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Ask a Vegan: Elaine Toner

After 20-plus years in the restaurant industry, Elaine Toner, plant-based personal chef and health coach for The Recovery Habit, now sits at the intersection of sober living and healthier eating.

Posted on January 7, 2021

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Just as a record half-million people signed up this year to take on the Veganuary pledge, there’s another challenge this month attracting a growing group of those who seek a healthier lifestyle: Dry January. Like Veganuary, this movement originally kicked off in the U.K., led by an alcohol charity that asks participants to shun booze for the month, and it has been gaining steam ever since.

To help guide people through this sober-month challenge (and beyond), plant-based chef and health coach Elaine Toner released a new e-book called A Boozy Timeout, part of her new habit and nutrition coaching service, The Recovery Habit. “I hope to help people create healthy, sober lifestyles through habit change, and I also offer a plant-based coaching program,” Toner explains. “Due to me being vegan, the recipes in the guide are 100% plant-based.”

Toner, born in Ireland and now based in Chicago, started her journey as a vegetarian—until she was getting ready to launch her personal chef service a few years ago. “I participated in T. Colin Campbell’s plant-based nutrition program,” she recalls. “It was a powerful class; I went from vegetarian to 100% plant-based before I finished the certification and changed my business to a vegan model.”

Toner also completed her Nutrition Consultant Certification through Bauman College, and is a certified National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) personal trainer, as well as a Precision Nutrition Level 1 nutrition coach. Here, she discusses how far the vegan movement has progressed since the turn of the millennium—and how far it still can soar in the years ahead.

Q: What do you think are some common misconceptions about vegan consumers and/or vegan diets?

I would love for it to be the new normal; however, I have had conversations with non-vegan folks over the past three years, and it’s still not as mainstream as we think. People are becoming more curious and need a lot of education about becoming vegan. Surprisingly, there is still a misconception that vegan food is bland, and all we eat is salads or tofu. Times are changing, though.

Q: How can pizzerias and restaurants do a better job of communicating their vegan offerings to customers and reach the vegan community?

I spent more than 20 years working in the restaurant industry, and it comes down to a creative and educated staff. Be knowledgeable and welcoming, and create a nonjudgmental environment. Only then will customers be willing to open up and try new things.

If it’s in the restaurant budget, gift your guests a vegan amuse-bouche. This way, they can sample plant-based items offered on the menu. It is also a starting point for your staff to open a conversation with your guests about plant-based foods.

To reach the vegan community, use social media. Vegans are used to being responsible enough to find establishments that will have those meals on their menu. It’s not as hard as it used to be—most restaurants have one or two items. However, the meal has to be well thought out. You can’t stick a plain salad on a menu anymore and call it vegan; those days are over.

Finally, there are so many excellent resources for chefs and restaurant owners these days. They have access to current information on vegan nutrition and plant-based cuisine. There is no longer an excuse not to have a plant-based meal on the menu. Plants are cheap.

Q: Why do you see vegan eating as not just a trend but a full evolution of our eating habits going forward (even among meat eaters who are incorporating more plant-based foods)?

Honestly, we live in a great time to be vegan. I moved to America in 2000. I was a vegetarian at the time. I had come from Ireland; as a country, we were way ahead of America in catering to people that did not eat animal products. The food was lovely. In the States, the food was dreadful—it was so bland and an afterthought. I had more waiters be rude to me, as I was an inconvenience to them because I didn’t eat meat. Most restaurants gave me a grilled cheese with American cheese and French fries or a plain salad. So I started dining only at ethnic restaurants. I felt like a social pariah when I ate with others. Everyone was always annoyed about dining with the vegetarian.

So, from my experience, we are fortunate. Nowadays, there is a dialogue between customers and staff. Being vegan is no longer a trend. It is here to stay. The food is beautiful. Cooks are becoming more creative when designing menus and are open to learning new techniques. Fresh produce offers lovely ingredients, so it makes sense.

Regarding meat eaters incorporating more plant-based foods, I used to facilitate the Complete Health Improvement Program. From my experience, meat eaters are becoming open to eating more fresh fruits and vegetables from a health perspective. Over time, when they start to feel better, then realize the food is gorgeous and learn about a vegan lifestyle, their views tend to change from a health perspective toward an ethical mindset. It’s a process and will take time. Not everyone can go plant-based overnight. A lot of meat eaters want to live a plant-based lifestyle. However, maybe it’s cultural or such an overwhelming concept to quit all their lifelong culinary habits in one go; they want to take their time in moving toward a vegan diet. We all have a starting point.

Q: What strides have you witnessed in vegan food options over the years, and what do you want to see or predict for the future of this space?

As mentioned, I have had the opportunity to watch vegan cuisine grow in the restaurant industry and the States over the past two decades. It has been a slow process, with a lot of pushback. Once upon a time, all I had access to was a handful of bland vegan products at the chain grocery store; now, the local market in my neighborhood has replaced half their items with vegan products. It’s amazing. I have access to everything at the market: spices, nut flours, nuts, milk, cheeses, vegetables, broths, legumes, faux meats, as well as a lot of chocolate and ice creams. Everything! They’ve created a little vegan mecca for cooks. As a plant-based personal chef, if I’m working on recipe development, I can now run out the door and be home in a few minutes with whatever ingredient ran out. It’s brilliant.

We need to continue to educate people in a nonjudgmental space. Folks are curious. Regarding the future, the market is booming; you can see this when meat-based corporations start investing in plant-based companies or launch their own vegan products. Obviously, it’s just profit to them, at the end of the day—however, I think it’s a good sign of what’s to come.

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