The vegan restaurateur that started Real Food Daily, arguably the best totally organic vegan restaurant in Los Angeles seeks balance in her life as well as in her restaurants. A sweet, welcoming and energetic Ann Gentry greets me with her Southern drawl at the West Hollywood Real Food Daily, the second location of the restaurant that she founded in 1994 in Santa Monica. Gentry’s success has continued to expand with the October release of the Real Food Daily Cookbook featuring a host of delicious vegan recipes as well as many old favorites from the RFD menu.
Yogi Times: Are you a vegan?
Ann Gentry: What a provocative first question, I love it. I keep a vegan kitchen in both my home and restaurants. You know, veganism is a noble thing to do. The world would be a much better place if more people were vegan. But in the last 30 years or so of doing this, I’ve seen that just because someone eliminates something such as animal products from their diet does not mean they are necessarily eating well. I think we’ve gotten caught-up in mistaking quality for a balanced diet. We’re so blessed to live in Los Angeles where we can buy good, quality food. We can buy certified organic foods and products; we can get foods well made with consciousness and care. We can get vegetarian and vegan foods readily.
However, I am a proponent of eating a grain and vegetable based diet, which I realize is a very un-sexy way to describe a way of eating. When people say, “grain and vegetables, what a bore.” I usually tell them, no, you’ve got it turned around – you are boring! One of Real Food Daily’s goals is to make vegan food acceptable, appealing and satisfying. Consequently, making you feel good from eating foods with a higher consciousness.
So, yes, RFD is about eating whole grains, rice, quinoa and millet, to name a few, in their whole state. You don’t have to eat large amounts but a little whole grain everyday is the name of the game. Unfortunately some people rely on oatmeal or pasta “whole grain bread” or cereal. You know the commercial with the bus going by with a big sign that says “Whole Grains” and what it comes down to is breakfast cereal! Well, that’s not quite it, but people get mistaken into believing, “Oh yeah, I’ve had my grains.” And that’s what I see with a lot of people on a vegan diet. They’re just eating pasta and bread and salad and you can’t eat that way and really be healthy. Often they crave an enormous amount of sugar. I call them the Twinkie Vee’s. They eat too much sweet because they crave it, because something isn’t working for them. There’s an imbalance.
YT: How did you get your start?
Ann Gentry: My introduction into cooking was through macrobiotics and that really instilled in me the principles of yin and yang, which is about balance. Brown rice is the most balanced food. The vegetable part of a vegan diet is a variety of root and ground vegetables, leafy greens and I don’t just mean a salad. Salad has its place, raw has its place, but it’s part of a much wider scope. People get stuck in a rut of eating the same things over and over. They bake everything, they fry everything or they broil everything, or only eat raw. I see that as too extreme, eventually people are going to hit the wall, then they’ll cheat and it’s all over with.
Macrobiotics taught me how to use foods in a medicinal way without having to be sick, to use them in a way that serves you where you are at this moment in your life. Also, what I’ve seen after doing this for many years: you need different things for different times in your life. So just to say, I’m just going to eat one particular way for forever can be extreme. And yet, I understand people are driven morally, ethically and spiritually and that is very powerful stand to take – to support a 100% animal free diet – but quite often it isn’t always serving you, your body, your spirit, your health.
YT: It seems that balance is the key.
Ann Gentry: Absolutely. I started getting into food because I just didn’t feel good. I always felt sluggish and was constantly craving all the wrong foods. I was on a sugar roller coaster and eating with no sense of awareness. So, I slowly began to change the way I ate and started to look at how food affected me. Some people do it overnight, cold turkey, no pun intended and more power to them. I took gradual steps and eventually realized that you have to embrace whole grains because where else are you going to get what you need with a vegan diet. So I taught myself how to cook the macrobiotic way. I was a terrible cook in the beginning. Things were overcooked, undercooked, burned. But that’s how you learn. That’s what I tell people who are interested in cooking: just keep doing it. I said that in my book, be patient with yourself and use it as a learning tool instead of saying, never mind I can’t do this.
As I said, what macrobiotics taught me was balance. You know, in the big scheme of your life, how do you balance it? And that takes people years to really grasp because we’ve been conditioned to look at life from extreme ups and downs. That’s what I’m trying to teach my kids. People ask me if my kids are vegan. Well, the first two years of my daughter’s life she was vegan, then you go to a birthday party where there is ice cream and cake and it’s all over. It was at that moment I realized I wasn’t going to be the mom that runs around bringing the vegan cake or the Rice Dream or Soy Delicious.
I want my daughter to partake in celebration, to be tolerant and accepting of other ways. If anything, all I hope that I can teach my kids is to make sound, healthy, wise choices around food. I’m sure at some point they’ll rebel. My daughter teases me, she says, “You’re not a vegan.” And I say, “Well, you’re not either. “What do you think that cheese pizza was?” She is your typical 6-year-old. If she could have it her way, she’d live off pizza, seitan, pasta and sweets. When we go out, she can have these foods, but I’m not cooking anything but vegan meals at my house.
YT: Do you create your recipes with the thought of sustaining and enhancing the customer’s health?
Ann Gentry: It goes back to the home delivery days, which were the very beginning of RFD. I used to make monthly menus. A soup, main course, side dishes and dessert. I was using all the information I’d gained from macrobiotics about choosing foods to enhance your wellbeing, everything from working with the color and texture of foods to what the foods are doing for you energetically. I was totally into that. I was so serious about making those menus. So when I opened a restaurant, I think all that interest and energy came with me. Sometimes it’s much harder to maintain today. In the beginning, it was just little ol’ me. I was in there cooking and I could do it. Still, today this is a strong tenet of our philosophy because it was imbedded in the culture early on.
Growing up in the South and eating at neighborhood mom and pop places or at my family table had a great influence on me. At that time, I never thought I would go off and do something in the food world. I talk about it in my book. When I grew up, you got together with your parents at the end of the day and you ate at 5 or 6 o’clock. Nobody’s doing that anymore. Children aren’t getting enough of this. Kids are being fed by nannies; kids are being fed on fast food; kids are being fed in the car or kids are not being fed. They’re just grabbing as they go. I think that’s why Thanksgiving is such a big deal. It’s this great opportunity for people to come together and share gratitude and it’s all around food.
YT: Is there anything you want your customers to leave Real Food Daily with besides a great meal?
Ann Gentry: I think eating is two things. I think eating is a political act because the choices that you make about the foods you choose are definitely political. Bottom line, it is about choosing foods that are low on the food chain, foods that are better for us and for our environment. By eating locally and seasonally we support our local farmers. It’s just simple. Choosing to eat lower on the food chain, meaning more grains and vegetables, affects the planet in a very powerful way. And secondly, I think eating is a spiritual act. I think if you eat food like this you are going to get closer to God or Spirit, whatever it is for you. You become more attuned to yourself, your family, your community and the world at large. There’s no doubt about it. Eating a balanced diet that is comprised mostly of grains and vegetables, even if you’re not vegetarian, will change your perspective. That’s what my personal journey has been. I was a girl who was addicted to sugar. The journey of changing my diet was one of the first things I did that led me toward changing my life and becoming more conscious. I know that’s a whole clichÃ©, but changing my diet was the first step on a path that included yoga, bodywork and wanting to live a more authentic life.
I definitely see that with foods, you are more peaceful if you are eating simply because you’re not in the valley of high and low. You can point at hypoglycemia and ADD with kids. I believe that those are real and people have them, but I also believe that food is one of the biggest contributing factors. With kids, it’s food and TV. I do see what happens to kids when they watch TV; it’s just like sugar and they are bouncing off the walls. That energy has to go somewhere or it becomes destructive and then self-destructive. When I’m in the co-op and I’m shopping and people don’t know I’m Real Food Daily, people come up to me and ask me what to do with the kale, collard greens and all the winter squashes I have in my basket. They don’t know what to do with them. Parents desperately want to change the way their kids eat, but they cannot do that until they change the way they, themselves, eat. Because they are the influence and they set the example. So why do they think their kids are going to eat their greens if their parents won’t, if you’re not eating them and enjoying them? The change has to be made by the parents first.