A vegan food fest may not be revolutionary in some parts of the world, but in a city that worships all things pork, an entire weekend revolving around leafy greens and plant-based protein is pretty amazing.
Alison Burgos and Michelle Gaber's brainchild is a new breed of plant-based celebration -- an inclusive event designed to appeal to omnivores and herbivores alike. No factory farm footage, no tasteless raw sprouts, no dietary dogma. Just fun, food and a sexy Miami vibe.
The idea behind Seed Food & Wine Festival is to let South Floridians know that a plant-based lifestyle can be delicious, nutritious and beneficial for everyone -- the animals and environment included. We spoke to Burgos and Gaber for the full story on how Seed came to be.
New Times: How did this festival idea come to be?
Alison Burgos: When we met Michelle was mainly vegan and I was not.
Michelle Gaber: That was April 29th, 2007.
Alison: About a year into our relationship, I got sick. We weren't sure what it was, which was pretty scary. All of a sudden, I couldn't use my leg or my arm. I went to a series of doctors and I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. They gave me a high dosage of steroids and started me on several treatments. I was on Methotrexate, which is kind of like a lighter dose of chemotherapy. It's a standard treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. I was getting weekly injections and steroids. It took them awhile to really get it under control. Over the course of two years, it really started attacking my knee and getting worse and worse.
We're really blessed that we have a lot of friends who are really into alternative medicine and holistic therapies that really wanted me to take that route. I love my rheumatologist but after about two and a half years, I lost use of my knee. I was on crutches and then I was in a wheelchair, which was not fun. It was my fault -- I didn't take care of my body, I was constantly stressed, I never stopped. I did this to myself. After losing my knee, I convinced the doctors to give me a total knee replacement. After going through with the surgery, I knew I didn't want to go through this again. It was not fun. Taking the advice of my friends, I went and met with a nutritionist, a Chinese herbalist and an acupuncturist. They gave me physical therapy, weekly acupuncture and put me on a 90-day vegan cleanse. I would take a mixture of herbs, fruits and vegetables only and like a quarter cup of nuts and like a quarter cup of brown rice. Which for somebody who struggled with food addiction and overeating my entire life, it was really a change.
My SED rate (inflammation rate) dropped from 89 to 20 -- putting me completely in remission, which was amazing! That's kind of where our journey started of living a plant-based life, I saw what it could do. I was weaned off the Methotrexate, which has serious side effects. Your body becomes addicted to steroids. You have to teach your body to live without it. So they slowly weaned me off but I was feeling better than ever.
Michelle: During the time she was doing 90 days of vegetables, we were about a week and a half in. At this point I was not living a vegan lifestyle, I had strayed away from that for about a year. So she had bought me tickets to the Food and Wine Festival's Burger Bash. So we went and she couldn't eat anything. Even if she ate it it didn't feel good to her. We had a great time, we listened to music and got to see the celebrities and the whole thing, but we left there and I just looked at her and said 'There needs to be something sexy like this for vegans. A vegan burger bash. Why can't that happen?' I looked at her I'm like, 'You do events, let's do this.' It kind of sat on the back burner sits there in the bank of ideas and six, seven months ago she's like, we're gonna do it. So it was very very exciting.
Alison: We are more excited than ever about living a plant-based life -- it's a more sustainable way to live, it's gentler on the environment, there is no animal cruelty and so many health benefits.
Michelle: That's the best part about Seed. It's not just for vegans. If you just do Meatless Mondays, or you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or your wife or your boyfriend is vegan and they're like, 'Let's go.' It doesn't matter where you are or if you're just a foodie who embraces the creativity and freshness of plant-based food.
Alison: We believe that to really make change and elevate a movement, you can't preach to the choir. You have to preach to everybody and engage everybody. That's what we want Seed to be. We want it to be a movement. We want somebody to say, "Hey there's a James Beard nominated chef, let's go check that out." Or, "Hey, they're doing a workshop on juicing. My friend just did a juicing cleanse and she feels great. Let's go check it out." We want somebody who's just learning as well as lifelong vegans to love Seed. We want it to be for everybody. We want to educate people. Look, we get that we're still two fat girls, this is a health-focused festival.
Michelle: I think it's a food and wine festival [laughs]. This is where we go back and forth.
Alison: People don't know that we've had this amazing journey. I'm almost off steroids; I've lost 50 pounds since my highest weight.
Michelle: I've lost 40.
Alison: It's not about your weight. It's not about where you are; it's about where you're going.
There seems to be a lot of extremism around methods of eating and health that turn people off.
Alison: There's extremism in everything. Politics, religion, your health. People get stuck in what their one idea is. We all fall victim on occasion. We couldn't do this without the help and support of the community, all these awesome and incredible people that we tell our story to and say this is what we want to do and they believe in us. They say, "We want to help." We have an amazing committee of 20-something people that are passionate about plant based living with different backgrounds from restaurant owners to product developers to chefs to activists. It's amazing. They're sharing their insight and provide expertise to make sure we're doing everything we can to represent the community well. We're still new. I don't know everything about sustainability or green living or any of those things. I just know my little world and have significant event experience, I am honored to be able to gain this knowledge and make sure Seed is a vehicle to talk about those things in a respectful and safe way.
How did you get so many people on board so quickly?
Alison: For the past year and a half we had been focused on plant-based living. We're such big fans of Christopher's in Palm Beach.
Michelle: At the end of the day, we're still foodies. We're just plant-based foodies. We still know the top chefs around the country and we would love to have their food.
Alison: Going to places like Green Wave, Green Bar and Choices and just meeting people. When we sat down last September and said let's do this, let's put together a budget and a concept - everybody was like, "that's a big lineup." You gotta go big or you've gotta go home! If you're going to make an impact and do something, you've got to do it right. In December, we started calling our friends in the plant-based world and they literally were like, "You've got to know so-and-so."
Michelle: It really became like a domino effect.
Tell me about the plans for the festival weekend.
Michelle: It starts on October 15. We're kicking it off at O Cinema in Wynwood with craft beers and a movie screening.
Alison: When we say craft beers, we mean vegan craft beers. We're going to do a screening, craft beers and vegan burgers and hot dogs. Thursday will be our garden party. There'll be a green carpet, there'll be a silent auction, and there'll be a mixologist competition with great mixologists like the guys over at Broken Shaker. There'll be wonderful, beautiful food presented by some really amazing plant-based chefs along with some chefs who are part of the slow food movement and really believe in farm-to-table dining who have some great plant-based items on their menus.
Again, we wanted to do something for everyone. Friday will be our first chef dinner and we've invited a nationally well-known chef. Saturday is our all-day festival in Midtown. There'll be over 100 vendors, there will be two workshop rooms, one for chef demonstrations, gardening demonstration, and the other for experts in plant-based living - everything from medical professionals to authors and athletes. Saturday night will be a second dinner. Sunday we'll be doing a brunch and in the afternoon, we'll have a kid's event so children will learn how awesome fruits and vegetables are. They'll be able to garden and plant their own seeds and go home with their own little gardens. Bunnie Cakes will do cupcake decorating with the kids, which I'm sure they'll love.
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One really awesome thing - 100% of proceeds from all our dinners and our brunch go directly to charity. Farm Sanctuary is one of our chosen charities and we'll be announcing our next charity over the next several days but it'll be another charity that's in line with plant-based conscious living.
Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahalexs.