Food & Drink

Charlotte chef goes from meat to vegan. And back.

Alyssa Gorelick has a confession to make.

Sitting in public, at a coffee house in Plaza Midwood, she even leans in and lowers her voice a little when she talks about what happened to her.

What happened was … meat.

Yep, protein. Eggs. Chicken. Beef. A little pork now and then.

For most of us, this is a daily event. Eating meat isn’t a world-shaking lifestyle choice.

But we’re not Gorelick. That would be Alyssa Gorelick, former chef of Fern, one of the first seriously vegetarian restaurants in Charlotte. Gorelick wasn’t just a vegetarian chef. She was a vegan, someone so meat-averse, she didn’t eat cheese and eggs.

What would make a vegan chef put down her fork and pick up a drumstick?

“It comes down to lifestyle,” Gorelick says.

And Alyssa Gorelick’s lifestyle changed.

Going the chef way

Gorelick, 29, didn’t set out to be a vegan-turned-meat eater. She didn’t set out to be a chef, either.

Raised in a family from upstate New York who moved to the South when she was 4, no one in Gorelick’s family was all that interested in cooking. Her family kept kosher, though, and she knew vegetarians through the Jewish group Havurah, rooted in early 1960s counterculture groups. Many people avoided meat because kosher meat was so expensive.

As a teenager, she realized she loved to cook. She fell even further in love with cooking at South Mecklenburg High School, where she took the popular culinary arts program taught by Mary Doby.

She ended up at the Art Institute, where Joe Bonaparte was running a small but intense cooking program, and then worked for chef Paul Verica at the Club at Long View. That’s where she got exposed to the farm-to-fork, sustainable-agriculture movement taking root in 2004.

“Working with him was the first time I saw New Town Farms (of Waxhaw) and Sammy Koenigsberg and all the local stuff.”

She ended up at Halcyon, Flavors of the Earth, at the Mint Museum, which was opening a sister restaurant that would be totally vegetarian.

Gorelick got the spot as Fern’s executive chef. Learning to cook with things like chia seeds, she started reading and teaching herself about nutrition.

“At Fern, I was able to make food I loved and really understand,” she says. “When you’re vegan, you need vegetables to not be overcooked,” so you get the most nutrition from them.

“The balance of nutrients, not just flavor, is what needs to be on the plate.”

Getting the meat out

Working in restaurant kitchens is tough and stressful. In her mid-20s, Gorelick got interested in running, both to get time to herself and to improve her stamina.

She worked her way up to half-marathons, then switched to intense circuit training that includes boxing.

She also started to refine her diet, getting rid of meat and dairy and making the jump to vegan. Reading and teaching herself about the food she cooked at Fern make her get serious about nutrition.

She wanted to make food that was both healthful and still indulgent – what she calls “good chef-driven food.”

“Sometimes when you get into (health-focused) food, it’s nutrient-driven, not chef-driven. Those kinds of foods are being made by fitness instructors or nutritionists,” not chefs, she says. She appreciates what they’re trying to do, but food that’s focused only on health can be boring.

About 18 months ago, she left Fern. Casting around for a way to use her skills, her boyfriend, Andrew Wilen, came up with the answer:

Teach. A marketing specialist who works with Charlotte Center City Partners in SouthEnd, he saw the interest in how to use local ingredients.

He and Gorelick put together Chef Alyssa’s Kitchen, a cooking school that uses space in the Atherton Market to teach classes.

Getting in front of people made her nervous at first. But she found out that she loves to teach small cooking classes.

Classes are a way to build community, “to teach people how to eat well and be healthy and cook with local ingredients.”

Putting the meat back

About six months after leaving Fern, Gorelick started to notice something. She was working out hard, doing yoga and circuit training. But she didn’t feel great.

“I didn’t have enough energy,” she says. “I was hungry a lot.”

She could sense she needed something. She started by adding eggs.

“And I felt great.” So she started doing more research into protein sources and the need to balance her diet. And she started to eat meat again.

Yes, it’s a little embarrassing to admit, she says. She knows as much as anyone about the value of a vegan diet. But today, she feels stronger, faster and leaner.

“My food is sustaining me,” she says.

She knows that some people will criticize her return to meat. But she’s focused on nutrition in a very personal way.

“It’s natural to eat meat,” she says. She understands the objections to factory farming, She doesn’t support that either. She buys local food, and that includes humanely raised meat, she says.

These days, her diet is a combination of everything she believes in. It’s mostly organic, almost entirely local. It has a lot of vegetables, a little meat and a lot of eggs.

It also has a lot of room for variety. She’s cooking for the Bacon & Brews Cruise-In on June 29 with 16 other chefs. As a judge at a recent food truck contest in SouthEnd, she didn’t hesitate to sample everything offered, including pork tacos.

“If I wasn’t a vegan, I wouldn’t be the chef I am today. I learned to build great flavors with vegetarian ingredients. Knowing how to build flavor without meat is something I focused on.”

Today, she feels like she’s doing what everyone should do: She’s listening to her body.

“My diet sustains my lifestyle,” she says. “I have the best of a vegetarian diet and pull the best from a meat-eating diet. I still like to think about the plate and the balance of the plate.

“Our bodies need all of that together.”