In 2011 Kristin Lajeunesse quit her job, sold her belongings, and hit the road in an old van named Gerty with the intention of eating at every vegan restaurant in the United States. I followed along on her Will Travel For Vegan Food website, and in 2013, when I saw her eating in New York City’s Peacefood Cafe, I ran over and shamelessly interrupted her meal. Kristin was gracious and kind, and didn’t seem to mind being taken away from her dinner. She was just winding down her trip, which spanned 2 years, 48 states, 547 restaurants, and more than 39,000 miles, and I knew she was about to begin writing a book about her adventures. Will Travel for Vegan Food the book is now here, and I recently chatted with Kristin about it. (This time I didn’t interrupt any meals!)
Kristin Lajeunesse: I was 16 years old when my parents told me that they wanted to become vegetarian as a family.
My brother, Josh is five years older than me and he introduced the idea of vegetarianism to my parents. When they found out that he had already become vegetarian they were immediately worried about his health, as they thought—at that time—that eating meat was necessary for optimal nutrition. But instead of telling him why he was wrong or shunning him entirely, they did what awesome parents do: they researched the heck out of vegetarianism. I think they were looking for a way to prove to him why this diet was bad, but instead they came to the undeniable conclusion that not eating meat is a much better way to live.
So, there we were in 1999 transitioning to vegetarianism as a family. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but decided to give it a go.
I went off to college and my parents kept up their research, joined a local vegetarian group and continued to learn about the influence that diet has on health, the environment, and animals.
Every time I came home for a break or holiday there was something new and “healthy” in the refrigerator—or worse, something missing. I still remember coming home one summer to no more milk or cheese. It was gone and I was devastated: not the ice cream!
By the time I finished college my parents were full-on vegan and I was still chowing down my beloved dairy ice cream and cheese pizzas. Aside from the fact that I had maintained a vegetarian diet, was eating vegan meals when visiting home, and gifted vegan-labeled sweatshirts, stickers, and buttons whenever my parents were given the opportunity, I couldn’t fathom giving up dairy. And then, in the summer of 2006, at a veg event in upstate NY, the sea parted and in walked Registered Dietitian, George Eisman. Despite the fact that my parents had at one time or another gently provided the same information that Mr. Eisman presented on this day, once I decided to listen and truly understand how very bad dairy was for my body and for animals, I was done with it. That very night I ate my last cheese pizza and never looked back. Well, I might have looked back once, or five times, but never did go back.
It took me a good year as a relatively unhealthy vegan to start doing even more research—like learning how to prepare meals instead of buying ready-made ones. But some new reading material (hello VegNews Magazine) and a change in my environment (hey there, Boston) soon helped me learn how to live a healthy vegan lifestyle.
In the fall of 2007 I moved to Boston for graduate school. I joined the Boston Vegan Association and started working part-time for the New England Anti-Vivisection Society. The friends that I made in these two organizations led me to so much support, inspiration, and so many new resources that being vegan became a cinch. I love telling people who ask about my diet how much more I enjoy everything about food now; from shopping to cooking, prepping, and purchasing a ridiculous number of vegan cook books. It feels like it has so much more meaning now and I take pride in the meals I prepare. I never felt this way as a meat eater…not even as a vegetarian for that matter.
Today my parents help run the Albany Vegan Network and host an annual Vegan Expo (now in it’s seventh year!) in upstate New York.
It all started with my brother, was followed by my parents’ amazing support, and then happily grew into an education, a group of friends, and a lifestyle that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
CV: When people learn that you are vegan, what is the #1 question they ask and what is your response?
KL: Q: “Why did you decide to go vegan?”
A: See above. 😉
KL: The answer to that is best—and most thoroughly—explained in the first chapter of my book (wink, wink); which is available as a preview draft chapter right HERE (you can read or listen to a reading of it).
The short answer is: Everything was going well—I had the “right” degrees, a solid 9-5 job that I enjoyed, and a great relationship. But something felt unsettled. Around that time I stumbled upon some reading material about people who were ‘designing’ their lives around their most passionate interests and projects. I became enamored with these ‘lifestyle designers’ and before I knew it I was trying to brainstorm ways to work for myself and do MORE with my life.
Next thing I know the words, “will travel for vegan food” appeared before me, with a very clear vision of the project… less than a year later I quit my job, sold or donated almost all of my belongings, did a Kickster.com campaign to raise money for the trip, bought a van, and set sail. I haven’t stopped nomading around since.
CV: You wrote about a book about your trip called Will Travel for Vegan Food. What inspired you to write it?
KL: Aside from “getting published” as a far-off, one-day, bucket list item I’d once written down years earlier, I had no intention of writing a book anytime soon about the trip. But, about a year into the journey I got a call from an acquaintance in Boston. He said he and his wife were starting a publishing company and asked if I was planning to write a book about my road trip. Several more conversations and a few months later we had a signed contract for my first-ever book.
CV: You’ve visited just about every vegan restaurant in the U.S. Do you have any favorites?
KL: It’s always difficult to choose favorites but I’ll list the first few that come to mind 🙂 … here we go: Vedge (Philly), Plant (Asheville), The Chicago Diner (Chicago), Imagine Vegan Cafe (Memphis), Gracias Madre (San Francisco), Portobello (Portland, OR), Sprig & Vine (New Hope, PA)
KL: There were half a dozen or so states without any vegan restaurants. They were usually among the most beautiful to drive through though (like South Dakota and Wyoming). I’d usually seek out a health food store or coop, and then check out the national parks as I drove through.
CV: With veganism on the rise in country, a lot of new vegan restaurants have opened since your ended your trip. Would you consider a Will Travel for Vegan Food Tour 2.0 to visit them?
KL: No. I can’t imagine doing another trip in the same style as WTFVF. It was an epic kind of one-time adventure, for sure. However, I would like to take the journey internationally (hopefully in 2016), with the intention of spending a few months in each spot and really digging into the local culture and vegan scene; reporting TV-style instead of written blog style. 🙂
KL: No way! Hehe… though I do plan on making Chicago my hub for 2015, I’ll be traveling quite a bit to speaking events and festivals this summer, plus the book tour at some point, so it’ll be a nice central location to come back to, to relax between jaunts. But my aim is to remain relatively mobile indefinitely. I probably won’t be moving into a vehicle again anytime soon—but spending several weeks or months in new places every now and then is definitely on my radar.
CV: What’s next for you?
KL: The rest of this year (2015) will be dedicated to promoting and sharing the book. As a first-time author I’m not clued in to how all this works so I’d like to take my time in really giving it my all.
In February 2016 I’m co-hosting a Lifestyle retreat in Nicaragua with my friend Grace Van Berkum. She’ll be teaching yoga and raw food classes while I take participants through business planning courses (between fun island outings of course). Then I’d like to explore Berlin and possibly Thailand as part of the 2.0 version of the trip. 😉
KL: Oooh great question! In 5 years I’ll still be riding the high from the massive success of the WTFVF book (Oprah added it to her 2.0 book club after hearing about it from a Tweet that Ariana Grande posted. The book took off from there and became an international NYTimes Bestseller). The movie version of the book was a smashing success (which came out “last year”) and as a result I got to walk a number of red carpets. As a nice side effect my marketing consulting business took off and I became a multimillionaire-ess nearly overnight. However, on “this” day [that I’m reporting to you from – my future self] six month out of every year I’m sent around the world, reporting live to viewers from around the globe—via the Travel Channel, or the Food Network, or being Ellen’s vegan correspondent—on vegan food spotting in the most unlikely places. During the off season of my travel show I spend time consulting entrepreneurs and business owners on their own adventurous projects, while investing in eco-conscious start-ups, donating to m favorite non-profits, and giving inspirational talks and presentations to audiences around the world. 😀 I also enjoy weekly massages and spend my down time in my tiny homes (I have one in Portland, OR and one on the Big Island of Hawaii). ;p