Do you want restaurants? Do you want to be a celebrity chef on TV? LESLIE DURSO: I have no desire to have a restaurant. DEBBIE LEVIN: You don’t? LESLIE DURSO: No. DEBBIE LEVIN: Why? Isn’t that like the chef dream? LESLIE DURSO: They are fantastic, but I love consulting for restaurants, which I do very often. I will come in and design vegan menus for regular restaurants, and I’ll even consult on vegan restaurants. But to have my own, I think it would be cool, but I love educating. I like being out there with the people. I love doing all the festivals and the tours and the classes and the speaking engagements. I’m an educator for Whole Foods, so I’m always giving classes everywhere. That’s my passion. That’s what I really love. I could sit inside a restaurant and charge people outrageous amounts of money for really crazy, beautiful food, or I could be out there teaching them how to do it for themselves. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’ve got Leslie Durso with us. You can find Leslie at lesliedurso.com. LESLIE DURSO: Yes, I was very original when I came up with my website. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s your business model? If you don’t want to be the next Wolfgang Puck of vegan restaurants, what’s the real business model and what’s your goal in terms of the journey here? LESLIE DURSO: It’s education. It’s a lot of education, but then on top of that, I do have another TV show in development, in the works at the moment. I’m thrilled about it. It’s super, super cool. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Cool, so TV and education. LESLIE DURSO: Yeah, TV is my background. Before I was doing the Bill Nye show, I was on a soap opera for many years. I’ve always been an entertainer and loved entertaining. I just feel like that’s my natural hat. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Were you the evil person on the soap opera, or the nice person on the soap opera? DEBBIE LEVIN: Or the chef? LESLIE DURSO: I was both. What’s funny, I played a waitress in a restaurant. The soap revolved around a restaurant, and I was the waitress. It was so funny because I’d been a chef in a restaurant before, but I’d never had to be a waitress. Carrying all of those trays is crazy. I don’t know how they do it. They’d be like, “Here, here’s five classes of wine on a tray. Go carry them across the room.” I’d be like, “Oh, I’m going to drop these.” JOHN SHEGERIAN: Besides education, though, people can hire you to cater for them here in the Los Angeles region, right? LESLIE DURSO: Yes, absolutely. I still do some catering. I do a lot more consulting. I’m doing the Humane Society event that’s coming up May 16 at the Beverly Wilshire. There’s more information on their website. DEBBIE LEVIN: And that’s really big. Like, a lot of people. It’s a big event. LESLIE DURSO: Yeah, it’s huge. It’s a huge gala. We’ll have about 600 people there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And you’re the head chef for the whole thing. LESLIE DURSO: I designed the menu for the entire thing and did all of the recipes and the hotel will execute it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. LESLIE DURSO: Yeah, I love doing stuff like that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And if people want you to just do a private dinner at their home, you can do the same thing. LESLIE DURSO: Yep, you can do that. I do private lessons, I do group classes. DEBBIE LEVIN: Were you trained? LESLIE DURSO: I was trained by my grandma. DEBBIE LEVIN: So you didn’t go to culinary school. LESLIE DURSO: I didn’t because when I decided to become a chef, I was already a vegan. At the time, there were no vegan culinary schools. There was one in England, but it was a three-year program, and I was like, I don’t have three years to take time out. So I just started learning, and that’s where the international traveling really started too, where every country I would go to, I would meet up with chefs there, non-vegan chefs, regular meat chefs, and I would see what they’re doing. I would see what they’re using, I would see the techniques that they were doing, and I’d just get in there and I’d figure it out. I’d figure out how I could apply that to vegetables and get creative and veganize stuff. I love it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: There are so many myths around being a vegan. Is it hard for our listeners out there to switch their lifestyle a little bit and veganize a lot of what they’re already doing in terms of their daily diets? LESLIE DURSO: No, it’s actually very easy, especially in this day and age. It’s really easy. When I stopped eating meat at eight years old, there were no vegan restaurants. There were no vegetarian restaurants. Nobody really even knew what that really meant. It was just a bunch of hippies with dreadlocks wearing tie dye and Birkenstocks. We’re really lucky in this day and age. There are so many amazing companies out there making vegan products, and so many naturally vegan products. What I’m going to drive home again is it’s eating real food. It’s not eating all these processed packaged foods. That’s easy for anyone to do. Whether you want to go full-blown vegan, you want to go vegetarian, or you just want to eat three less meat meals a week, it’s really about connecting with where your food is coming from and finding the balance for yourself. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the worst myths. People say, “I don’t want to be a vegan because there’s not enough protein.” LESLIE DURSO: Oh, gosh. Protein. I love that question. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Can you demystify that? LESLIE DURSO: Yeah, absolutely. First, we don’t need nearly as much protein as the government has been telling us in the food pyramid. DEBBIE LEVIN: They keep changing that food pyramid. LESLIE DURSO: They keep changing that food pyramid. The other thing is there’s protein in so many vegetables. There’s protein in most vegetables, but there’s a huge amount in quinoa and lentils and dark leafy greens and beans and nuts. There’s a lot of ways that you can get your protein that I would never consider an issue with giving up meat. A lot of people make the mistake of going vegan and eating lots of seitan and lots of Tofurky and fake meats and fake cheeses. There’s a lot of candy bars that happen to be vegan. There’s a lot of cookies and snacks that just happen to be vegan. If you have a diet based on that stuff, you’re not going to feel good. You’re not going to be in your optimal health. It’s really about eating the real foods and staying away from any of those packaged foods. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If Debbie and I went to lunch today in town, where would be a place where we could go and have a really amazing vegan meal? LESLIE DURSO: In the vegan world, I love Sun Café on Ventura. DEBBIE LEVIN: Sun Café is good. LESLIE DURSO: It’s fantastic, my friend Ron’s restaurant. I love that place. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Where is it? LESLIE DURSO: It’s right in Studio City on Ventura. It’s really lovely. They do good cooked vegan and raw vegan stuff there. I really like Gracias Madre. I really like Crossroads, what Tal Ronnen is doing. DEBBIE LEVIN: Those are two of my favorites. We actually had a board meeting last night at Gracias Madre. It was just amazing, and Crossroads is one my favorites for dinner. LESLIE DURSO: They do an amazing brunch. Have you been to their brunch? DEBBIE LEVIN: Do they? No. LESLIE DURSO: Oh, you’ve got to go for Sunday brunch. DEBBIE LEVIN: And you know what? I’m not a vegan, and I go to these places because this is a great thing to do for people who are not vegan. It’s great to just do this a couple times a week. LESLIE DURSO: Because it’s just good food. DEBBIE LEVIN: It’s great to just feel healthy. It’s a matter of again, what you’re saying, eat as much local, healthy, natural, real food as possible. You just feel better. It’s kind of hard to be a vegan. If you’re making that choice, there’s ways to do it if you’re not in that mindset where you could eat vegetarian more and not strictly vegan. You can make these choices of doing a couple of days a week. One day week, that was Meatless Monday is about. LESLIE DURSO: Absolutely, and we can talk about that. I’m a big advocate of Meatless Monday, but I will mention two others that are worth noting that are non-vegan restaurants that have a lot of vegan options that are very vegan friendly. That would be Mud Hen Tavern, which is Susan Feniger and Sasha’s restaurant, which is excellent food and Scarpetta for all those Italians out there that think you can’t get real Italian food. It’s delicious. They will bring you a separate vegan menu if you ask for it. DEBBIE LEVIN: Yeah, and Border Grill also as well, Susan’s other restaurant with Mary Sue. They do an incredible amount of vegan options there, so it’s great. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of favorite restaurants, what’s your favorite spring recipe, now that spring has sprung and it’s going to be 90 degrees here today? LESLIE DURSO: I have to go to New York this weekend, and it’s going to be like 25. How is it spring? I love spring. All the vegetables come out, but I’m prepping for a trip to Thailand, so I’ve been doing a lot of Thai food recently and combining that with spring. I just did a Thai salad this past week with papaya and carrots and a peanut coconut dressing. DEBBIE LEVIN: Can you put that on the website? LESLIE DURSO: It’s already on the website, lesliedurso.com or I will give you the recipe and you guys can put it up. DEBBIE LEVIN: We’ll put it on our website at the EMA website because we love that. I’m a secret chef, so I would love to try it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Debbie, give a shout-out for your website. DEBBIE LEVIN: It’s ema-online.org. We are always putting vegan and vegetarian recipes on our website. LESLIE DURSO: I’ve got over 1,000 on my website. You’re welcome to them. DEBBIE LEVIN: We should totally get it together because we also have our celebrities tweet them out. LESLIE DURSO: Perfect. I love it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I have to ask before we wrap today, I see these beautiful stuffed animals in front of us. Talk a little bit about your passion for stuffed animals. How did this happen? LESLIE DURSO: This is kind of a random story. Like I said, I used to be a model, and part of that was I used to be a fit model for this factory in Texas. I became good friends with the owner, and he’s also very big into the environment and saving the environment and bringing jobs back to the U.S. We heard this story about what happens to clothing when you donate it because everybody thinks you donate your clothes to Salvation Army, Goodwill, any of these charities, it’s going to end up in store somewhere. The truth of that is only about 2 percent of the clothing donated ends up in a store. A lot of it is sold overseas to third world countries, which is really demolishing their local economy, like in Africa, it’s actually a big problem. Then the rest of it, they just throw in a landfill, which is 12 million pounds of fabric a year end up in landfills. That’s just in the U.S. alone. It’s a lot. We were able to intercept some of that fabric, and we’ve saved over 2,000 pounds of fabric already, and we created these guys. These are little shirties because they’re made out of shirts. Each one is 100 percent different because they’re all made out of different fabrics. We get the fabric, we triple wash it and sanitize it in our commercial machines, and we do these whales. DEBBIE LEVIN: What are they stuffed with? LESLIE DURSO: They’re stuffed with recycled polyfill. The only new things that we’re buying for this project is the threading, which is usually left over from projects, so we’re not technically buying new, and the organic soy ink for the eyes is t-shirt dye, which we had to buy. Originally, I wanted to use the buttons from all the shirts as the eyes, and then I found out that that’s a choking hazard for kids, so we had to take those off and paint the eyes on. We have a denim one here as well, and the denim line is made from scraps of denim from their denim factory. They make high-end denim. When you cut out a pattern, there’s all sorts of pieces left. Instead of throwing those away, we’re salvaging them and making these animals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And where can our listeners and viewers buy these? LESLIE DURSO: You can buy them online right now at lesliedurso.com/shop. You’ll soon be able to find them in stores near you. We just launched a week ago, and they’re already doing amazing. We’ve already got them in the hands of celebrities that have bought them on their own and are already tweeting about them, which is super nice. I love this project. I’m really hoping that we can make a dent in that 12 million lbs. of fabric going to the landfill every year. It’s a great cause. A portion of every whale that’s sold is going to beach cleanups in southern California, which you all know if you spend time on the beach, they can be nasty. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Debbie and I are going to ask you a favor. We’re going to ask you when you have the big announcement about hopefully your new TV show, you’re going to come back on with Debbie and I, you’re going to make the announcement, and you’re going to bring some of your favorite recipes so we can literally eat on set next time. DEBBIE LEVIN: Yes, definitely. We’ll cook together. LESLIE DURSO: I would love that. I would love to do that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners and viewers to find you, please tell them where to go. LESLIE DURSO: At lesliedurso.com. You can see where all my appearances and classes are going to be the next few months. I always load it up with events in advance. I’ll be at Green Festivals, I’ll be at the Seed in York, I’ll be at Whole Foods near you, I’ll be all over the place. Catch me if you can.