Welcome to Vegan Paradise
With the release of her first cookbook, world-renowned vegan chef Lillian Cumic extols what she sees as the real utopia for healthy eating: Hawai‘i.
Taking a look back at Lillian Cumic’s life story, it’s pretty tough to see where she had the opportunity to become a vegan, let alone the world-renowned vegan chef and advocate she is today.
Cumic grew up in Sydney, Australia, with her Serbian father bringing home the day’s meat — still waiting to be butchered.
“From a young age, I was repulsed,” she says in her demure voice. But her parents were kind and understanding, and cooked her separate vegetarian dishes.
At age 18, she moved to Japan to be a model on a six-month contract and puttered around with all kinds of odd jobs before coming to a realization that cooking was the only way she’d survive in the country.
Some of it was practicality (Japan is not the most friendly country for vegans or vegetarians unless you can speak Japanese to inquire about ingredients or request special dishes), but some of it was simply destiny: Cumic and the kitchen, pulling together.
“I opened my own dining bar, it was a high-end bar, and I served vegetarian five-course meals there,” Cumic remembers. “I was head chef at that little dining bar. It only seated 25 people.
“As I was cooking vegetarian food, I started delving into veganism. I tried to play around with recipes and didn’t include any dairy.
“I started my career in my own establishment.”
The pattern of Cumic’s life should be coming into focus now. One block builds on another, and another, and another.
“I became vegan 14 years ago,” she explains. “I started teaching vegan classes in Japan … No one in Sendai was doing anything like that.”
Her classes merrily went on for 12 years, and during that time, Cumic began to reach a different understanding of veganism. It was more than simply a kind of diet; it was a lifestyle, a new way of thinking.
“I immediately saw the changes,” Cumic describes. “It was very eye-opening to me how much the body, mind and soul — everything changes when you cut out all animal products. And, of course, the environment — when you become vegan, you become aware of so many things right away: animal rights issues, I never thought about climate change or man-made pollution until I started becoming vegan.”
As she began this mental transformation, she took a fateful trip to Hawai‘i with students from her 10th anniversary class.
She found a love for Hawai‘i — and a second love in husband Dave Molinaro
“I knew somehow it was going to be a very important place and part of my life,” she says, having moved here two years ago.
“Hawai‘i is a vegan paradise,” Cumic declares of her current home. “When you live in a place like Hawai‘i, you’re so blessed: fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh produce all year round. I’ve never seen farmers markets like this ever. We have all the tools, all the ingredients, everything we need to pull off a really nice lifestyle or diet, if we want to.”
So Cumic set about with a new goal: teaching people to do exactly that. She has a YouTube channel with over 200 vegan recipe videos; her Facebook holds 1,000 recipes — but her crowning achievement, the culmination of all her classes and recipes and videos is a cookbook, Hawai‘i: A Vegan Paradise, which came out in October.
“The book takes you through everything you need to know about veganism, like why people go vegan. Nothing like this exists in Hawai‘i at the moment, which is kind of surprising.”
Cumic sees some promising signs on the horizon. “During this pandemic, people are really starting to become aware of health issues and are looking for change.”
She explained that she had actually signed the contract to write the book last year, but it coming out this year was serendipitous.
“It was released this year, in a year when people want to know how can they change their diet, what are they doing wrong, what can they do better? People are trying to find a healthier path, all of us.”
Where is Lilian?
The question is better asked: Where isn’t Lillian Cumic?
You can find her videos, recipes and much more on YouTube and Facebook under lillianvegan, as well as her Instagram at @lillianvegan_chefhawaii. She has a regular show on ThinkTech Hawai‘i called Lillian’s Vegan World.
And, of course, her website is lillianvegan.com.
If you want to meet the master in person, she’ll actually be doing a book signing at Kaka‘ako Farmers Market from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday (Dec. 19).
What does Lilian want to eat?
Lillian Cumic isn’t so much interested in seeing more vegan restaurants as she is in seeing more vegan options at conventional restaurants.
But first, she hastens to remind that the No. 1 best place to find vegan dishes is at a farmers market.
“I am so passionate about the farmers markets. There are always booths that sell vegan food. Supporting local is my thing.”
She also likes Down to Earth (she was a cooking instructor there pre-pandemic and appreciates its takeout options, wide variety of ingredients, ready-to-eat meals and more).
Cumic cites Tane, a Japanese vegan sushi bar, and Vegan Hills as other favorites, as well as Rangoon Burmese Kitchen, which has plenty of vegan options.
But among her goals for 2021 is to help local restaurants develop vegan options — so no diner is ever left out of an exquisite culinary experience.
“I want to try and be a part of getting vegan dishes on restaurant menus in Hawai‘i, more recipes out there in magazines, and continue on with food writing.”