James O’Shea has always been ahead of the curve. When he opened the West Street Grill in Litchfield, Conn., in 1990, the restaurant was the first of its kind in the area to feature lighter, healthier fare.
“I was doing a lot of seafood and foods from local farms and markets,” says the celebrated chef, who grew up on a seaside farm in his native Ireland. “Modern American cuisine has become a staple, but it wasn’t around back then.”
James also adopted a vegan diet in 2008, before it became more mainstream, and says it’s not that hard to maintain. (West Street Grill — a fave stop for celebs like George Clooney, Russell Crowe and Meryl Streep — has meat on the menu, but deliciously satisfying vegan options like cauliflower tempura and pasta dishes abound.)
“[Veganism] is less intimidating than it seems,” he notes. Here, James offers a beginner’s guide to going vegan and reveals why he believes it’s the diet of the future.
What’s the inspiration behind the menu at West Street Grill?
JO: My approach to cooking is based on the food I ate growing up in Ireland. My father had his own farm in Kenmare. Everything was fresh.
Tell us about when you decided to go vegan.
JO: I went vegetarian as a teenager, and, at one point, I was a pescatarian and an occasional vegan. And about 13 years ago, I realized I wanted to look at food from a healthier point of view.
How did you feel when you changed your diet?
JO: Better. My energy level is incred- ible. When you eat vegan, you feel much lighter. Your body doesn’t work so hard to break things down.
What are some of the big misconceptions about veganism?
JO: The first question I’m asked is how do I get protein. You get what you need if you eat a balanced diet of greens, healthy plants, fruits and vegetables along with beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Soybeans, tofu and tempeh are great protein options.
Do you miss things like cheese?
JO: I’d say 90 percent of vegetarians can’t make the switch because they’re hooked on dairy. But there are so many non-dairy options out there now. Miyoko’s Creamery has an incredible unsalted butter. There’s Cheezehound and Just Mayo and everyone is making non-dairy ice cream.
So it’s easier than ever before to go vegan?
JO: Yes. Beyond Beef and the Impos- sible Burger are everywhere. Nathan has announced they’re doing a vegan veggie dog.
What’s your advice for people thinking about making the change?
JO: Most people say they hardly eat meat, but if they added up how much they eat in a month, it would shock them. So make a list. Write down, “No eggs, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no animal products,” and carry it around.
The vegan lifestyle is getting more and more popular. Do you think that will continue?
JO: Veganism is most likely to be the diet of the 21st century. It encompasses a whole new way of life as people become more aware that our mainstream di- ets are not as healthy — and have devastating effects on the planet. Those are big reasons for people to change.