Donald Lemperle jokes that he should have known red meat wasn’t for him when he was a chef in New York and Johnny Cochran sent what was supposed to be a medium-well steak back to the kitchen twice. Now a vegan chef at VegeNation, which has two locations in Southern Nevada, Lemperle spreads the gospel of plant-based dietary choices in downtown Las Vegas.
Do you have any recent news you’d like to share?
We just released new menu items at VegeNation and are excited to collaborate with the Downtown Farmers Market in creating fresh and seasonal pop-up specials. We offer sandwiches on Mondays, tacos on Tuesdays, pizza on Wednesdays and chimichangas on Thursdays — all made from the fresh ingredients we pick up in our neighborhood farmers market. We are also excited to be looking at partnerships with local sports arenas and offering sports fans vegan options while they cheer for their team.
Tell us why you became a vegan and the challenges and rewards that came with the lifestyle change.
Fifteen years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. After the shock of that revelation, I went into deep thought and strategized on how to combat the disease. I concluded that my story hadn’t been told, and my destiny wasn’t complete. The most important thing was that I had to keep a positive state of mind, and not let the disease conquer me. I decided to examine every part of my lifestyle and adjusted it in a positive way. One of the most important things I looked at what was my food choices. It was apparent I was eating a lot of meat and processed foods and knew that had to change. I came upon a theory that it was important to eat a lot of green vegetables because the chlorophyll is converted to oxygen in the blood, which is an enemy of cancer.
A lot of people who convert to a vegan lifestyle find it difficult and are tempted to retreat. But I looked at it differently in that I tried to imagine the energy that the sun supplies the vegetables to grow was healing my body. I never had an overwhelming craving to consume animal products again. To me, it was a revelation on how important our food choices are, and I was excited to share it. I’ve been working in the restaurant industry my entire life, so I put together a business plan on how to fulfill my vision.
Other than excellent food, what is the formula for a successful restaurant?
There are so many factors that go into creating a successful restaurant. For me, the top three are:
1. The food you are serving must be delicious.
2. The service. It is important that during guests’ experience, they are pampered and attended to with warmth and friendliness, making them each feel they are the only person that matters.
3. The restaurant must have a vibe, positive energy and personality, and the décor must be unique and compelling.
What is the best business advice you’ve received?
In all my years in the restaurant industry, the best advice I received was that the kitchen must be practical and efficient. No matter how great a recipe is, it’s vital it can be executed smoothly each and every time.
Describe your leadership style.
There is no yelling in our kitchen. I like to keep it low key. We have fun doing what we love.
Who was your greatest cooking influence?
Jamie Oliver was my biggest influence because he started the food revolution. I thought it was fantastic he was educating children on how to eat well.
What is your comfort food?
We offer this amazing pizza at VegeNation that is absolutely my favorite. It has creamy mac ’n cheese with chipotle ranch and blazing Doritos — definitely my go-to.
What’s your favorite place to have fun or wind down in Las Vegas?
I love being at home, but being downtown allows me to wind down with some drinks along Fremont street or stop into local shops. I really love to see how much it has grown.
If you could change one thing about Southern Nevada, what would it be?
Besides our scorching summer weather, I’d love for people’s perspective of downtown to change. If they’d just get out of their comfort zone and check out all the organic businesses and delicious food community, they’d realize how great it really is.
What is your dream job outside of the kitchen?
I love playing poker. If I wasn’t in the kitchen, I’d be a professional poker player. I even have a dish named after the world-famous poker player Daniel Negreanu; he’s a passionate vegan.
What do you think is the most underestimated ingredient and why?
Broccoli really has a bad reputation for always being boiled and overcooked, but when that green veggie is seasoned and roasted, it has a delicious taste.