Executive Chef and Co-Founder, Lauren Mahlke
If you would have told me a few years ago I would be cooking only vegan food in my professional and personal life I would have laughed so hard and walked back to braising.
How funny.. I still laugh about it..
It is such a humbling experience to believe something sooo passionately and strongly and have the courage to questions it, have the courage to open your mind and in the end I had the courage to open my heart.
If we went back a few years ago I owned my own catering company, created 4-6 monthly cooking classes per month featuring my recipes, creating monthly food and wine pairings with local wineries and was a Culinary Advisor for a Wine Bar Franchise writing recipes and creating wine bar menus for shops all over the United States. I also would during the summer teach kids cooking camps and cater weddings, corporate events and private events.
As a chef I had weary compassion for the way the animals were raised I wanted to know they lived a good life, with land to graze on, the right food to eat and no hormones or antibiotics. I didn’t want to think about it to much, I would eventually pay someone money to kill these animals for me so I could eat them.
At this point I had about 9 backyard chickens at home and was delivered a few pieces of pig and cow and whole chickens from a farm in Petaluma with animals who were being raised in a peaceful setting, beautiful farm, no antibiotics all grass fed and organic.
For each delivery we would get a few animal parts for $70-90 a delivery. These farms did not get the $38 billion in subsidies per year that the government provides to the meat and dairy industry and this is the cost of true meat that raised in a somewhat non-tortuous way.
All my catering and cooking for my professional life was conventional meat at the butcher shop because no way could I cook mass quantity with these outrageous prices.
At the time I featured cooking classes at an Olive Oil store, We Olive, and a lot of my non-meat recipes happened to be vegan. My food style has never been to add a ton of butter or cheese to my recipes like so many other trained chefs. So I was finding myself creating vegan meals and would start creating with each cooking class theme a vegan menu.
I had no idea how much I would love cooking vegan food! (this should have been a sign)
The produce was the star, the seasonality was celebrated, I was lifted out of the confines of meat, starch veg and was challenged to create new and exciting dishes without boundaries of the same 4 animals and yet had a whole world of spices, plants, legumes and grains to play with. After months of doing this I would find myself more excited for my vegan cooking classes then my conventional ones. I was taking all of my knowledge for building flavor and cooking techniques into veg dishes. I slowly started to integrate more of my vegan recipes into my meat cooking classes and some of my biggest fans would come to my plant-based classes over the meat.
I was shocking my costumers and my following and myself “how could this be vegan?” ….”this chocolate mousse is made with tofu?” …”these beans are amazing, I normally hate beans, beats, spinach, kale….” it went on and on, I have heard it all and opened so many minds while opening my own.
I started to realize that cooking vegan was a challenge that was educating me on flavor and making me a better chef. I still wasn’t making any big changes personally but really enjoying cooking vegan food while still eating an omnivore life at home.
And then events collided and it seems all at once, life from all different directions was telling me something even though I didn’t want to hear it.
My sister became vegan.
Great good for her, she was always on some new health thing and never really ate cow or pig and I was supportive from a far saying no one should tell her how to eat and good for her. I was content and happy not to talk about it and make her vegan food every once in a while. Doesn’t have anything to do with me.
Then she started dropping bombs on me like watching a video about a cow with her baby being taken a way from her for milk production. I watched it and I was breast feeding my youngest child, Pfeiffer, at the time and had physical pain from this experience but I could never change! I would have bad dreams of hurting the cows and taking their babies away but I tried to forget them. “I am just going to buy better milk and cheese products, maybe cheese form Ireland is better?!” I would say.
She would say yes your Peteluma farm is happy animals but they all still are slaughtered the same way and at young ages almost babies. She was right.
After she dropped a few of these little bombs I decided I was going to research and defend meat eating. I would study and build an argument to support my connection with eating meat. I mean I made a career out of it, was professionally trained pretty much perfected how to cook every piece of meat out there. I was the perfect advocate to prove my point.
So research started..mainly I was trying to find humane animal products, defining what humane is. And coming to the understanding that humane is not killing beings. Well I put that one aside until later too.
I also “humanely” raising my backyard chickens. We loved have chickens my girls play with them, pet them and we would love to see what eggs they had for us. And then after about a year in a half my favorite chicken who had so much personality was injured. She was the leader of the coop, she even fought off a racoon and had scars to prove it but that’s not what got her. She would come run up to me and I would hold her. She was the first to get treats and the first to come to me and was so soft and cuddly. She began had an issue many of my chickens got and get because they are breed to produce so many eggs in a short period of time. In under 2 years old she had a prolapsed vent, its horrible you can look it up. Chickens naturally lay 12-20 eggs a year and we have produced them to lay eggs every day for us to eat and their bodies can’t manage it. I cared for her with Epsom salt bathes, cared for her wounds. She seemed to have gotten better.
At this same time my husband and I decided after persistence from my sister to watch “Forks over Knives” then we watched “Cowspiracey” then we watched “What the Health”
We were moved, but slowly… thinking we could never stop eating meat but we will try during the week to eat vegan and on the weekends eat meat. I had tons of energy! I was so satisfied and could eat a great meal and still get up and do things not just comatose on the couch. This was around the fourth of July and we didn’t eat meat for almost two weeks. Then we had friends over and I made my famous smoked pig ribs. I ate two and couldn’t eat anymore I immediately felt tired and sleepy and had a whole bunch of people at my house and we were going to do a hike to watch the fireworks. I remember really regretting eating it cause I wanted to have more energy to spend with my friends.
The next day we had all these left overs and gave them to the neighbors because my husband and I didn’t want to eat them. Thinking about what it does to our bodies and health and the horrible industry we were supporting.
Its so funny because my parents were going through a similar situation and probably have the same story we started eliminating meat around the same time. I remember talking to my mom saying that animals are meant to be eaten but we don’t need to eat so much of them and I didn’t get the whole compassion vegan thing.
And then it happened. My sick hen who I loved died in my arms with her last breath. After caring for her so long I held her and I was shocked by how hard it hit me. I spent so much energy keeping her alive and yet was still paying other people to kill animals for me. How could I want her to live so badly and she wanted to live so badly and keep supporting an industry that would have slit her neck, let her bleed out and then I would have roasted her whole for dinner. Just like the animals at the farm even though they lived well they didn’t want to die, I didn’t want them to die. It was like a waterfall of all the events all the signs all the research leading up to this point that I had to face it, after hiding from my consciousness, after hiding from my compassion that I spent thirty years building walls of not wanting to the think about the animals dying so I could eat them. I had to deal with it right in my arms.
The compassion grew in me and opened me up and I held her crying and saying sorry. I knew this may seem silly to some but I realized I am a compassionate being and I had to start living in my truth and I had to make actions that followed my values. Realizing they aren’t here for me they are here on this earth with me.
My husband was on his own path similar to mine and we both had open minds to what this would mean for us. We would start fully removing animal products from the food we ate.
It was liberating to know that with 3 times a day I had the choice to make a difference to make a bad situation better. With so many horrible things in the world that we feel helpless to this was one thing I could do daily that I knew was better for me, my family, the environment and the animals.
I had even a greater responsibility because I am a chef and I feed more then just my family, I teach many people how to cook and I feed many people.
So now it was time to take my career and professional life and revamp it just like I did with my personal.
My parents, my sister my husband my kids we are all on this adventure around the same time together at different stages and it felt beautiful.
One night I went out with my long time chef friend Sarah after we worked a cooking class together and I filled her in all my crazy process I was going through. She was going through her own changes at the same time with eating meat and you should hear her story too but that is one for her to tell. A few weeks after that she was in a similar boat as me.
How funny to feel almost over night all your loved ones make a huge change about the same time. That is when you know something powerful is happening.
Now the challenge was how to change my professional life. I had a strong following of meat eaters and vegans alike. What was I going to do to not only continue my career but now I felt like I had a calling to cook and educate people on vegan food. I knew I can make damn good vegan food and more people need to eat it.
So many people would say, I would eat vegan more if I could cook like you, can you cook for me please and I will eat like this more.
So one day while driving with my sister we were brainstorming what does my culinary career have next in this plant-based world and she said what about a ready to eat meal delivery company. She said she knew tons of people who would want that and we had been talking about wanting more ready to eat vegan food ourselves. In a world of meat and processed foods we wanted a few nights a week to have an easy option for our family’s that we trusted and tasted great.
So we started bouncing ideas around and in November 2017 decided to meet for lunch and commit a few hours to brainstorming this. If nothing came from it no worries but we would see what we could come up with.
At the end of those few hours we have the name Planted Table, our overall business concept the desire to go eco-friendly no plastic, we bought our WordPress website domain name and we had a goal and there was no looking back. Next was to find a kitchen.
Sarah was a key part of building Planted Table and I knew Megan and I couldn’t have done it without her. We were all on the hunt for a kitchen and Sarah had taken a gig at a local Oakland vegan pop up Encuentro with Chef Lacey and she said they were looking for someone to rent the space a few days out of the week and how we needed to come check it out. Wow was this the most perfect thing for us. Chef Lacey even graced us with helping us in the kitchen cooking when we started and taught us so much. She is truly my mentor and I am forever grateful to her education and support. The endless support of our costumers and the amazing staff we have built we have this successful company. Our company is always trying to change for the better and always trying to improve. We make and deliver almost 2000 meals a week right now and I can’t believe it.
Looking back life had a perfect plan I just didn’t know it yet. Through this whole process of starting Planted Table ideas came and we built it. Needs arose and then solutions appeared. I learned that everyone surrounding me was good at things that I wasn’t. Megan could take this creation and build it from ground up and find the customers with marketing, build an amazing website and be a wonderful partner in the Operations of the Company. Sarah having more experience in restaurants then I did had amazing skills in commercial kitchen production, management and organization we tackled together so many challenges of creating 10 new dishes every week in mass quantity. My husband’s Matt endless support and encouragement helps me make better management choices and bookkeeping and finances. We have added so many wonderful people to our team with Ryan and Josh as Sous Chefs and so many more key players who know who you are that make the Planted Table kitchen function so smoothly.
I have learned so much and I continue to learn every day. I have so many goals for our company and for myself and I can’t wait to produce more recipes, cookbooks, video education, food and wine pairings and of course amazing new menus each week for our growing Planted Table customers.
I am grateful and blessed and I thank you!
-Chef Lauren Mahlke