Interview with Diana Edelman - Founder of Vegans, Baby
By Maggie Stilman.
9 min read
Diana Edelman is the founder of Vegans, Baby. She previously lived and worked in Thailand working for an elephant sanctuary and has traveled around the world speaking about the realities of elephant tourism, being a positive activist and entrepreneur at events including TBEX, SEED Food + Wine, VegFest Puerto Rico, VegFest Toronto and more. Diana is a proud partner with the James Beard Foundation and curates their Vegas Vegan Dinner series at the famous James Beard House, as well as the vegan activation, The Farm Stand, at Las Vegas’ Life Is Beautiful festival.
Photograph by Gwendolyn Durma
How would you describe Vegans, Baby and its mission?
Vegans, Baby's mission is to make vegan lives more accessible and approachable and to highlight the food and show people that... I think there's a common misconception with vegan food that it's bland, it's potatoes, it's salads, it's french fries... and my goal is to show people that there are far more options than that and that it shouldn't be a road block to going vegan.
How did Vegans, Baby start?
The story of Vegans, Baby is kind of interesting. I was living abroad for almost 4 years, and I stopped eating meat a few years earlier when I was living in Thailand. I was doing elephant rescue and on the way home from the sanctuary one day I saw a truck full of pigs being taken to slaughter. Basically that was the last time I ever ate meat, something just clicked in my head, and now it was like "Nope! I'm good, I'm done." So I lived in Thailand for a bit, then I moved to London, and then Madrid. I was freelancing, I was writing a lot, I had a travel blog. It earlier had been one of the top one hundred travel blogs in the world... so, I decided probably right before Thanksgiving 2014, that I was ready to come home, that I didn't want to be an expat anymore. So I decided I was going to move back to Las Vegas, which is where I formally lived, and I was sitting with my friend and we were talking about moving back to Vegas and she said to me "You should really just go vegan", because I always said I couldn't give up eggs, I couldn't give up cheese, I couldn't give up pizza... and I pulled up my phone and said "Okay, you know what? I'll do it. Let me look and see how many vegan options are there in Las Vegas." So I pulled it up, and I think there was something like four vegan restaurants, and I went to Happy Cow and there wasn't a lot there either... I looked at her and was like "There's gotta be more than this! That's impossible, this is Las Vegas!"
And so, it was actually my friend's idea. She was like "Diana, why don't you show people the options in Las Vegas? You should go vegan and you should show people what the options are, and that if you can go vegan, they can go vegan." And I though about it, I knew I was going back home, I didn't think I was going to travel as much so having the travel blog... I would keep it up, but I wouldn't really fulfil my need to write a lot, and so I thought "Okay, you know what? This can work. I'll go back home, I will go to restaurants, I will write about the vegan foods of these restaurants, and I'll start kind of an online guide to vegan dining in Las Vegas." So that's basically how it started. I came back to Vegas and just started eating out and writing about it.
That's great! So your decision to go vegan went hand by hand with starting Vegans, Baby.
Yes, it really did. I just was like "I want to prove to myself I can do it, and I've seen enough" so the connection to the animals was there for me, and just I needed that extra little push, that extra little click you get. And it was that day in Madrid at this restaurant with my friend.
"....the way you make change is through talking softly and educating softly, and showing people an alternative that works for them. And so that's basically what I've done."
Tell me a little bit more about your experience with animals, specifically with elephants and how it impacted your journey.
Sure. So the first time I was with elephants was September 2011, and I was in Thailand on a vacation and I found an elephant sanctuary that I thought seemed pretty ethical. You could volunteer for a week, but there were no rides, there were no hooks, there were no shows. So I went there and when I got there I started to learn about the realities of elephants tours, and the abuse they go through in order to satisfy and meet our needs. And I met the founder of the organization and I told her who I was and that my background was public relations and journalism and social media. And she took me, she said "Come with me", and so I went with her and we sat in the field at the sanctuary surrounded by a herd of elephants. We sat and we talked, and she was saying more to me about the abuse the elephants go through. So I came back to Vegas and was so motivated, I started writing about it in my blog, I literally would tell anybody I could. And then a few months later I emailed her and said "You know, look: I think I'm gonna relocate to Thailand. I just want to work on my freelance writing career. While I'm there I would love to do anything with you, whether it's scooping poop or slicing watermelons, I just want to be a part of this." And so she wrote me back and said: "I like your writing, I'm gonna hire you to do public relations, social media and writing, and I'm gonna get you a visa."
So I went there and immediately... you see the difference, in culture immediately. And slowly, the realities of not just elephants but all these other animals and the abuse that goes on... because we are a sanctuary, we see all the abuse. All of these things... and it's just- it's a really hard thing to see. And so the more I saw that, the more I learned. We went undercover to Sri Lanka to learn about the human-elephant conflict there, and how the humans were poaching on their land; we went to Myanmar and I saw the elephants being tortured, so it was just... those things really.... you can't not be changed when you see these things. It's just, it's a hard thing to see, it's a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching thing to watch... this baby elephant being wrapped in ropes and looking at all the scars and cuts on this elephant from being tortured because people want to touch them and ride them, watch them play piano, and pain and all of these things. So it really, really had an impact on me. I was around a lot of vegans at the time, but like I said, it took some time for me to really make the full circle to vegan.
Those things, those images you see and everything: you don't forget them. And even to this day, I still see these images, it just has this lasting impact. And it makes me feel really good about what I do because, you know, I'm not out there protesting anymore, I'm not out there doing animal rights activism anymore, but I'm making change in the way I think works very well.
Yes, I was thinking that what you do through Vegans, Baby is a way of activism, because you're making going vegan more approachable for many people who say they don't because they thing it's too hard. Maybe it's more useful than manifesting by shouting in the streets.
I think that everyone has their own way of activism, and I see the people who do that, that do disruptions and things like that... and from what I learned working at the sanctuary and working with this conservationist, is the way you make change is through talking softly and educating softly, and showing people an alternative that works for them. And so that's basically what I've done.
What change, if any, have you noticed in the quantity and quality of vegan options available in comparison to when Vegas, Baby first started?
It's grown tenfold. I work with restaurants all the time to have them put more vegan options on their menu, I've launched a vegan dining month so restaurants all over the city get really excited to have vegan options or special vegan options for a month, and the community really supports it. When I moved here there were four or five vegan restaurants, and now we have more than twenty. And that's in the span of... I launched in May 2016, so it's in a span of less than five years that this has all happened. Las Vegas itself has started to really be recognized for its vegan options. The James Beard Foundation reached out to me January 2019 and saw what I was doing with Vegan Dining Month and were really impressed, and they basically wanted to partner with me. And so they asked me to pick chefs that were
really talented and made plant based food in Las Vegas and bring them to New York for dinner at the James Beard House. And the James Beard House is one of the most renowned, prestigious places you can cook a meal in probably the world. And that foundation is upper echelon of recognition if a chef wins an award from them, so it's a really big deal.
Diana with chefs from a James Beard Dinner
Photograph by Rinah Oh
The Vegas dining scene has really, really changed the past few years: a lot more restaurants, and you see steakhouses with vegan options now, pizza has become a huge thing in Vegas for all the pizza shops are getting vegan cheese, it's just really been impressive to watch and to work with everybody and see the growth, and see the influence that Vegans, Baby has and that it really does educate people.
That's amazing. The fact that this important foundation, the James Beard Foundation is doing a vegan event... it's the first time it has happened, right?
Well, they do one every month but they've never partnered with a person to curate a dinner highlighting chefs in this city. So I was the first one, and now I have a partnership with them so I bring chefs there twice a year. And we do dinners there, and also I partnered with Life is Beautiful which is the big three-day music festival here in Vegas, and so 2019 was the first year they had an area for vegan food, and I curated that. So having vegan options at the festival that traditionally haven't had that many was a huge thing.
These events benefit local charities. Could you tell me more about that?
Yes. Well, you know, I'm a business person but I also want to make sure that the work I do benefits not just people but animals or non-profits. So every event I host I donate a portion of the profits to a local organization. For Vegan Dining Month the restaurants are required to donate money to an organization. It's really important to me that I'm in the community and I support the community in all of these ways.
You told me about the changes that have been made in terms of vegan options. Could you tell me about the changes you have noticed in the public attitude towards veganism?
Oh, it's completely changed. You know, I think there's still a stigma with the word "vegan", but there's so many more people now that are eating vegan in this city, or trying it, or going plant based... It's really grown. And I think that's a big reason why some of these restaurants are starting to put things on the menu, because all of these people are saying "Oh my Gosh"... they've seen Game Changers, they've seen the documentaries that show all the abuse of these animals, and they're becoming more aware of all these things... so as that happens, the community here and the people here who are, you know, maybe even just doing Meatless Monday... it's growing.
You mentioned there is a stigma with the word "vegan". Many restaurants or manufactured products prefer the term "plant based", right?
Yes. And, you know, I think that's important too because I know there's a lot of vegans that... some people have the issue of cross-contamination and some don't. So when you say "plant based" I think it eliminated that as well, so restaurants are more comfortable saying that because they don't want someone to come in and if they have cross-contamination write a bad review on Yelp, basically blasting them and saying that the vegan menu wasn't vegan... so I think they're very cautious at that.
Lastly, what are the next steps in sight for Vegans, Baby?
Oh, there is so much! So I recently launched vegan tours, and hopefully the Coronavirus is not getting in the way of that. I am leading a tour through Madrid in June, I am leading a tour through Madrid and Paris in October, Morocco in October and India next February. So I'm really focusing a lot on the tours because travel is a huge part of my life, and I love the fact that I can combine the travel, the writing and the activism all in one package now, so we're doing that, more James Beard dinners, I'm expanding and curating dinners in other cities, so there's that. And then Vegan Dining Month is actually going to move to November, so it will be November 2020. I'm doing that because a lot of the restaurants are very busy in January and so November is a very slow month for them, and I wanted to show them that if they have vegan options on their menu, in a slow month they can increase the revenue. So I think that's a lot of what I've got going on right now, and then some other projects that are slowly starting to take shape, but I guess it's premature to talk about right now.
Yes, I'm really excited for this year!
Thank you Diana, it has been a pleasure talking with you today.
Sure! Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.
Learn more about Vegans, Baby in vegansbaby.com