Timaree Hagenburger: A chef shares why he adopted a plant-based, whole food diet

I am so excited to introduce you all to Vik! He is one of my former students with whom I bonded almost immediately, as we shared a love of food, a passion for culinary creativity and an insatiable curiosity, often captured by the question: “I wonder how we could take this to the next level?”

When we first met, his food was all about flavor and texture, but as he learned more and more in my classes and through our conversations, he realized that it was relatively easy to add fat, sugar and/or salt to a dish to tickle someone’s taste buds, but it was much more rewarding to create amazing food that was also nourished the customer, improving their health and quality of life with every bite.

He has done some great cooking demonstrations for our Thrive On Plants Club on campus and I look forward to more to come.

Enjoy reading about Vik’s story through its twists and turns, and the new recipe he created for you!

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My name is Vikash Lal, though some of you would know me as Vik. Cooking has been a lifelong interest of mine. I grew up a foodie, and although it runs in the family, I am the first to have taken it to the level of chef.

My first memory of cooking involved my cousin standing me on a chair when I was 4, and teaching me how to scramble eggs. I remember the smells, and how it seemed like magic when the proteins began to cook and solidify.

Magic — especially to a 4-year-old — and I was hooked. I began cooking breakfast for the family every weekend.

Fast forward a few more years to high school, where I took A.P. Biology and it blew my mind. We covered microbiology, and learned about the types of cells that are found in organic materials (including the food we eat).

Between that biology class and another in chemistry, I learned what each cell was made of, including lipids (which were the fats and oils with which I cooked), the proteins made up of amino acids and how they responded to heat and acid, and more. The kitchen became my laboratory and I was experimenting with recipe after recipe.

Sometime after I graduated high school I got my first kitchen job as a dishwasher. I slaved back there in that dish pit for the better part of three years. During that time, I learned how to use a knife, along with hundreds of ways not to use a knife. I also learned how to work an actual line.

It was a long road. It took blood, sweat and even a few tears here and there.

I had to learn to check what was happening in my life at the door and let cooking be my escape. Now, I’m a chef with a reputation for making magic happen.

My culinary journey took a huge turn two years ago. I was cocky to say the least. I felt I had mastered my craft, my feet were kicked up and I had stopped growing. What else was there to learn? I could make anything and make it well.

Quite frankly, I was bored, and actually ready to put up my knives and give up cooking and the lifestyle it came with.

I decided to return to school.

I was a chef who ate meat of all kinds. As a matter of fact, I was a chef who had just come out of my self-proclaimed “bacon phase” — a lot like Picasso’s blue phase, just more artery clogging.

That is when I took Prof. Hagenburger’s nutrition class at Cosumnes River College. The professor and I connected quickly, as we always discussed food and cooking. Throughout the class, she recognized my food-related knowledge, and encouraged me to incorporate what we were learning about nutrition. She would often ask me the question, “How could you make that plant-based, with whole foods?”

It sounded challenging, but not impossible, so I gave it a try and actually jumped into a 21-Day Kickstart she mentioned in class.

After three weeks, I loved the way I felt, and was amazed that I didn’t miss out on any of the flavors that made me love food. By the time we were halfway through the class, I was convinced that if I wanted to live strong, the best thing I could do for my health was go vegan — to thrive on plant-based whole foods, as Prof. Hagenburger would remind me. There was no downside.

That fact lined up perfectly with being culinarily bored out of my wits, which enabled me to jump into the 21-day challenge with both feet.

Then, my journey took yet another turn. Sometime after my “kickstart,” I returned to eating meat and dairy because my girlfriend at the time decided it was too hard for her if I continued to eat this way. She loved to go out and split plates, and animal products weren’t something she was ready to give up.

We broke up eventually. I went vegan a few days after and I haven’t eaten an animal product since.

I can’t say as a chef that I am not tempted.

I loved chicken strips my entire life, and while I don’t eat them anymore, I do have to fry them at work — five cases at a time. I’m literally surrounded by my biggest temptations, including cheesecakes and other sweets, pizza and wings.

Since I am in my early twenties, my health alone isn’t always enough to turn away from those temptations, and I have to be able to say “no” on a regular basis.

My faith, however, has been closely intertwined with my food journey. Through my trials and tribulations of life, I have always found my way back to my faith.

I am a devout Hindu and we are taught to have love and respect for all living beings. Knowing this truth — understanding the role our food choices play and not wanting to contradict myself — has provided me with the strength and discipline to stay on my path without wavering.

If you are a Hindu or someone who has studied Hinduism, you might be asking, “What about dairy?” The cow was the mother of Krishna when he had no parents. Milk is what kept him alive and its consumption is highly regarded in Hinduism.

I agree, the cow did act as the mother to Krishna, and is forever a maternal figure in Hinduism. I ask you to look at what they’ve done to her. In many places across the U.S., dairy cows are far from being honored. They are often subjected to putrid conditions, separated from their baby calves, and sent to the slaughterhouse after only a fraction of their natural lifespan. To make dairy cheese, rennet is often used to curdle the milk. This comes from the inner lining of a baby calf’s stomach.

As a Hindu, how can I take part in the consumption of something when I know these truths and have been able to recreate the recipes I love with plant-based alternatives?

While I became vegan for health reasons, I continue to make these intentional choices for my spirituality and my morality.

One of our holy books, the Bhagvat Gita, tells us that the path to enlightenment is individual to everyone. On my path, I found being vegan to be my truth.

Now, since I’m a chef, it is my job to make food taste great. Let me introduce you to my latest dish, a flavor-rich, plant-based, fusion-inspired salad that could easily be turned into a hearty meal.

Timaree Hagenburger is a registered dietitian, certified exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in public health, and a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College. She is excited about the new Plant-Based Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture certificate program there, and loves interacting with her former students like Vik as part of her Thrive On Plants Club and her hands-on cooking class. Timaree also conducts local events, corporate wellness work, has a regular segment on California Bountiful TV and is the author of “The Foodie Bar Way: One meal. Lots of options. Everyone’s happy.” available at .