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Around the same time that Joan Laguatan converted to Judaism, she became vegan.
“According to Judaism, we have a moral and divine obligation to prevent animal suffering and uphold a sacred reverence for life,” the San Francisco-based real estate broker told a crowd assembled in the lobby of the Twitter building in San Francisco for a vegan Shabbat gathering. “Through this dinner,” she said before lighting the Shabbat candles, “we hope to highlight the ways plant-based and clean-meat developments are changing the way we think about food and how it aligns with Jewish values.”
About 100 people attended on a recent Friday night, sampling plant-based food products from here and Israel, all kosher. The event was scheduled to coincide with the Good Food Conference at the Palace Hotel, devoted to “accelerating the marketplace for plant-based and cell-based meat.” More than 900 attended the multiday conference, according to events coordinator Natalia Veinott. The Shabbat event attracted a number of people who came for the conference, including two Israeli industry leaders.
Laguatan is a Wexner fellow who regularly hosts vegan Shabbat and holiday dinners to introduce others to plant-based eating. She organized the early September event with Alex Shandrovsky, founder of S.F.-based L’Chaim Foods (Shandrovsky has moved back to Israel, but he still owns the company and makes frequent trips to the Bay Area). Co-sponsors were L’Chaim Foods, Jewish Veg — whose executive director, Jeffrey Spitz Cohan, flew in from Pittsburgh — local Jewish event promoter Adam Swig and Chabad SF.
Shandrovsky told the group that he had nervously smuggled in some Israeli vegan products to share, such as A1C bread, which is not only vegan but also low carb, Panda Chocolate and Yofix yogurt — a fermented soy-free yogurt made from oats, lentils, sunflower seeds and coconut.
Diners also enjoyed products made closer to home, like L’Chaim’s eggplant sushi, which is supposed to approximate eel but tastes more like delicious eggplant, and hummus bowls topped with Beyond Meat, a ground-beef substitute whose main ingredient is pea protein isolate. New to this reporter was Ahimi, a product from Ocean Hugger Foods made from tomatoes that resembles raw ahi tuna’s texture and mouthfeel.
“As a kosher catering company, we have always faced the issue of having less access to proteins that are affordable and kosher,” Shandrovsky said later in an interview. “As I saw what L’Chaim was facing, I started to get more interested in alternative proteins.”
He feels he can act as a bridge to expose some of Israel’s more innovative products to the American market.
“These products are going to redefine the kosher industry and the food industry in general,” he said. “My goal is to help Israeli food tech companies scale. L’Chaim Foods is a great avenue to do this because we as a company already cater to tech companies.”
As awareness grows about the environmental impact of factory farming of animals for consumption, the interest in plant-based alternatives continues to rise. While some vegans are perfectly happy to eat a plate of grilled vegetables, others are thrilled by the introduction of these new products that mimic dishes they might have once loved but no longer eat.
“The fact that I can go to a Burger King and get an Impossible Burger” — another plant-based, meat-mimicking burger — “is a dream come true,” said Jonathan Wornick, a “meat and potatoes vegan” who has been mostly vegan for 16 years (his wife, Cristina Breen, and their two kids are fully vegan). Wornick and Breen attended the dinner.
“What a point of pride that Israel is such a leader in veganism,” said Wornick, who is Northern California campaign chair for AIPAC.
That sentiment was later echoed by one of three after-dinner speakers, Tehilla Bar Yehuda, managing partner of Next Branch Impact, which supports plant-based projects in Israel. “As Israel is already a startup nation,” she said, “it’s only natural for it to become a vegan technological powerhouse.”
The other two speakers at the Shabbat event — who also spoke at the Good Food Conference — were Didier Toubia, CEO and co-founder of Aleph Farms, Israel’s leading cell-based meat company, and Daniel Y. Altschuler Malek, who lives locally and whose venture capital firm is a major investor in Beyond Meat and Ocean Hugger.
“Meat has a big role in our tradition,” said Toubia, an observant Jew who said he is proud to have a hand in creating “slaughter-free meat. I believe the Jewish community can be a leader in this.”