Recently, I had the pleasure of having a chat with Chef Elena Johnson, the mastermind behind Nourrie Cuisine. Nourrie Cuisine, based in Maryland, is a powerhouse for plant-based, clean and healthy eating.
Nourrie Cuisine is a vegan catering company in Baltimore that also offers services providing prepared meals, personal in-home chef services, cooking demonstrations, and private cooking lessons (something I could certainly use!). The food is amazing. I’ve had the pleasure of scarfing down this deliciousness at a Baltimore Vegan Drinks’ Holiday Party (2015), at a friend’s birthday party, at the Mac n’ Cheese Smackdown, and during two vegan takeovers at The Room. I’ve never once been disappointed, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed observing the astonishment on faces of non-vegans as they bite into one of Chef Elena’s creations. Oh, the bewilderment that vegan food can taste that spectacular!! Truly, Chef Elena’s creations are magnificent; if you’re in the Baltimore metro area and haven’t yet had the pleasure of enjoying one, it’s a must-do (fortunately, you’ll have the chance this weekend at Eat+Shop+Vegan)!
Hearing more about Chef Elena’s story has been so enjoyable for me, and I am happy to share her inspiring words with you!
Tell me a little about how Nourrie Cuisine got started.
I’ve always loved to cook and was dubbed the informal caterer for most of my family and friend get-togethers. After going vegan, I became more interested in cooking for my loved ones and showing them how excited I was about this new approach to food. I even did some small catering jobs for friends and got positive reviews from their guests.
At the same time, I was working in the nonprofit sector for animal protection organizations. One element of my last job was coordinating the DC VegFest. I worked with restauranteurs and food trucks signing them up for the festival and I loved talking to them about the vegan options they provided. Over time, I realized that I was putting myself in their shoes and picturing what my signature dish or specials menu would look like. It finally hit me that I was dreaming about cooking professionally as a full-time job. Shortly after that realization I decided to launch Nourrie Cuisine offering private catering, prepared meals, and cooking lessons. At the beginning, I also focused on field marketing services where we help promote plant-based grocery brands directly to consumers.
You have an extensive history in the food service industry, has it always been in plant-based arenas?
When I started cooking, I was not familiar with plant-based cuisine. I typically cooked French and American dishes using French techniques. I occasionally mixed in traditional Filipino dishes that I learned from my Grandfather who emigrated from the Philippines. About 20 years ago, I started experimenting with vegetarian recipes and plant-based proteins to accommodate friends and relatives who were vegetarian. In 2008, I went vegan and discovered just how exciting cooking can be when you’re not tethered to the standard American dinner model of protein, starch, and vegetable on a plate. Removing certain ingredients like meat and dairy left me with a blank canvas to create new and interesting flavor combinations and allowed me to borrow ingredients and cooking techniques from all over the world.
What’s your story—the story of Elena?
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland and then lived briefly in New York City and Paris during college. I have a B.A. in French Language and Literature and am a lifelong Francophile! My husband and I have lived in Baltimore County for 17 years and we share our home with two black cats – Buster and Lucy. I grew up around the food service industry because my family owned franchise pizza restaurants. Later, my parents bought a pub in Ellicott City, Maryland where I bar-tend part-time. I’ve learned a lot from my parents and can only hope that I’ll be as successful in business as they are!
What or when was your first big break?
I had been catering part-time here and there and then started doing small cooking demonstrations as part of my work at Compassion Over Killing, a national animal advocacy organization. I liked writing recipes and teaching people how to cook with healthier ingredients instead of meat, eggs, and dairy. One of my first big opportunities was when I started reaching a wider audience by writing a weekly recipe column called “Meat-Free Favorites” published in Weekend Balita, a free Filipino-American newspaper.
Nourrie Cuisine is more than just catering—offering services for prepared meals, private cooking lessons, and cooking demonstrations as well. What has been most rewarding? -or- What’s your favorite part about your work?
I love introducing people to plant-based cuisine. Whether that’s by serving a party guest who has never eaten tofu or teaching a family about dairy-free sauces at a private cooking lesson, as long as I’m helping someone discover how easy and delicious plant-based foods are, then I think I’ve done my job.
I’d like to know more about your “Fresh Partnerships” services. What sort of work does that include?
Nourrie Cuisine’s initial business model included brand representation and sales support for plant-based companies. We have worked with many grocery brands such as Treeline Cheese, Better Bean, Viana, Hampton Creek, Soupergirl, and Dear Coco to help increase customer awareness through product demos and by coordinating with retailers who carry the products. It was fun and rewarding to help these companies establish a wider presence in stores in the Mid-Atlantic Region while also furthering the public’s interest in meat and dairy-free products. We still work with a few companies, but we’ve decreased our efforts in this area as our catering and other food preparation services have grown.
On your website, it says you’ve hosted online training programs. What can you tell me about that?
I’ve been involved in training and teaching throughout my career. I was a classroom facilitator and management mentor when I worked in corporate food service. Then when I began working in animal protection, I hosted training workshops and spoke at regional and national conferences about how to care and advocate for cats. The online training program came out of my work speaking on behalf of a national cat protection organization. We created an online webinar which I then hosted monthly for hundreds of people all across the country. It was extremely rewarding to be able to reach so many people at once who all wanted to protect the cats living in their communities.
Why is it important to focus on natural, organic, and plant-based ingredients?
My company is 100% plant-based to protect animals. Farmed animals have the same emotions and capacity for joy and suffering as the cats and dogs with whom many of us share our homes. From my perspective, there is no reason to eat these sentient beings or their milk or eggs. There are delicious alternatives to animal ingredients and by choosing animal-free foods, we help prevent suffering and cruelty.
I choose to use local and organic ingredients whenever possible because these products leave a lighter footprint on the planet. By avoiding produce grown with synthetic pesticides and herbicides our company is sending a clear message to the agriculture industry that we don’t want harmful toxins poisoning our land, waterways, and wildlife.
Personally, I feel much more comfortable eating and feeding people when I know the meals are fresh, healthful, and have a simple ingredient list without too many additives or chemicals. It’s better for our bodies and the environment!
Where do you find inspiration for your delicious recipes?
When I first went vegan I was inspired by chefs and cookbook authors who taught me how to give tofu flavor, bake without eggs, and create creamy sauces without dairy. Once I got comfortable with the basics, I started drawing inspiration from my existing culinary background. I eagerly veganized many Filipino dishes I grew up eating like Pancit, Adobo, and Picadillo. I also went back to my French influences and began breaking down classic French recipes in order to rebuild them without animal products. Now I can whip up plant-based Crêpes, Salade Niçoise, or Mousse au Chocolat. When I plan menus, I look to the season for inspiration and see what fresh produce we can obtain locally and how that will work within the planned event theme or style of cuisine.
Surely you get tired of preparing fabulous meals all the time. When you’re not cooking food for yourself, what’s your go to snack/dish/meal/restaurant?
I love all Asian food! It’s such a treat to order Japanese, Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese dishes prepared by experts who are skilled with the ingredients and techniques of a specific region or country. I also enjoy quick service restaurants that make BIG salads – if I ever feel like I need more greens, I swing by one of these places and get a bowl of kale covered with healthy and delicious veggies, fruits, and nuts. It can be so satisfying to have a cashier hand me a healthy bowl of food without having to do any work myself!
At the end of each day, do you remove and store your “Chef Johnson” hat? Or do you wear that persona 24/7?
For me, as a small business owner, there is no such thing as a day off. Even when I’m on vacation and build free-time into my schedule, part of me is still thinking about the business. It’s also easy to have work on the brain since I still have to eat every day! Sometimes I’ll be out to dinner with friends or relaxing by watching a cooking competition on TV and that will give me a new idea or help me solve a problem. I started Nourrie Cuisine because my passion for plant-based cooking already permeated every part of my life. When that became clear to me, it just made sense to make the passion my profession.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d offer someone interested in plant-based food service?
In general, the food and beverage industries are not easy. They require a lot of time and energy. Although it is often fun to work at special events and in bustling atmospheres, the hours, stress, and physical commitment can be quite taxing. I caution anyone interested in the industry to seriously consider the type of workplace they enjoy and how rigorously they want to work. It can be a tough, messy job and people need to know that before they dive in. If your personality is the right fit though, it can be a thrilling and creative environment!
For those focusing on plant-based food, I think it’s an exciting time for us! Plant-based companies are a growing market segment and there is still much more opportunity for growth. My advice to anyone working in this area is to remember why you are doing it – to help people stay healthy? to protect animals? to improve the environment? Whatever your specific reason, the best way to further that goal is to engage your customers through empathy and inclusion as they discover the things you already know and love about plant-based food. If we meet people where they are and welcome them into a judgment-free space, then the trend of plant-based eating will continue to flourish!
Is this what young Elena imagined you’d be doing in life?
Most of my life I wanted to be a chef, but each time I considered pursuing my dream I would talk myself out of it. Over time, I started to believe that it wasn’t really a dream, but an impractical fantasy. Only after years working in corporate food service and event planning did I finally come to believe that my childhood dream was actually my calling. Once I went vegan, I realized that the best way I can help animals is by connecting with people about food and introducing them to animal-free cooking. I don’t think my childhood self imagined that I’d be vegan (she didn’t know what that was!), but I think she’d be glad to know that I figured out a way to link my interest in culinary arts to my values.
Are there any big plans on the horizon for Nourrie Cuisine?
Funny you should ask! We hope to be opening our first brick-and-mortar location this year. The plans for an organic brasserie are in the works and as soon as we have something specific to announce, I’ll let you know!
Can’t get enough? Want more Nourrie Cuisine?
Nourrie Cuisine will be a vendor at this weekend’s Eat+Shop+Vegan event! July 29, 2017, 1pm to 5pm at the Impact Hub! Meet Elena there!
Also, be sure to find and follow Nourrie Cuisine/Elena online!