Faith in Plants

McDonald’s was the only place still open when Faith Evans pulled in with her children. “There’s nothing here we can eat,” Delani and Elyse Beavers, four and eight years old protested. The trio had just landed after a flight from Florida, and the East Hampton mother knew the girls were hungry. “At least we’ll get some French fries,” Faith urged.

“Why would we want to put French fries into our body?” the children chorused.

It’s not just personalities like authors Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, TV-chef Jamie Oliver and the former head of the FDA and author of The End of Overeating, Dr. David A. Kessler, who are fueling a growing national awareness about the need to eat healthier foods—and more plants, specifically. It’s also these girls in East Hampton.

Look closer and you’ll find South Forkers talking of losing 25, 50, even 125 pounds, of plummeting cholesterol numbers, reversed diabetes and high blood pressure, restored energies and which restaurants have the neatest new veggie offering. You’ll encounter ranks of nutritionally savvy children. Meatless Mondays at Almond restaurant in Bridgehampton, plant-focused specials at Gurney’s and Mary’s Marvelous, and Montauk hotel-owners holding Sunday night “personal cure” sessions in their banquet rooms.

And you’ll certainly run into Doug Mercer’s name.

Six-and-a-half years ago, Mercer, the retired CEO of an international shipping company, started the Wellness Foundation in East Hampton. His vision: turning the Hamptons into an incubator to see if a community could take charge of its own health through food education. Mercer enticed a stream of nationally respected authorities on nutrition and health to speak at seminars at the East Hampton Middle School and become advisors to his board. At first, handfuls of locals met with Mercer and his wife, Pat, in little Wellness circles around the East End. What has evolved since drew praise from some of nutrition’s national super stars. Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., the cardiologist who inspired President Bill Clinton to loose 24 pounds, has called it “the best community-based Wellness program in the country.” Epidemiologist T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study and co-inspirer of Clinton’s weight loss, calls it “the most spectacular, effective, most promising wellness program that I know of in the country.” Pam Popper, who wrote Solving America’s Health Care Crisis, founder and director of Columbus, Ohio’s Wellness Forum, says that if every community in the country had a program like Mercer’s, the health care crisis in this nation would be over in five years. “This is the model for doing it,” says Popper. In the last three years, some 400 people have taken the foundation’s six-week Wellness Challenge going on a low-fat vegan diet, then measuring the results with before-and-after blood work.

Cadging a page from Industrial Food’s marketing playbook: Catch ’em young. Catch ’em for life, last fall the foundation extended Food for Life classes to four- and five-year-olds at East Hampton’s daycare center. McDonald’s-nixing Delani Beavers watched Jennifer Taylor, Wellness Foundation executive director, prepare foods like smoothies with fruit and spinach, then tasted samples.

Soon Delani was nagging her mother to make smoothies. “I want to be healthy,” the four-year-old pleaded. Faith had ignored the urging of four co-worker Challenge graduates to try it. After the McDonald’s incident, not only Faith but her parents signed on.

Middle-schoolers have been taking foundation-led Food for Life programs for three years. The next step was to add Food for Life to just the third grade of East Hampton’s John Marshall Elementary School this winter. It didn’t work out that way. The teaching staff was so enthused that they adapted Food for Life instruction by themselves for kindergarten to fifth grade. Then 11 teachers took the challenge.

“Kids love being food detectives, reading labels,” says Mercer. Several seasons ago at one of the Food for Life programs run by Taylor, students talked about the name change of the sweetener used in most diet beverages. Its producer, the Japanese conglomerate Ajinomoto, changed its sweetener’s name from Aspartame, suspected in some quarters as a neurotoxin, to Amino Sweet. One dark-haired, fifth-grade boy spoke up angrily, “That’s such a dirty trick. We all know Aspartame is bad for us, but now it’s called Amino Sweet. And everybody thinks amino acids are good for us.”

Doug Mercer has heaved a mighty stone into the pond with his message, and ripples have spread outward, west to Quogue and east to the Montauk Lighthouse. Jennifer Taylor, the Wellness Foundation’s executive director, estimates they have reached over 3,000 East End families in the past five years, which could explain the noticeable and increasing number of children in the fields of CSA farms like Quail Hill and Sunset Beach. His timing was right, as vegetables were becoming trendy and a new frontier for chefs.

Eric Lemonides, co-owner of Bridgehampton’s Almond restaurant with chef Jason Weiner says, “Jason and I got our chops in high-end San Francisco restaurants that served some amazing vegetarian options, really creative dishes.” But the two who opened Almond outside of Bridgehampton in 2001, planning to introduce such flavors here, were 12 years too early. “Nobody ever ordered them,” says Lemonides. This spring, their successor Almond at One Main Street in Bridgehampton launched “Meatless Mondays.” Meatless sales are doubling week to week.

The Wellness Challenge is a vegan exercise—no meat, eggs or dairy products (“nothing that has a mother”), and very little oil. Instead, there are beautiful creations and flavors where vegetables come into their own, hooking many graduates (like me) on the flavor of vegetables treated with understanding. While we opt when possible for vegetable dishes, we won’t refuse eggs or beautiful fish or chicken. Call us “flexitarians.”

Two of the newest Challenge graduates are chefs who are expanding the message to their customers. One is Bruce McVicar, chef of East Hampton’s top-rated Mill House Inn. The other, 44-year-old Peter Ambrose, lost 30 pounds during the Challenge he was urged to consider by his Southampton physician and Challenge graduate, Dr. Allen Fein. Ambrose’s culinary skill was honed by 20 years as chef and special-events caterer at the Seafood Shop in Wainscott. In mid-April, Ambrose opened his own seafood, barbecue and gourmet shop, the Hampton Seafood Co., and event operation Endless Summer Catering at 17 Race Lane.

Ambrose is a master of flavor. A few months back at an Empty Bowls fund-raiser for Springs Seedling project, Parisian-raised Springs artist Sydney Albertini spooned into Ambrose’s Thai Seafood Chowder from one of 18 chef soup stations. “The flavor, the flavor, it’s unbelievable,” exclaimed the mother of three young boys.

It is one of the best chowders this writer has ever tasted. What makes it particularly amazing is that Ambrose is trimming unhealthy ingredients out of the dishes offered at his new shop by replacing them with intense flavor. For example, his vegan three-bean chili has the rich flavor, depth and sense of substance and satisfaction that you expect from a meat-based chili. Salty, lively tasting salads reduce the salt. There’s a Thai chowder with varying seafood. But sometimes an ingredient is integral to taste. “So our Bonac clam pie will always have bacon,” says the flavor pro who is eating healthily down toward his next goal of 275 pounds.

(Of course, not all vegetarian and vegan foods are healthy. “Vegan can be junk food,” says the foundation’s Barbara Kinner. Some foods are dry and tasteless. Others miss the point. A scout recently brought me a butter-drenched veggie burger created by a carnivore mentality. The strangely sweetish burger on a soft, egg-battered bun grilled with extra butter tasted of a fat content that rivaled the highest-fat beef burger.)

A grassroots movement is springing up here as it is elsewhere, buoyed on by encounters with the foundation. Several years ago, Phyllis Lomitola, Gurney’s event director and co-owner of Gurney’s Inn with her brothers, launched a monthly Sunday evening “Personal Cure series” with Montauk motel owner Ken Walles—a talk or movie followed by a macrobiotic buffet. Before that, Walles, who six years ago dealt with prostrate cancer on a macrobiotic diet, was holding macrobiotic potlucks on the lawn of his motel. Today veggie potlucks are popping up at eaters’ homes, and monthly at the Wellness Foundation. Karen Panish, formerly with the foundation, runs popular food and health classes. Nutritionist Stefanie Sacks has a new show on LTV on healing illness with food, Chew on This.

Gurney’s took a veggie stand last year by sending its sous-chef, 31-year-old Michael Oransky, to an intensive seven-day macrobiotic cooking course at the Kushi Institute in Becket, Massachusetts. The resort now has four vegan offerings on the menu of its three restaurants, offered three vegan entrées for Easter and has had several lavish and primarily vegan spreads for events.

To recognize foods that are delicious, healthy and basically vegan, the Wellness Foundation is awarding a seal of approval, its “W,” to restaurants with excellent dishes that meet its criteria. Gurney’s and Ambrose have both been awarded W’s for multiple dishes. Mary’s Marvelous will be whipping up the foundation’s own recipe for a W-rated smoothie. The LT Burger gets a W, too.

“This is the best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve eaten veggie burgers all over the world,” the slim woman who turned out to be Wall Street lawyer and Sag Harborite Debra Galloway, a vegetarian for 43 years, told her waitress at Sag Harbor’s LT Burger on a February lunchtime. It owes its genesis to the eruption in mid-April 2010 of Mount Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and an ash cloud that left both Michael Cinque of Amagansett and super-chef Laurent Tourondel stranded in Provence. Three months later, after leisurely days waiting for the ash storm to lift, the two friends opened Sag Harbor’s LT Burger in July 2010. It had a vegetarian and vegan focus from day one. “Sag Harbor is a very holistic town,” says Cinque.

“The same thought and attitude that goes into any exceptional dish has been put into LT’s burger,” observes Galloway. The texture is excellent. Most unusual for a veggie burger, it is juicy. Moistness is coaxed in as it’s brushed with a molasses-tinged barbecue sauce while it cooks on a flat grill, then is served on a 7-whole-grain bun, with trimmings like avocado and wheatgrass.

“We make them in small batches of fresh ingredients, keep it only two days,” says chef Andrew Buffalino of Tourondel’s recipe, adding, “Beets add wonderful flavor, texture and color, quinoa helps bind it together.” There’s jalapeño for zip, spices like chili powder and cumin.

While it isn’t obvious when Mercer is sitting at one of the round lunch-tables in the middle school cafeteria, joking, his startling blue eyes flashing, he’s applied his expertise in business to what has become a passion.

In the Spring of 2005, after East Hampton Middle School students held a brown-bag boycott of current cafeteria offerings, Mercer was the anonymous donor of a $6,000 refrigerated case that made it possible to serve salads and yogurts at school lunch. That was the spark. Mercer wanted the clout of a national medical name as advisor to his education program, an expert like Dr. Joel Fuhrman. To ensure he got a hearing, Mercer booked a complete physical with the Flemington, New Jersey, physician. Lawyers drew up papers for the foundation. That September, Fuhrman spoke at the East Hampton Middle School launching the Wellness Foundation. That evening Mercer sold Fuhrman’s books at below wholesale cost to the audience, since selling some 6,000 at wholesale cost to Challenge-takers.

Later, the Mercers entertained Furhman and East Hampton physician Dr. George Dempsey, who often mentions the Challenge to many patients. A few weeks ago Dempsey took the six-week program. “My cholesterol was good, but creeping up a little,” says Dempsey. After the Challenge? “Below what it was in Hawaii where we never ate meat.”

Southampton family doctor Allen Fein, a diabetic, says he “took the Challenge as a lark. Then my sugar dropped from 158 to 106, which is absolutely dramatic. I am now very proactive with patients in the risk stage as with the ones in the disease stage. I tell them there’s a solution that doesn’t involve pills.”

Mercer talks of the critical need for people to head off potential health problems before they take hold by using good nutrition, “Our health care system is not sustainable because we’re chasing after diseases and working with symptoms not dealing with the causes,” says Mercer. When the Sag Harbor School District recently considered loosening restrictions on foods containing high-fructose corn syrup, the Wellness Foundation mobilized local parents and doctors to protest at the school board meeting.

This June 30, under a tent on the Mercer’s back lawn, more than 350 people sampled flavor-packed hors d’oeuvres catered by The Art of Eating at the Wellness Foundation’s first fundraiser and chatted with luminaries in the nutrition and health field, like Kathy Freston, author of The Lean and The Veganist. The benefit was the first step in creating an endowment for the project that Mercer has essentially funded out of his own bank account since 2005. Will the East Hampton Wellness Foundation become a prototype for communities across the country? Three days after the benefit the foundation had ten new inquires on how they could adopt the East Hampton model. Has Mercer talked to his lawyers about what is involved in replicating the model? “Yes,” he said, as he gazed beyond his living room to where the gala tent stood. “Seven years. I’m almost on schedule. Actually, I’m a year behind.”

“Do you mean that as 10 or 12 of us first sat around on elementary school chairs discussing kale, you were fantasizing about a lawn party with deep-pocket donors?” I ask.

“Right,” says Mercer.

“You must feel this is the most important thing you’ve done in your life,” I say.

“Yes, of course it is,” he replies.

 Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk and blogs at