Welcome Mark Allison on my Plant Chat today! Mark is a chef, educator, author, and motivator of healthy eating; dedicated to empowering the world community to live a full and healthy life one meal at a time. Mark is Director of Culinary Nutrition for the Dole Food Company, based at the Dole Nutrition Institute in Kannapolis, North Carolina. He works with scientists to prove the many health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables in the daily diet. Former dean of culinary arts education at Johnson & Wales University, Mark is a native of England, who has worked around the world in culinary arts for 35 years. He moved to the United States in 2004 from West Glamorgan, Wales, UK, where he was a senior culinary professor at Neath Port Talbot College. He is also the author of 150 Projects to Get You Into Culinary Arts. Mark lives in Charlotte, NC with his three children. Keep reading to learn more about Mark’s culinary work in plant-based nutrition.
What inspired you to become a chef?
My father was a factory worker his whole life in the north of England, I remember him saying, “Son, don’t work in a factory. Do something you love, and no matter what you chose to do I’ll always be proud of you”. I took his advice and followed his example into the garden instead of the factory floor. His influence is one of the reasons that my life as a chef and educator started at an early age.
I had a short stint at culinary school in 1980 and dropped out to start my first job at the newly opened four-star hotel “The Gibside Arms” in Wickham. I started as a commis chef peeling vegetables and washing floors and dishes. I later moved to Jersey off the coast of France, traveled a great deal, and at the age of 24 decided to return to night school and get an education. I spent the next 10 years working full time as a chef and studying three nights a week in culinary arts, education and business, finishing with an MBA from Leicester University. Not too bad for a boy who left school barely able to read or write at the age of 16. It is truly amazing what you can do when you are focused and motivated by choice.
At the age of 30, the same year my father passed away from cancer, I finally found my niche in life when I became a teacher of culinary arts at Neath Port Talbot College in South Wales and met and married my soul mate and best friend, a local lass from Swansea called Alison. My goal back then was to become the best culinary arts teacher I could possibly be, which led to many teaching awards and winning nearly every student culinary competition in the UK to finally being hired by Johnson & Wales University in 2004. Initially I was hired to teach, but, within four years, I become the dean of the college of culinary arts in Charlotte, North Carolina.
How has plant-based cooking become more important to you in your own personal life?
Two things happened that completely changed my goals and made me the husband, father, teacher, chef and now blogger that I am today. In 1999, my son Matthew at the age of 14 months became a type 1 diabetic while we were living in Alaska on a Fulbright Teachers Exchange program. In 2008, my beautiful wife was told she had stage four carcinoid cancer and had only three possibly four years to live. Two of the most loved people in my whole world and out of my family of five had life threating diseases. Something had to change!
We had already altered our eating habits to help Matthew adjust to his new way of life and control his blood sugars. In 2008, we drastically changed the whole family’s way of eating with the news of my wife’s illness. With none too little information from doctors on how to eat if you have diabetes or cancer, I started to research the benefits of nutrition in the diet and what were the best foods to eat to make you feel good, stay healthy, strong and hopefully extend your life span.
I realized that the Western diet we were following did nothing to keep us healthy. Too much meat, dairy, salt, sugar, saturated fat and processed foods loaded with chemicals that you can’t pronounce were not the best things for us. I came to the conclusion that a predominantly plant-based diet was the best thing I could do for my family. This discovery also directly translated into my professional life. I was still teaching at the time of my wife’s prognosis. I became more and more focused on plant-based foods being used in the classroom and encouraging students to eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, healthy grains and lean meats, while also presenting healthy eating demonstrations across the country.
My wife passed away March 19, 2015, nearly eight years after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. I’m not a doctor or scientist only a chef, but I believe that changing her eating habits to a more plant-based diet prolonged her life. She lived a full, happy and energetic eight years, never complaining of her illness, always smiling, living every day to the fullest, enjoying family and friends, organizing vacations, working part time at the boys school and always, always wanting nothing but the best for “her four boys”.
This blog is something I promised Alison Davies I would do. I’m not a preacher or evangelist, just a loving father of three fabulous boys and a chef. The recipes you will find in this blog are the things we generally eat at home. I’m not saying we eat correctly all the time, as boys will be boys, but 80 to 90 percent of the time we eat a plant-based diet, full of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, with a little lean proteins in the way of fish, shellfish and sometimes but not always meat and very rarely anything processed. Just like when I grew up, everything is prepared and cooked in our kitchen at home and every day we all sit around the kitchen table, converse, laugh, talk about the day, enjoy each other’s company and relish a real home cooked meal.
Are you finding that more people are interested in a more plant-forward diet, and why?
For myself and my family the main reasons are for health. But for many others the following reasons explain why most people are interested in a plant based lifestyle.
- 1 in 3 of Americas will die of heart disease — America’s #1 killer.
- 70% of Americans are obese or overweight.
- By 2030, 50% of all adult Americans are predicted to be diabetic or pre-diabetic.
- 75% of all U.S. health care costs are attributed to lifestyle illnesses.
- Adopting a whole food plant-based diet is the one nutritional regimen that has been scientifically proven to prevent and even reverse these modern day plagues.
- A far better way to feed the body than the “SAD” that most people follow.
- Increased wellness and athletic performance following a mainly plant based lifestyle.
- More than half of all water consumed in the U.S. is used for animal agriculture.
- The meat and dairy industry uses a 1/3 of the entire planet’s fresh water.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world.
- Livestock covers 45% of the Earth’s total land, and nearly half of the contiguous U.S. is devoted to animal agriculture.
- 1 ½ acres of land produces 375 pounds of meat, or 37,000 pounds of plant food which means that meat eater requires 18 times the amount of land necessary to feed someone eating plant based.
- 40% (63 billion pounds) of fish caught globally every year are thrown out, which could deplete the oceans of fish by 2048.
- The world currently grows enough food to feed 10 billion people, and the U.S. alone could feed 800 million people with the grain that feeds livestock.
- And last but not least, the hard-to-please Millennials are embracing plant-based diets as it fits into their pattern of sustainability, clean-eating, freshness, and global flavors.
In the culinary world, are chefs embracing this more, and why?
Yes its building up momentum, as more and more customers are asking for plant base cuisine on restaurant menus, the cost of producing plant-based dishes are cheaper than meat or fish dishes. More and more chefs are concerned about the environment and the health of the planet. It gives chefs a challenge to try new ideas that don’t include the traditional meat or fish portion to a meal, they have to be creative and bring a style and flavor not only to vegetarian and vegan foods, but to more inclusive menus that also accommodate food allergies, gluten-free eating, and more. In fact, many high-profile chefs are taking up the challenge to make plant-based meals more delicious.
What are some of the top plant-based foods and ingredients you are seeing catching on in cuisine today?
For me the best foods will always be fruits and vegetables, but I love the fact that more and more chefs are catching on to Indian cuisine and the use of fresh and dried herbs to spices that add aroma, flavor, and heat to dishes.
Tempeh, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, beans, brown rice, maple syrup, Olive oil, coconut oil, Nut butters, coconut milk, almond milk, natural juices (such as lemon and lime), medjool dates, miso, mustards, and nutritional yeasts.
What are some of your favorite ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into cooking?
I love to add roasted vegetables to curries. Fresh fruits and vegetables to smoothies. Make snacks with kale, spinach and cauliflower. Fresh ice-creams made with frozen banana as the base then add mixed berries. Soups with as many vegetables I can possibly use. Entrée that use different cooking methods such as roasting, grilling, steaming and poaching to maximize the flavor of the vegetables I’m using.