Executive Chef Wanda White grew up eating unhealthily and is now leading a nationwide effort to teach people to cook vegan: meat-free and dairy-free.

Executive Chef Wanda White grew up eating unhealthily and is now leading a nationwide effort to teach people to cook vegan: meat-free and dairy-free.

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

The words "strict" and "vegan" get mixed together as often as rice and beans. But one of the pied pipers of vegan cooking isn't pushy about what people eat.

"I occasionally like a slice of bacon," says Dallas chef Wanda White. "I'm not being dogmatic and taking your meat away. I'm just saying 'Put the meat to the side and make plants the center of the plate.'"

A 61-year-old who grew up eating fried chicken and pork chops, White is on a mission to prove there's more to vegan food than tasteless tofu.

"When people see how good this food tastes, they suddenly realize they don't need meat," she says. 

"I tell people to leave off the 'vegan' word and just call it 'good food.'"

Here are chef Wanda White's vegan peanut butter cookies.

Here are chef Wanda White's vegan peanut butter cookies.

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

A classically trained chef who helped launch the country's first all-vegan college dining hall — Mean Greens at the University of North Texas — White now travels the country teaching chefs how to make plant-based meals as part of the Humane Society's Forward Food Culinary Experience. She recently taught industry chefs and students at El Centro College how to make zesty vegan dishes.

"Wanda has a no-nonsense style of teaching that helps her connect with people," says Steve DeShazo, director of the Food and Hospitality Institute at El Centro. "It's widely understood that Americans eat too much meat ... plant-based cooking is the answer to many of the health crises facing our population."

Wanda White has worked in hospitals, she's been a cake maker and now she's teaching people how to cook a plant-based diet. At home, White eats (mostly) vegan.

Wanda White has worked in hospitals, she's been a cake maker and now she's teaching people how to cook a plant-based diet. At home, White eats (mostly) vegan.

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

More and more Americans are becoming vegetarians (as in, people who eat no meat), vegans (no meat, milk, cheese, eggs or butter) or "flexitarians," a term used to describe people who are mostly vegetarian but who'll occasionally chow down on a hamburger.

According to a 2016 Harris Poll, 8 million American adults are vegetarians, and 3.7 million of those are vegans. Even in Texas, where meat is the sacred cow of cooking, "you'd be surprised how many people I've talked to who are turning toward a plant-based diet," White says. "People used to think it was a fad, but it's not a fad anymore. It's becoming part of a healthy lifestyle."

For most of her life, White ate a typical American diet heavy on unhealthy food. One of five kids who grew up in poverty in Memphis, Tenn., she ate whatever her parents could afford to put on the table: fried chicken or bologna, for instance.

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"Our family was poor ... we basically robbed Peter to pay Paul," she says.

Married at age 15 and a mother at 16, White and her husband moved to Dallas in the early 1980s so she could attend nursing school. She landed a good job at RH Dedman Memorial Hospital in Farmer's Branch (now called Dallas Medical Center), but eventually, she says she could no longer cope with watching patients die.

"I'm too tender-hearted," she says. "I just couldn't do it anymore."

So she steered toward her first passion: cake-making. As a child, she'd stare at beautifully decorated birthday cakes in her local bakery, knowing her parents were too poor to buy them.

As an adult, she became a cake-making wizard, working at Stein's Bakery in North Dallas, starting her own cake catering business and becoming a certified executive pastry chef and chef instructor at the Art Institute of Dallas. She trained at culinary institutes in New York and Paris and landed a job at UNT, where bosses told her she'd be helping to launch Mean Greens, the country's first all-vegan university dining hall.

White was stunned. Her most memorable experience with vegan food was sampling a tofu dish that was so bad she spit it into a garbage can.

"When they told me I'd be doing the vegan dining hall, I came home and told my husband, 'I'm probably not gonna have a job in a couple of weeks because I have no idea what in the world to do with a vegan kitchen.' "

But she read up on the topic, and after months of trial and error, she cooked up a savory menu featuring dishes like spinach lasagna, sweet potato burgers and quinoa casserole. Mean Greens was an instant hit with students and attracted media attention locally and nationally.

A chickpea salad prepared by executive Chef Wanda White

A chickpea salad prepared by executive Chef Wanda White

Ben Torres/Special Contributor

After three years of managing Mean Greens, White left to run the Humane Society's plant-based chef-training program. Since 2015, she's taught nearly 100 daylong and two-day cooking sessions and trained more than 1,000 chefs at hospitals, military bases and universities like Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern.

Not all of the chefs are happy to see her show up in their kitchens, she says.

"Sometimes they look like they're ready to stone you," she says with a laugh. "Some people don't want to know anything about vegan cooking, because they have a misconception about what it's about."

The key to winning them over, she says, is to focus on their taste buds — not to try to sell them on the concept of veganism.

"At first, they're apprehensive and afraid," she says. "But when they taste the food and see how easy it is, it's like a whole new world: They're hugging us and thanking us and asking us to come back."

At home, White and her family eat a mostly vegan diet, which she says helps her control her Type 2 diabetes. "It really does make a difference," she says. "Plant-based cooking really helps people's lives. And it's helping make progress for our planet and for our animals."

Still, she admits she enjoys a cheese pizza now and again.

"I want people to understand it doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. You can start out easy, with just one meal a day, and before you know it, you'll be going the whole day with plant-based foods," she says.

"You don't have to make a big deal about it. You don't have to call it 'vegan.' It's just a better way to eat good, healthy food."

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