Cindi Avila

The first time I aspired to be a vegetarian was my freshman year at the University of Delaware. There was a classmate, Karen Uhl, who was blonde and smart and really cute, and, well, she was a vegetarian.

Hey, I was pathetic.

Of course, it didn’t stick. I loved burgers. And steak. And, well, pretty much every non-pork slab of meat placed before me. Over time, however, I found myself returning to my Uhl-esque roots. Sandwich meat was nasty. Steak—with all that blood—was unappealing. Finally, six summers ago, I made the final split. The only red meat I ate was Whoppers and New York City streetcart hotdogs—both as healthy as 12 cigarettes and a swig of gasoline.

With one singular relapse, I haven’t consumed red meat since.

Now, in 2011, I’d like to take the next step and give up chicken. Sweet, lovely, clucking chicken. Only I can’t. I try, I last a few days, I give in. What can I say? I’m weak.

Enough babbling. If there’s anyone on this planet who can lead me to righteousness, it’s today’s Quaz guest. Cindi Avila isn’t merely one of the nation’s most recognized vegetarian chefs. She also happens to be a former contestant on the Food Network’s Chopped, as well as someone who left journalism to follow her true passion—eats.

Here, Cindi talks tofu, reality TV, why Ron Guidry is The Man and why she’d happily (well, not quite happily) eat a Whopper for the right price. She also has her own website, and Tweets like a maniac here.

Cindi Avila, bon appetit …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Lame first question, Cindi, but why did you become a vegetarian? Was there an ah-ha moment when you said, “I can’t eat this anymore” or was it gradual?

CINDI AVILA: I was born and raised in Miami. A skinny kid who loved school. I didn’t particularly love fast-food growing up, but I certainly ate it. One of the last beef products I had (if not the last) was a Big Mac when I was 15. As for something that would foretell my meat-free lifestyle? I always loved animals & had dogs growing up! When I was 15-years-old I had to go on a charity’s mailing list for a high school project. I picked PETA. Once they sent me pictures of tortured animals on factory farms I couldn’t eat meat anymore!

J.P.: My wife is addicted to reality TV. Literally, we have hooked up a tube to her vein from the television to the bed. I, on the other hand, pretty much loathe reality TV. A. It’s not reality; B. It seems very self-indulgent; C. Everyone wants to be famous, no matter how. You’ve been on two reality shows—Chopped and Pregnant in Heels. Tell me why I’m wrong.

C.A.: Luckily the shows I was on were as real as it gets. During a cooking competition like Chopped you either kick butt and win or you crash and burn like I did. Yep I cried when I got “Chopped”, it doesn’t get more real than that. More recently Pregnant in Heels followed me around while I was carring my precious little baby. They chronicled my HUGE & very real fear of needles and hospitals. In the end my beautiful Alexia was born and wow what a moment. Probably one of the most real moments in my life and I thought they captured it well.

J.P.: You’ve said in the past that meat “weighed you down.” What, exactly, does that mean? And how would you describe the feeling?

C.A.: You know that feeling you get when you eat a big chunk of meat? You can just feel it sitting there in your stomach? Well it’s been a while so I actually don’t really remember that feeling anymore, but I can tell you that meat sits in your stomach for days before it’s digested. I know it sounds gross, but it literally rots in your organs. Talk about weighing you down?!?!? You just feel lighter when you don’t put that junk in your body. The scale reflects it too. People hate me because I still indulge in sweets and french friends, but I don’t put on weight. Is it a coincidence that I don’t eat meat? I don’t think so.

J.P.: Why do you think more people aren’t grossed out by eating meat? I’m being serious. Like, people literally gnaw on the bones of chickens and cows. They consume stomachs, brains, intestines. It’s fucking nasty. So why aren’t we all following your lead?

C.A.: The reason most people still haven’t kicked meat to the curb is because they want to remain blissfully ignorant. When you eat meat, you call it a hamburger or steak, instead of calling it what it is which is cow. If it said COW or PIG on menus I truly believe less people would eat it. Furthermore people would rather turn a blind eye to how animals on these horrible factory farms are being treated. If you saw the pictures I saw when I first went vegetarian you’d probably stop eating meat too. It’s really about people making more informed choices. If everyone wanted animals on farms to be treated humanely all they have to do is stop buying all the crap out there. It will force farms to change their ways. Veal consumption is already way down for this very reason. A whole lot of people out there hate the idea of eating a baby cow who never even got to walk. That forced the veal industry to change their ways. It’s still an awful industry, but at least public outcry caused small changes. With all that said I am on a mission to educate people and I think I’m slowly accomplishing that. Listen I’m not preachy because I don’t think that’s the way to get people to stop anything. If you ask me about the conditions on factory farms I’ll tell you, but in my TV work I instead I like to talk about the positives of eating a vegetarian diet.

J.P.: You used to work as an anchor for NY-1, a news station here in New York. I’m thrilled, because I’ve always wanted to ask a local news person this: What the hell? What I mean is, why is local news so bad? It’s always a dog who bit a kid outside a theme park, or a man who dressed as a rabbit. Just trivial, trivial crap. Am I wrong?

C.A.: I actually still anchor part-time at NY1! Yes, I know—I’m busy. Your question is funny because it basically sums up why I’m still at NY1. We don’t follow the old adage ,”If it bleeds it leads.” We cover the news the community actually wants to know about. I actually reported for a station earlier in my career they thought all their audience cared about was crime. I’m so glad to be done with that because people that’s the least of what people care about. They want to know what effects their family, their health and their bank accounts.

J.P.: What are the keys to transitioning from meat to no-meat? I don’t eat red meat, and I’m almost done with chicken. But I struggle with that final transition. Will I get enough protein? What about when there’s nothing to eat? Etc … etc.

C.A.: I think it’s best to do it slowly like you are doing. Another great tip is trying to recreate your favorite dishes using meat substitutes like the ones I’m a spokesperson for, Lightlife. If your favorite dish is chili you can still eat it, just replace the meat with our Smart Ground and you won’t miss a beat. It’s a lot of fun to try to recreate your favorite dishes without meat and a lot healthier. There is no cholesterol in Lightlife’s products and very little fat. On the flip side there is still lots of protein. Add in beans and leafy greens into your diet and you’ve got your iron covered too. It’s really easy to make the change and keep in all the flavor and all your nutrients.

J.P.: You did well on Chopped, but ultimately lost. I’m wondering how that felt at the exact moment. Were you devastated? Crushed? Did you know what was about to happen? Did you go home and cry? Laugh? What?

C.A.: I have to admit I was pretty devastated because I knew I could have done better and I just screwed up. I over-thought things and when you have 20 minutes to cook you don’t have time to over-think! I cried in front of the millions that watched it. Problem is as a vegetarian I thought I had a lot to prove and I wanted the chance to show everyone that. The good news is that I still got the vegetarian message out there and you don’t often see that point of view covered on national TV.

J.P.: I speak for millions of Americans when I say tofu is disgusting. D-i-s-g-u-s-t-i-n-g. Like moldy Jell-O, minus the fun and sugar. Tell me why I’m wrong?

C.A.: Hmm, well I can’t say that tofu is my favorite thing in the world. It’s a huge misconception that all vegetarians eat is tofu. I love it in Asian food, especially Pad Thai, but I don’t cook with tofu at home. It’s just not my style. I mean there are so many other things I can use to cook with so tofu is low on the list. With that said if you are a good cook you can make tofu taste great, but it’s just not a high priority for me.

J.P.: The wife and I used to love the Food Network—cooking show after cooking show after coking show. Now, it seems like there are nonstop reality shows and contests and the such. Does this bother you? And do you think there’s still a place for conventional cooking TV?

C.A.: I love the reality cooking shows, but I also like the standard cooking in a kitchen show too. I think there are enough networks out there to put on all kinds of shows. So of course there is still a place for both. I self-produced seven episodes of a vegetarian cooking show called “Green Goddess.” It combines conventional cooking TV with trips to restaurants. A little different then what’s out there and a lot different if you factor in that the show is meat-free!

J.P.: Give me your greatest moment in a kitchen? Your worst?

C.A.: My greatest moment in the kitchen was on TLC’s Dinner Takes All. This was a reality competition I did about six years ago that I won. I made my great guacamole, savory mushroom pancakes, vegetarian paella and banana eggrolls with a dulce de leche dipping sauce!

My worst moment in the kitchen would have to be the Food Network’s Chopped. What I served tasted good, but it wasn’t pretty and I missed a required ingredient. Ugh, not a good moment for me.


• I offer you $10 million to eat a Whopper. Do you do it?: Yes I’d do it and immediately donate the $10 million to The Farm Sanctuary. It’s a great organization that pushes laws that protect farm animals and they have their sanctuary as well. Imagine what the $10 million would do for farm animals. Plus I’d get lots of publicity for eating a Whopper for $10 million. That’s lots of exposure to tell people how awful Whoppers are!

• Celine Dion, nonstop for 10 hours, or a frying pan to the head?: If you asked me this five months ago I’d say a frying pan to the head. I am a Pearl Jam, Matchbox Twenty and Jimmy Buffett kind of girl. Funny thing is, though, that I was staying at the Caesar’s Las Vegas in March and my husband of all people said let’s just go see Celine Dion out of curiosity. I reluctantly went and bought the cheap seats! We sat in the back row of the Coliseum and were shocked by what we saw. Somehow we enjoyed it. She did Elvis songs, a Michael Jackson tribute and even a James Bond montage.  Of course I used the restroom during a couple of her own songs, but all in all we were impressed. I even shed a tear when she sang Lullabye by Billy Joel while showing pictures of her kids.

• Who wins in an arm wrestle—you or Rachael Ray?: Oh boy I have the weakest, skinniest arms in the world so Rachael Ray would win for sure.

• You need a catch phrase. Any ideas?: If you eat meat-free one day a week or are a vegetarian or vegan 24/7 I have the show for you!

• Tommy John, Ron Guidry or Don Sutton?: Who????????  Um, I just googled them and I’ll go with Ron Guidry because apparently his nickname is Gator and I’m a Florida Gator.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Wow this actually happened recently on a trip from St. Croix to New York City. You couldn’t see a thing outside the plane and the pilot was even afraid to land in those conditions. I had my new baby girl in a Bjorn on my chest so all I thought about was my love for her and how lucky I am to have her in my life. I thought about how my life couldn’t end because I want to spend more time with her!

• How often do you Tweet? And why should people care?: I love Twitter. It’s surpassed Facebook for me. The reason is that I can tell everyone great things about being a vegetarian and anyone and everyone can read it. On the flip side I can read great tips from other vegetarians and vegans all over the country. Also as a news junkie I love getting my breaking news on Twitter before people see it on TV. For instance when news of Osama Bin Laden’s death was about to break, I read it on Twitter before the president even stepped up to the podium to confirm it!

• Can you throw us a recipe? An especially good one …: Check out my great Lemon Caper Cutlets.