By Rachel Curit, 2014 Spring Intern
“If it tastes good, they will eat it” are words that vegan author and speaker Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has repeated time and time again. Whether it’s a decadent chocolate cupcake or a salad with an out-of-this world dressing, it doesn’t matter if it’s vegan as long as it’s delicious. And the key is to show people that vegan food can be even more delicious than non-vegan food!
Which leads us to a specific type of activism you may not have considered yet: cooking demos. Whether you choose to host your demo in a church or at a supermarket, whether you feature brunch or dessert, and whether it’s your first time or 100th, you will undoubtedly show people how delicious and creative vegan food can be.
We’ve talked with four amazing activists who have done this type of activism and they had some great ideas to share that we hope will inspire you!
Terri Nelson-Bunge, DTR (TNB): Terri is a long-time vegan and animal activist and has participated in a variety of events. One group she was involved with held monthly events at her local library, including cooking demos. Soon Terri will be launching a plant-based nutrition program called Happy, Healthy, & Whole.
Dr. Matthew Halteman (MH): Matt is a philosophy professor at a liberal arts college. Each year he teaches a course on animal ethics and advocacy. In 2007, Matt started Wake Up Weekend, an animal rights festival that features cooking demos among other things. On several occasions, Wake Up Weekend has hosted vegan chef and cookbook author Bryant Terry.
Leila Vaughan (LV): Leila is a founder and director of Peace Advocacy Network (PAN), and devotes significant time to organizing the PAN Vegan Pledge in the DC Metro Area and around the country. Cooking demos are central to the PAN Vegan Pledge program as well as other vegan advocacy that PAN does.
Gwendolyn Mathers (GM): Gwendolyn is a professional vegan chef and owns a vegan baking company in Los Angeles called Miss Kitchen Witch. She started doing cooking demos because she could see that there were many who were trying to transition to vegetarian or vegan, but who didn’t know what to cook or where to start.
VF: What is the first step in hosting a successful vegan cooking demo?
TNB: The first step is to find a good location (hopefully free), and someone who is comfortable doing the demo. This may be an activist in the group, or in our case, a professional chef who is well-versed in vegan cooking.
MH: The first step to achieving a great cooking demo is to recruit a great presenter who has ample experience cooking in public. It’s tempting to think that anyone who is a “good cook” would make a good presenter, but in practice that’s not always the way it goes. Cooking for live audiences requires, among other things, foresight into which recipes are both accessible to wide audiences and executable on portable equipment, knowledge about how to prep and transport perishable ingredients without compromising the recipe, the ability to cook and talk simultaneously, and the poise to troubleshoot mistakes or unanticipated equipment malfunctions. That’s not to say that non-professionals can’t pull off a great demo; it’s just to say that those who haven’t done a public demo before should think ahead about these potentially challenging aspects of the process, practice the demo several times for friends and family, and perhaps even consider recruiting a partner to split up the responsibilities, with one person doing the chef-work and one doing the talking.
VF: Where are the best places to hold cooking demos?
TNB: The best places are locations that are:
Free or inexpensive
Easy to access (parking)
Community events that draw a large audience
GM: Churches, spiritual centers, community centers, schools, libraries, and even supermarkets are great places to do demos. They often have kitchens, large community rooms—not to mention an existing audience base. Find those that feel like they ofter the low hanging fruit and lean toward what you want to teach.
VF: What are your top three tips for first timers?
TNB: 1. Be organized! You want people to come back, not feel frustrated with your event. 2. Hand out recipe cards for each dish you prepare. 3. Promote the event as much as you can. Promotion can be done through a website, Facebook page, word of mouth, flyers, and if held at a public venue (e.g., a library) through that location.
MH: 1. Retain a compelling presenter. For a lot of people, this presentation will be the first time they’ve seen a vegan recipe prepared, so it’s best to have an approachable, gracious, experienced person at the helm to create the best possible impression. 2. Book a sensible venue. Even the world’s best presenter will face difficulty in a poorly chosen venue. A fold-out table with 30 yards of extension cords between you and the nearest outlet in a park on an 85 degree summer day is no place to try to make appetizing food with perishable plant-based ingredients. 3. Keep the demo simple with delicious recipes that showcase the ability of plant-based foods to replace familiar comfort-food favorites with healthier alternatives. When people see that eating a plant-based diet can be easily done without giving up their favorite tastes and textures, the prospect of going vegan becomes much more inviting.
VF: What do you do to attract non-vegan attendees to the event?
LV: Promote the class as a free cooking demo for non-vegans and new vegans and ask vegans to please invite their non-vegan friends. As much as we love being around fellow vegans, everyone will understand that the purpose of this demo is to introduce non-vegans to vegan food. That way vegans will know that the class is more basic, and will also leave valuable class space open for the non-vegans and new vegans who really need the exposure to vegan cooking.
GM: Aside from making your demos free and open to the public, you’ve got to figure out what is the best way to get the word out for your particular event. Putting it on in a church or community center? Put up posters or go to other free classes and events to pass out leaflets. Post your event to local calendars, online community listings, bulletin boards, or ask local bloggers to share your event. Social media really takes the vegan cake when getting the word out. Create a Facebook event page. You can invite those in your area and ‘tweet’ your event page link to community event users in your town and newspaper accounts on Twitter. Though, it’s not all just about getting the word out and putting up posters. You’ve got to start with a demo that entices the average person. Sometimes you’ve got to start with cupcakes before you pull out the kale salad!
VF: Anything else you’d like to add?
LV: If the circumstances permit, give attendees a chance to get involved (after they wash their hands or put on gloves). Give them something to do, like chopping, mixing, etc. The more involved people are, the more fun they seem to have.
TNB: Yes. Don’t forget, a cooking demo (or any other event), is also a great way to promote animal rights. Have a literature table full of information about animal issues and especially at a cooking demo, veg starter kits that contain recipes.
We’d like to thank Terri, Matt, Leila, and Gwendolyn for taking the time to share these great tips! If you have your own techniques or cooking demo experiences to share, please leave a comment. We love hearing from you!
And, don’t forget that VegFund provides funding to help support vegan cooking demos through our Merit Awards program!