When Jill DiGiovanni named her business, “Chef in Berlin”, she didn’t realize “chef” is German for “boss”. Suitably, though, one could easily describe her as a boss of healthy, vegan cooking in Germany’s largest city.
Born and raised in Canada, Ontario, DiGiovanni considers the world her playground. She’s been living the expat life and has made Berlin home for the past eight years, since being transferred for her husband’s work. With CHEFinBERLIN, not only does she cater, she also teaches cooking classes, arranges culinary events and movie showings, and guides food tours around the city.
Having always loved entertaining and cooking, Jill attended and graduated from the Niagara Food and Wine Institute, after which she began her career as a chef. It was during her apprenticeship as a grill cook that she experienced the negative impact that meat was having on her own health. So, she stopped eating it. However, working with various embassies abroad, she continued to cook meat, because there was an unspoken expectation to do so.
After much soul-searching and deliberation, DiGiovanni completely changed her business model to plant-based cuisine and hasn’t looked back since. She explained that attaché entertaining crosses all cultural boundaries -- some people don’t eat beef, others, no pork; then, there is the problem of lactose-intolerance or fish allergies. A vegan menu bridges the differences between all of these issues. No matter where you are in the world, you can set the table, share a meal, and feel at home with those around you.
“I have found my authentic self with my work, passion for food, and compassion for all living beings,” says DiGiovanni.
She also volunteers by offering cooking classes with Berlin International Women’s Club (BIWC), an expat organization. Through the group, she has made connections with women from across the globe, teaching them cooking basics and plant-based menus along the way. She’s also enjoyed the perks that come with having such a network. “I have some friends from India that frequently bring me spices from their plantations in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and even Sri Lanka,” says DiGiovanni.
When it comes to her own Canadian heritage, the one ingredient that she cherishes most is maple syrup, an important sweetener in both dessert and savoury vegan cooking. “It’s very expensive here, but it is all imported from Canada,” she says.
As much as Berlin has gained popularity for its vegan food scene over the last few years, DiGiovanni admits that the culture still has a ways to go from sausages and sauerbraten.
“I am proud of the fact that Berlin is taking baby steps out of a deeply entrenched approach to food. We are not a Mecca for all things vegan; however, that’s changing. For starters, we are home to Europe’s first vegan grocery store, Veganz, and many have opened since in other European cities as well as in the U.S.,” she says.
There’s still a lot of work to be done and DiGiovanni pushes the change with her popular cooking classes. “It’s unfortunate that so many people have no idea how to cook, even how to make smoothies. Everyone can learn, though. Teaching people how to cook simple, fun and delicious plant-powered food is rewarding. Seeing changes in their health is the most validating thing,” she says.
Berlin has been the DiGiovannis' home for a long time, and Jill is unsure of where their next home will be, but for the time being, she pours her energy and dedication into all things vegan, including an upcoming vegan cooking video series, translated into various languages. Just the other night, she made a vegan mozzarella.
“My guests had no idea they were eating vegan cheese, which was a pretty incredible feeling,” she says excitedly. “When it finally clicks and they get it, I know I’ve done my job.”
Jill DiGiovanni's picks for the best vegan food in Berlin
Lucky Leek: Its ever-changing menu focuses on local and seasonally grown ingredients, and includes a five-course offering complete with wine dégustation, all vegan wines, of course. (Many wines are not vegan, as most commercially produced wines and beers are filtered through isinglass, the dried bladder of fish.)
Zula Hummus Cafe: It isn't a vegan restaurant, but it has great vegan dishes, like its homemade hummus. You can’t help but fall in love with the creamy texture and the daily-made flatbread that accompanies it.
La Maison du Chocolat: We drove to Potsdam, 30 minutes south of Berlin, for the best hot chocolate in the universe (another offering that you would never know is vegan).