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Article Published May 18, 2022

On the Power of Choice and Shifting to a Plant-Based Diet

By Pem McNerney/Zip06.com

Chrissy Tracey began her culinary adventures when she was a little kid. After a brief stint making mud pies in the backyard of her Cheshire home, she started searching the woods nearby for wild garlic and wild raspberries. These days, she has set aside the mud pies for loftier fare, but she still looks forward to spring and her foraging adventures with the enthusiasm of a little kid.

Those who attend an upcoming dinner at Madison Beach Hotel will be the beneficiary of her many years of experience and her recent foraging adventures.

“I’m a chef. I’m an artist. I’m a forager,” she says. “I like to bring all of those elements into the food that I make.”

The Madison Beach Hotel menu includes several courses featuring hearts of palm calamari paired with a Scotch bonnet marinara sauce; raw lasagna zucchini and squash with fermented almond ricotta, marinara, and a basil and ramp pesto; confit of lion’s mane mushroom over sweet corn purée with dashi-based caviar pearls; and a blood orange sorbet with a white chocolate panna cotta. The full menu and more information about the event at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 2 at 7 p.m. is on Madison Beach Hotel’s Facebook page under the Events tab: www.facebook.com/MadisonBeachHotel.

It will be the first of Madison’s Beach Hotel’s Epicurean series that is entirely vegan. And who better to make that meal than Tracey, Bon Appetit’s first vegan chef.

It Was Very, Very Real

Tracey laughs when recounting the story of how she was asked to become part of Bon Appetit’s team. After some back and forth on social media, she knew they were interested in adding to their team. She was starting to figure out how to make a connection, and then the organization’s talent manager checked out her work on Instagram.

“So he reached out to me in an email and was like, ‘Hey, this is so and so from Condé Nast...” she says. “And I deleted it.”

She figured it was just spam email, maybe someone trying to talk her into subscribing to the magazine or something.

“Then I was like, ‘Maybe I should look at this again.’ And oh my, lo and behold it was very, very real. So that came about and the on-boarding was awesome,” she says. “I love the people I work with there.”

Tracey’s journey to this point started with her parents, a school teacher and a pastor, who were vegetarians mainly for health reasons. Her mom managed to pack lunches for each of her seven children every school day.

Sometimes other kids would poke fun at the home cooked meals Tracey unpacked each day. But, with good humor, she gave as good as she got.

“So I’d be eating like curried lentils or something and they’re like eating a bologna sandwich,” she said. “But it never bothered me if they made fun of it because I’d be like, ‘Look at your terrible processed bologna.’”

While her mom was a good cook, she didn’t want Tracey helping in the kitchen when she was young, worried she might hurt herself. But when Tracey was 13 years old, some new neighbors from Argentina moved in nearby. A self-described social butterfly, she immediately made friends with them, and realized they loved cooking, too.

“And they let me have free rein in the kitchen. The mother would teach me how to make empanadas and other different things,” she says. “And that helped solidify for me that I wanted to take this path and I got serious about cooking.”

She graduated from high school, attended college taking business and technology classes, and started up a catering business on the side. She wanted to go to culinary school, but there weren’t any programs at the time that were focused on plant-based cooking.

“That was always difficult, so for me it made more sense to pave my own pathway in the food industry and try to show people that plant-based food could be equally delicious and its own thing,” she says. “You know it doesn’t have to be imitation this or that.”

She is mainly self-taught, but recently discovered an online cooking school that is perfect for her, Matthew Kenney’s Food Future Institute, www.foodfutureinstitute.com.

While a vegetarian for most of her life, Tracey decided to become vegan a few years ago for a variety of reasons, including her concern about the future of the planet. But it also was for health reasons. Her body just felt better when she was eating that way. And that decision informs her approach toward food and sharing her love for it with others.

While she is committed to veganism, she doesn’t consider it the end of the world if, every now and again, she has something like a cupcake that might not be entirely vegan.

A Pivotal Moment

“I don’t consider myself super strict,” she says. “I don’t really believe in restrictive eating.”

A pivotal moment for her as a professional chef was taking part in the Celebrity Dine Around at Mohegan Sun Wine & Food Festival earlier this year. She participated along with a group of celebrity chefs that included Michael Symon, host of ABC’s The Chew; Chef Plum, who makes frequent appearances on The Food Network; and Todd English, a Bon Appetit Restaurateur of the Year award winner who also has been named to the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who in Food and Beverage in America.

For that event, Tracey made the artichoke “oysters” with sautéed maitake mushrooms over smoked salt, which she also will be making for the Madison Beach Hotel event. Paired with Château Routas Rosé, her dish was a huge hit, even as it appeared side by side with dishes like Chef Plum’s Connecticut-style hot chicken with Johnny cakes and bacon butter, and Todd English’s wagyu short rib slider served with raclette cheese and truffle aioli.

The enthusiasm for the dish and its popularity “was lovely,” Tracey says. “It was a pivotal moment because it made me realize that if you just put the option out there and tell people, ‘Just try it,’ that even people who are meat-heavy in their diets will be open to trying it.”

Tracey realizes that most of the people who attend the Madison Beach Hotel event and, in fact, many of the clients for her catering business and those who follow her videos on Bon Appetit are not vegans but rather omnivores interested in finding out more about how to eat healthy and integrate plant-based dishes in their diets without sacrificing fun or flavor.

For those who are interested in shifting to a diet that is more plant-based, Tracey’s first tip is to be flexible, particularly as you are starting out.

“You know, if you’re going to go to your mom’s house or your grandma’s house, you are going to eat the things you grew up with and that you love,” she says. “For me, the theme is don’t be hard on yourself, everyone’s journey is a little different.”

‘Be the Best Version of You’

When she first became vegan, Tracey says she sometimes beat herself up when she was less than perfect, particularly when confronted with something like a cheesy pizza. Now, her philosophy is, “Don’t be hard on you. Just focus on integrating more plants into your diet so that you can be the best version of you.”

A good goal might be striving to eventually have a plant-based diet that includes about 80- to 90 percent of your food being focused on fruit and vegetables, she says.

“With that other 10 percent, you still might eat chicken or fish, or whatever you raise, for example,” she says. “But, like if I go to my grandma’s house in Jamaica and she offers me something, I might go ahead. My approach is I’m not trying to proselytize anyone. I’m just trying to show you there are different ways of eating and living and you can embrace this if you want”

In other words, Tracey believes in the power of choice.

Other tips include stocking plenty of dried beans and other legumes because they can easily be made into a wide variety of meals. She also recommends meal planning and spending about three hours on a Sunday prepping, which will cut down on the chances that you will be tempted by a fast food option like a cheesy pizza at the end of a busy day.

For baking, instead of eggs, she often uses applesauce or flax eggs (one tablespoon of flax meal with three tablespoons of water is equivalent to one egg). She says Silk makes a really good dairy free creamer and that there are lots of great options as well for plant milks. And she likes the Country Crock butter made with avocado oil.

She says visiting farmers markets and farm stands, maintaining your own garden, and becoming familiar with how to forage seasonal vegetables is fun, as well as a great way to get more vegetables in your diet. In addition to ramps, mushrooms, and stinging nettle, she also sometimes forages dandelion greens. She did so recently and then later went shopping at Whole Foods, where she saw dandelion greens for sale.

“I think it was like $11.99 a pound or something like that,” she says, laughing with delight.

Cooking with Chrissy

Here are some links to find out more about Tracey’s culinary adventures

• On her YouTube channel, “Plant Curious:” youtube.com/channel/UCcuLG2Cm4YyvbWGbvpCo9QA

• On Instagram: Instagram.com/eatwithchrissy

• On her websites: www.Chrissys.co and www.veganvibesmealprep.com. While she no longer provide meal prep services, she does provide private catering, pop-ups, and private events.

And here are some of her recipes:

• Vegan Cacio E Pepe: www.bonappetit.com/recipe/vegan-cacio-e-pepe

• Red Velvet Cake: vegnews.com/2020/12/vegan-red-velvet-cake

• Coconut Rum Sundae: youtu.be/IteAkX58izI

• Curried chickpeas and roti: youtu.be/cpFk2M8gxA8