Laura Theodore’s Gorgeous Colors
How The Jazzy Vegetarian turned her passion for vegan food into her own TV show
Posted Jun 28, 2018
Long before Laura Theodore became the star of the television show The Jazzy Vegetarian, one of the world’s first vegan television cooking shows, she knew she wanted to be a singer. “I just always knew I loved music. I always knew I was going to be a singer,” she told me. “There was never any question. There was never any thought about that. And I started singing when I was like three years old.
“And I really felt this was the path for me.”
After years of exploring different forms of music – from musical theater to rock – she found her home in jazz. “I first came from theater music and then went into rock music and then that metamorphosed into jazz,” Theodore described. “I studied musical composition, acting and music for many years. When I moved to Boston I started studying through the South Shore Conservatory. Then I started getting into jazz.”
“I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald and that started speaking to me.”
While she was discovering and learning about jazz, Theodore was also discovering and learning about healthy, plant-based diets at a health food store. “It was during that time in Boston in 1979 that I saw my first health food store. I was living on the South Shore of Boston and in that little town there was a fabulous little store,” Theodore recalled. “Back then you walked into a health food store and there were maybe some wooden open shelves. There would be big barrels of grains and rice and what not. And perhaps there would be a little refrigerated space with a little tofu. It was very rustic.”
Theodore began exploring vegetarian cooking by trying to convert her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes into vegetarian dishes. “I started cooking vegetarian style many years prior because my grandmother – her name was Grandma Cook by the way – she was an excellent chef and cook. Same thing with my mother, she’s an excellent cook. When I first moved out of the house when I was 17, she’d send me recipes on recipe cards every week,” Theodore explained. “I started making her recipes into vegetarian recipes and eventually into vegan recipes; her Christmas cookie recipes, our puddings, lasagnas, chilies, pies – everything.”
Theodore eventually moved to New York City in 1981 to pursue her career in singing. And soon after, she became a vegetarian when she passed by a McDonalds and began to consider how animals were treated in order to make food. “When I moved to New York City I was walking by a McDonalds one day and all of a sudden it just came to me – I’m never going to eat meat again. That was about 1981. And so it was then that I stopped eating red meat, soon after stopped eating chicken, fish – the regular progression,” she said.
But not eating meat was not always the easiest thing to do when she was on the road playing music. “Back then, particularly traveling so much as a musician which I did all the time during that period, you’re out on the road and it’s really hard to get a meal without meat at all – particularly in restaurants,” she said. “I remember this one time I was doing a concert in Norman, Oklahoma. And the producers who were very close friends of mine were taking me out to eat either before or after the concert. And they took me to a restaurant in Oklahoma. You can imagine and there was literally nothing on the menu that I could eat. And the producer said to me, ‘There’s chicken. Why don’t you have chicken?’ Well, a chicken has eyes, so I don’t eat chicken. And he said, ‘Oh, well why don’t you eat chicken? Do you think it’s better for you?’ And then I said, ‘I don’t really know.
“‘But I know it’s a heck of a lot better for the chicken.’”
As time went on, Theodore ultimately embraced veganism. “This has been a long road for me. I was vegan in the ‘90s on and off. Then I’d be back on the road and I’d eat some fish or some cheese or eggs. Then I became fully vegan nine years ago,” she said.
Part of Theodore’s rationale for going vegan was that dairy products are not healthy for maintaining one’s vocal cords. “For singers and people who do public speaking like myself, not having dairy – it has been many years since I’ve consumed any dairy – dairy causes extra mucous. So, not having the dairy is very helpful on that front as well.”
As time went on, Theodore found herself with a dilemma: she wanted to eat vegan food but she wanted food that tasted as good as non-vegan food.
“You know I love a good sweet. That’s why I started baking. It’s so hard to get a great vegan muffin or something like that unless you make it yourself,” she said. “So, the way I handle cravings is by creating all of these recipes. For example, I had an executive over to my home the other day, because we were talking about a project I’m working on. And when people come over I do tend to make little snacks and something that’s a baked good.”
“And most times I get the reaction, ‘That’s the best cupcake, that’s the best muffin, best pudding, best cake that I’ve ever had.’”
As time went on, Theodore discovered a range of cooking shows that were making their way into popular culture. “When the Food Network came into being, I guess it was about 1999,” Theodore recalled. “I was really intrigued by the network, by what they were doing. I thought it was really groundbreaking like millions of other Americans to say the least.”
Soon, Theodore was hooked; she was able to perform her music in the evening and watch cooking shows during the afternoon. And just like she had converted her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes into vegetarian dishes years earlier, she now was thinking about how she could adapt the recipes she saw on television to be vegan. More, she began to consider having her own cooking show. She recalled, “When I started watching the Food Network…I was looking at it and saying, ‘Hey this would be cool. I’ve been an actor all this time, musician – that would be a good place to be. That’s how long I’ve been thinking about this.”
Theodore’s first step towards having her own show was writing her own cookbook with the vegan recipes she’d been developing. “I started writing my first cookbook in 1995. It took me a long time to get it out there. I started dabbling with that, writing my recipes down, since I was a musician and actor we’d give a lot of parties, my husband and I,” she said. “We would entertain everybody and of course no one was a vegan or a vegetarian. I was sure that I was making food that they were really going to love.”
Eventually, when Theodore and her husband moved out of the city, she was concerned that she would not have access to the ingredients she needed to make her recipes. But rather than be deflated, Theodore saw this as a challenge.
“About fifteen years ago when we moved out of New York City, all of a sudden, here I was. I didn’t live three blocks from a market anymore where I’d be able to go and get any kind of exotic vegan food you could possibly need. And we had people coming from the city to visit us, friends and family,” she said. “And I was really challenged – it was like ‘Oh my god, I have just the things we have at our local supermarket or local health food store to cook with. And I have to make the food really sensational.’ Particularly when people are coming out for a whole weekend with us. I have to make sure we have great breakfast, great lunch, great dinners.”
Theodore and her husband began producing television shows and began cooking for various people in the television industry. “We have a television production company. And one of the producers who was also a good friend of ours would come to our house every day – drive up from Southern New Jersey. And he’s a real meat and potatoes man. Of course I had to feed him, because he’d be here for eight hours. So, every day I was challenged with making this food.”
Eventually, their friend took notice. “Meanwhile, in the back of my mind I thought I really wanted to have a television show. There’s no vegan television show. There’s no vegetarian television show. I want to have something that’s mainstream to show people how you can really serve food and make it delicious for anyone, whether it’s vegan, vegetarian, omnivorous or full carnivore,” she said. “And so I would cook for this producer every single day for months on end. And finally one day he said, ‘It’s amazing how you make all these tasty dishes for me every day. I love them. When I go home, I share them with my family. We really should think about doing some kind of a pilot.’ And one morning I woke up and the jingle was just in my head. And we were off and running.
“And that’s really when it was born – The Jazzy Vegetarian.”
Despite the fact that Theodore has been vegan for years, she chose to use the term “vegetarian” when developing her television show, in part because people neither understood what “vegan” meant, nor were they embracing of the concept. “It was just so unaccepted. And people – their eyes would pop open when you’d say that. …That’s the whole basis of the jazzy vegetarian. We called it ‘vegetarian’ because we couldn’t get anyone to even look at the pilot of a show if we called it ‘vegan,’” Theodore said.
“We were shopping this twelve years ago. It took us six years to get the deal with public television. People were saying, ‘We can’t do a vegetarian food show.’
But we finally got the deal with public television. The first hurdle to get over was for our station’s relations representative to go out and find a major programmer and a major market that was going to accept the show so that other programmers would play it,” Theodore described. “And we were very lucky that the first station that accepted it was the station in L.A. He said very point blank, ‘You know what? I’m taking this show because it is away from the stereotype of what everyone thinks a vegetarian or a vegan is – wearing Birkenstocks, rail thin, with long hair.’”
As the show has grown and developed, Theodore encourages her viewers to become excited about and creative with their vegan cooking. And so she suggests that people focus not only on their recipes but also on the experience of shopping in a mindful way that appreciates the various produce options.
“For me, it opened up a whole new world. And I talk about this on my show and in my books. The thing to do if you’re thinking of adding more plant-based meals into your weekly menu plan or if you’re a long time vegan and you’re feeling bored or if you’re a vegetarian who’s saying, ‘You know what, I want to become vegan full time’ or if you’re a carnivore who says, ‘Man I don’t think I like vegetables’ – the thing that I say to anyone is when you walk into your supermarket, what do you see?” she said. “You see that beautiful produce section. That’s how supermarkets are set up. And instead of just rushing through it and saying, ‘Oh, I need lettuce, I need potatoes, I need asparagus – I’m done,’ you walk into it, you take a minute, you stand still, you look over the whole produce department and you start looking at all of the beautiful colors. That’s the only place you can go in the supermarket where there are all of these gorgeous colors, every color of the rainbow. And go through each aisle and look for things that you haven’t tried before – something that looks a little weird but looks appetizing.”
Theodore feels that allowing oneself to appreciate shopping in this way will change how people cook and eat. “Really start picking out these vegetables and fruits and make your basket be that. And once you start exploring in the vegetable department or the fruit department, you really start to change the way you look at eating, at cooking. Because to me the real opportunity is oh, wow, I had this beautiful summer zucchini in my hand that I just got from a local farmer. How exciting. What can I do with that to make that be one of the most delicious meals I’ve made this week?” Theodore described. “And when you start looking at it that way and realizing all the options that fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods –tofu, tempeh and beyond – once you realize all of the possibilities that you have, you’re not interested in cooking with or eating animal foods anymore. And that’s my philosophy. Perhaps for me what my real reason for being vegan is animal compassion, animal activism. The second reason is for health,” she said.
Theodore has also been struck by the evidence that suggests that the production of meat damages the environment. “The other thing is that I really believe that unless we all start moving towards a plant-based lifestyle, it’s going to continue to cause the downfall of the earth, particularly environmentally. It’s so important for the environment,” Theodore explained. “And it’s the one thing that no person can challenge. People can say I don’t have compassion about animals, I don’t care about my health. But you can’t say you don’t care about the environment because you’re living on the earth. Just about anybody can glom onto the idea that if we don’t start reducing the carbon emissions that are produced by the methane from cows, that we’re really going to deplete our ozone layer. And that’s going to continue being the downfall of the earth as we know it.”
One of the tricky issues that Theodore has faced is that oftentimes, as people choose veganism for health purposes, they may not readily embrace tasty baked goods. Yet, being more forgiving about not eating healthy has been one of the main ways that Theodore has been able to maintain her vegan lifestyle.
Theodore keeps pushing the envelope, and has opened the Jazzy Vegetarian Vegan Café in North Carolina. And she is thrilled that her work has helped more people to embrace tasty vegan cooking.
“So it really is something anybody can do right now. If you crave cake, you can eat vegan cake. If you crave cupcakes, if you crave candy, if you crave any of these things there are so many options out there in comparison to 1981. Anybody can go out and buy vegan chocolate chips. You can buy vegan sugar. Any of this stuff,” she said.
“And I hope I am helping to make it easy to put together – one, two, three – in your kitchen.”