When Debby DeGraaff first started teaching vegetarian cooking lessons more than 25 years ago, it was a matter of necessity. In an Internet-less age, she was the only one who knew how to cook tofu and was willing to share some tips.
Later, as she became a vegan, she again noticed the lack of instructors and filled the void. Today she is just one of a group of chefs dedicated to healthy and animal product-free cooking sharing advice with other vegan foodies.
"There are always some new ones and some regulars," DeGraaff said of the 30 to 50 people who attend her monthly vegan and gluten-free cooking classes at Nature's Food Patch in Clearwater. "They want to learn how to cook simple, delicious, clean and healthy" meals.
Held at the café next door to the health food market, with a big screen behind the counter showing a top view of the bowls and pots, the class is similar to a cooking program on cable TV but with the benefit of interaction. With all ingredients next to the table, the chef can show what's being used and on what aisles they can be found.
Among the students are men and women, young and old. Some are veteran vegans, others newbies to the diet, like David McGlothlen, who recently adopted a meat-free lifestyle "because of a woman and trying to lose weight."
"The more information I get, the more successful I can be cooking (vegan). My biggest problem is that I don't want to start cooking until I'm hungry and that's too late."
The classes address that and other vegan pitfalls, like the common question of where to get enough protein, during the recipe demonstrations. Want to save time and make sure you don't binge? Make a larger batch of chickpeas than needed for a curry dish and make hummus to store and snack on in between meals. To avoid the need for supplements, add nutritional yeast to more recipes, because it is the only vegetarian source of vitamin B12 available. Explore beyond the American diet and try some international recipes for bean dishes full of protein and iron that have been made for more than 1,000 years.
"Education is very important to us and what we believe sets us apart from other grocery stores," said Cheryl Rosselle, marketing director for Nature's Food Patch and the one responsible for organizing the scheduled classes. "The store is 26 years old and I believe that we've been doing classes for just about that long. It is our vision to serve and inspire our community in order to build a healthier world."
The themes for classes are determined by the students, who fill out feedback forms stating what they would like to learn. Lately, not only vegan but raw dishes have increased in popularity, so the store has brought in Brad Myers, also known as "The Vegabond Chef" to teach how to have a diet of exclusively uncooked foods.
The ingredients and menus are left for the chefs to choose.
The classes are offered free of charge and a full schedule of upcoming classes can be found at naturesfoodpatch.com.