This is part one of Gut Check's Chef's Choice profile of Natasha Kwan of Frida's Deli. Part two, a Q&A with Kwan, will be published Wednesday, and part three, a recipe from Kwan, will be available on Thursday.
"I was an unhealthy vegan," confesses Natasha Kwan, owner of the vegetarian, vegan and raw-food restaurant Frida's Deli (622 North and South Road, University City; 314-727-6500).
"I was fat. I felt like crap. I didn't eat right. But I thought in my head, 'If there are no animal products in it, then I'm eating great.'
"That is a load of B.S."
For the 39-year-old Kwan, the opening of Frida's Deli (named for her cat) in 2012 marked the realization of a dream two decades in the making: "I wanted a place for that long." The restaurant also stands as a testament to the struggle that Kwan, though a vegetarian from a very young age, has undertaken to find a healthy diet.
"I was vegetarian, became die-hard vegan, and then vegetarian again," she says. "It's a cycle. I was a raw foodist for a year -- like die-hard raw foodist. Now I eat fish, and that decision took four or five years."
(Though she describes herself as a pescetarian, over the course of our conversation the term that she uses most often to describe her diet is low-glycemic.)
In Kwan's view, too many vegetarian and vegan restaurants avoid such a struggle: "I think a lot of those places around the country have that type of concept: 'Well, we're just not going to use meat products, but we're going to buy everything that's processed that tastes like meat, and we're going to do all the fake cheeses.'"
Frida's carries some of the products, Kwan says. "But we don't have a lot of it. There's always a healthy choice, and beyond that a healthier choice to eat here."
Kwan grew up in very small towns: Potosi, where her father was a cardiologist (and where, Kwan notes, they were one of two Asian families in an overwhelmingly white -- 95.2%, according to the 2010 census -- community); and then, after her parents divorced, with her mother in Gilman, Illinois, roughly 90 miles south of Chicago.
Even before Kwan embraced vegetarianism, her upbringing with her parents and her grandparents shaped her view of food in a way much different from her peers'.
"When I was younger, I was raised eating a traditional Chinese diet, very little meat," she explains. "We had our own chickens. We slaughtered our own chickens. We had our own greenhouse.
"When I got into kindergarten and first grade, and was really introduced to the American diet, I didn't know what was going on. I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' I don't even know when I had my first hamburger, but it was probably first or second grade."
At age nine she decided to forgo meat. "Michael Jackson was a vegetarian," she says. She laughs and then quickly adds, "I was really into him!"
Kwan's mother remembers her decision somewhat differently. As Kwan relates it now, she visited a friend's family's farm. She doesn't remember it being a veal farm, but she says, "I came home from a weekend there and said I wasn't going to eat meat again."
It took her family many years to believe that her vegetarianism was anything more than a phase: "My mom didn't know what to do with me. So it was a lot of lentils and beans, which I still love today and never got sick of. She'd feed me pomegranates -- good stuff."
She adds, sounding equal parts exasperated and amused, "Even when I was in my early thirties [they would ask], 'Are you going to have a bite of turkey at Thangksgiving?'
"They don't think it's a phase now, but they wouldn't mind me having a piece of chicken or turkey."
Kwan's path to her own restaurant was long but not especially indirect. During college, she worked as a prep cook and baker. She also has experience working the front of the house as a bartender. (Though by her own reckoning she "sucks" as a server.)
Her career in marketing involved multiple business relationships with restaurant and night- club owners, and her business travel (frequently with a generous meal allowance) allowed her to sample restaurants across the country and to shape her idea of what a vegetarian, vegan and raw-food restaurant could be.
What Frida's Deli is not, it becomes clear either in conversation with Kwan or simply by visiting the restaurant, is a spot for moralizing or hectoring.
"I don't tell anyone what to eat," she says. "By God, we have a ton of meat eaters here. If you want to eat meat, try to eat leaner meat. Try to get rid of the fats."
"Our customer base is older that a lot of people would think," she continues. "The older generation, they're becoming vegan because their doctors are saying, 'You have no choice, you have to cut out the animal products.' So they're going for the whole foods. They're eating sensibly.
"They're always thanking us. They're always telling us how much weight they've lost."
Kwan offers more tangible proof of Frida's success: The restaurant will soon expand into the two retail bays immediately north of its University City location. The closer of the two bays will combine with the original space to afford a larger dining room and -- crucially, considering that Frida's current prep table is only four feet long -- a larger kitchen. In the third retail bay Kwan plans to establish aeroponic and hydroponic gardens.
With the larger menu Kwan expects to introduce a larger menu, with cheese plates and other, more "shareable" dishes. The restaurant will also apply for a liquor license.
Kwan has no doubt that in only nine months her dream restaurant has already outgrown its space. "Some days, it's nonstop from 11 to 7. We couldn't keep up. It was insane. It just would not stop.
"I am so glad. I am so blessed with that."