Behind the line: Halifax chef Lauren Marshall

The East Coast chef on pizza and plant-based diets

Lauren Marshall vegan chef Halifax

There are many things a person will be quick to notice about chef Lauren Marshall, like her unabashed East Coast charm, perfectly exemplified as she leans into my recorder and says, "Hello! Is this thing on?" and the fact that even though she identifies herself as a vegan chef, she has spent years working as a chef all over the map, from Australia to Nantucket, Massachusetts before returning to Halifax kitchens and slowly making the move towards a vegetable-focused diet and, eventually, a plant-based chef career running the kitchen at enVie.

Now, out on her own with her company Coastal Healing (a blend of yoga, self-improvement and vegan cuisine), Marshall aims to improve the lives of people who are looking for a little clarity and perhaps some purity in their food regimes. Marshall opens up about misconceptions of vegetable-forward diets, why pizza can be a blank canvas for the creative culinary mind, how her grandfather inspired her to be the well-travelled chef she is today and just how stomach-churning appearing on national television can be.

Your friends tell me that you don't just have the regular spiel to, "Why did you want to become a chef?" question. Time to share it!

Oh my gosh! It was because my grandfather was a chef in the navy. He got to travel the world. My entire childhood, I was able to hear amazing stories about the places he had been: China, Hawaii, Korea, all over Europe, all of these amazing destinations that, back in the 1950s, not many people got to see. I wanted to travel the world and I knew that if I became a chef, that I'd be able to see amazing places. On top of that, my favourite thing to do with my mom when I was young was to go grocery shopping. I've always loved food.

After you were done travelling and came back to Halifax a few years ago, what did you do?

When I got back from Australia, I became the head chef at Morris East, a wood-fired pizzeria. It was amazing. I loved working with pizza!

I was sitting with the owner of Morris East at a dinner recently and she had great things to say about you, which is rare to hear from a restaurateur about a previous head chef. Why did you love working there so much?

When I was taking over there, the chef who was leaving told me, "Beware that you are going to get very bored here. This job is just pizza." And I thought, "We'll see what happens." But, for the two years that I was there, I was not bored one single day. I didn't want to even leave the job, but I had just gotten into nutrition school, so I had to leave. When you think about it, you can literally do anything with pizza. It was so fun meeting all of these local farmers, meat producers, cheese makers and coming up with new ideas constantly. I loved that.

Apparently, you used to make a pretty badass poutine pizza.

It all started when they opened up the Seaport Market a few years ago. When I was working at Morris, I was lucky to be able to take full advantage of every local distributor at the market. Fox Hill Cheese House made fresh cheese curds every Thursday. So, we'd go in, stock up on the curds and make a poutine pizza because my boss, Jennie, was obsessed with poutine. We'd do a wood-fired shoe string potato crust, chicken gravy--I think there was crispy rosemary and sage on there too--and topped it all off with the Fox Hill cheese curds. It was really popular!

You got a lot of attention when you helped open up enVie in Halifax, arguably one of Canada's premier vegan restaurants. How did that materialize?

When I left Morris, I was just studying and needed some part-time work, so I started teaching cooking classes. I wanted some time off to develop my own project, but I had heard someone was opening a vegan restaurant in Halifax and I couldn't turn that opportunity down. I really wanted to work with someone who was interested in doing really good, chef-driven vegan food. Everything I was learning in school [pointed to how] eating a lot of plant-based foods was really good for you. The more veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds you get in yourself, the better. So, I really wanted to team up with Diandra and Cory and start doing plant-based menus.

What's a transition like for a chef moving from using all ingredients when creating a menu to specifically vegan?

Honestly, it was really hard because I really didn't know a whole lot about how to turn what I knew as a "regular" chef into vegan [applications]. There was definitely a lot of trial and error. Diandra Phipps (enVie's owner) had worked at a vegan restaurant for a year in Germany, so that helped. It was a lot of back and forth, coming up with ideas, studying, reading blogs, books and seeing what other people around the world were doing. There were a lot of late nights in that kitchen spent recipe testing.

What's one vegan dish you make that you think is better than its meaty equivalent?

I never like to compare things like that, but I will say that I can make the best gravy in the world, a gravy that doesn't have anything like turkey fat or beef drippings. At every family function, I'll whip up this vegan gravy and everybody at the table will always eat it over the meat gravy. I can say by experience, and by hanging out with mostly meat eaters at the time, I'm always the odd one out; but that vegan gravy, man, everybody wants it! I think that it’s just a great example of how vegetables can pack a ton of flavour into a dish while with bland meat drippings, if someone doesn't know what to do with them, doesn't always work out so well.

One of the things that drives me nuts about people who embrace a vegan diet without any knowledge of what to purchase or to cook for themselves is that they assume cutting meat and dairy out is just a healthier way to eat, but that's not always true, is it? 

I say this all the time, but what I do is not about [getting everybody to be] vegan. I don't go out there and scream, "Everybody needs to be vegan!" Not everybody can do that because it is really hard. Even for me, I was almost vegan for two years before I actually made the decision. I had cut out dairy and meat, but seafood and eggs were the last two things I stopped eating. It's more about gradually incorporating more plant-based foods into your day-to-day.

What's one processed vegan product you don't think is worth buying?

I think a lot of the frozen ice cream products are all high sugar and soy and they aren't really doing anything for you. At least with the vegetarian meat substitutes and those kinds of things, you can add in vegetables or whatever you like and do something with them. You can make a balanced meal, but those vegan ice creams and stuff like that is just junk.

Most people know refined sugar is pretty bad for you, but I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding about the alternatives being actually "healthy" for you. What do you think?

When you're looking at agave or maple syrup or any sort of item that's high in sugar, they aren 't going to do a whole bunch of great things for you. A natural sweetener is better than white sugar, but it's not that healthy, no. Absolutely not. Use everything in moderation and opt for local products like maple syrup. We're here in Nova Scotia and we have so many great maple syrup producers. That, in moderation, still offers some nutrients, vitamins and minerals. For me, using dates and making fun power balls to snack on throughout the day is way more beneficial than adding a whole bunch of agave syrup to a morning smoothie. When people have the mind frame of, "Oh agave is healthy, let's use it in everything," that is still fuelling a person's sugar addiction.

It's been a year and a half, but we can't not talk about your time on Top Chef Canada, so let's talk about it.

It was a crazy experience. I was scared shitless the whole time. You know when you're going up, up, up on a roller coaster and you get that feeling in your stomach? That was the entire time for me. It's hard to be your normal self and the chef you know you are when you're under that kind of pressure. I loved everybody we worked with on set and I've made some life long friends--I wish I could see them more--but I was so scared the whole time. That's what killed me. They didn't show this on TV, but at the end, they asked me, "Why didn't you do this?" and I said, "Well, I was scared!" They said, "You're gone!".

It gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I don't have to be scared and I can be really proud of what I do, what I have done and going forward, if I could ever do it all over again, it would be different. But, don't all of us Top Chef Canada alum say that?

You make some pretty amazing vegan cheeses using fermented nuts, like, legitimately amazing and I'm fairly carnivorous. Is that something you're looking to expand on and go retail?

I want to so bad. I need to work on that! My big thing now is trying to find out what people really want from me and feeling it out with my new business.

And what do those people want from you so far?

They want food, all the food! Ha, ha, ha. They want recipes and they want a cookbook, so that's what I'm planning on giving them. And if it's a restaurant kitchen that I end back up in, it's definitely going to be my own. I'm done working for other people.