Tim Crandall, Sous Chef at Red the Steakhouse, Dishes on His Vegan Past

His passion for a woman brought him to veganism. After five years, his passion for culinary art brought him back to beef.

Okay, so maybe that's packaged a little too neatly. Timothe Crandall, the relatively new sous chef at Red the Steakhouse, never enjoyed eating meat as a child. "I hated steak. I hated chewing the meat. I hated my mom's Bolognese sauce. My dad would fight me over it all the time."

But he still concedes that an impassioned vegan ex-girlfriend did have some influence on pulling him into the veggie world.

It was 2001, and he was studying classical guitar and bass clarinet at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. He was taking 18 credits, and working a job in a greasy kitchen until four in the morning, only to get up again four hours later to go to class. He was miserable, sick, and disenchanted with the fried convenience foods he was constantly exposed to. "I didn't feel like my diet was balanced right," he said. "I didn't feel like I knew enough about food. And the cafeteria food at Baldwin Wallace was lacking. I got to the point where even if I was hungry, I would rather not eat than eat the food served in the cafeteria."

As fate would have it, he fell into a circle of hippie vegans right around that same time. One in particular --- a girl named Tina --- mesmerized him with her great big sweet potatoes and sexy green juices. (Okay, those are my words, not his.)

"I really came to enjoy being around that food," Crandall says, subtly asserting that it was indeed the food, and not the girl, that fascinated him. "One day, I came home from work really frustrated. And I said, 'That's it, I'm done. I'm going vegetarian.' I felt the difference in my diet immediately."

When the school year ended, he converted to all-out veganism, and he and Tina took off to Rowe, Massachusetts in the Berkshire Mountains where they lived at the Rowe Camp and Conference Center, a huge house some might call a commune, working 30 hours a week in exchange for their room and board. Crandall decided to take time off school while he reevaluated his life's direction in the quiet woods.

He hadn't gotten very far in his quest when a near-death experience slammed him with the revelation he'd been seeking.

He and a car full of people were on their way back from a trip to Boston when they car slid out of control and hit a guard rail - the only thing that prevented them from careening off a high cliff. "I kept running it through my head over and over. So when I got back to camp, I just buried myself in the kitchen and started cooking anything I could think of," he said. "I just fell in love with it, and at that moment I said, 'I know I want to be a cook.' And for the rest of my time in Massachusetts I spent all my time in the kitchen learning as much as I could possibly learn."

Finally, in 2003, Crandall drifted back to school again, this time at Cleveland State University, to study music once again. Still preoccupied with food, he and a few other students lobbied for more vegan options in the cafeteria, even while he and Tina were breaking up.

After a few semesters, he dropped out, fully accepting the reality that cooking was his true passion.

He started looking for jobs in kitchens, and found one in a place called Liquid, where he served up lots of tapas, crab cakes, wonton nachos and chicken skewers that he refused to eat. He says he didn't feel hypocritical, because for him veganism was about control and discipline rather than animal rights. But he had one persistent problem reconciling his diet and his profession: he couldn't taste the food he served.

So he tried a brief stint at a vegan restaurant, but it wasn't the right fit. Basically a vegan fast food joint, the joint served reheated, lackluster cuisine he couldn't stand behind. He wanted to make food from scratch.

He found a job at Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewery Company. "They're very earth-conscious. They focus a lot on recycling and the products they buy are the best that they can. I got in as a salad cook and worked my way around," he said.

At this point, it was 2006, and he'd been working in kitchens for a while, and he started to feel that his diet was really limiting his potential as a chef in the non-vegan culinary world. There was an immense list of foods he'd prepared that he had never tried in his life.

"I was hearing this from a lot of the guys I was cooking with at the time. They said, 'You know, we love you Tim, but if you continue to be vegan, there's only so far that you can go.' So at that point I made the decision to be a chef and learn as much as I could about all foods, but still hold onto that mentality of cooking from scratch and knowing what I'm putting in my body."

He started with a piece of salmon. He says it tasted delicious. A week later, he was diving into cheeseburgers.

"I got a lot of crap from a few guys on the line. But I think everybody saw that I was doing it because I wanted to better myself as a chef. It wasn't just because I got bored of eating vegan. If I wanted to I could still be vegan to this day, but I would definitely not be where I am."

He met Chef Peter Vauthy while working in Cleveland at the original Red the Steakhouse and its sister restaurant. He had rambled into Chicago when Vauthy looked him up to offer him the sous chef position at Red in South Beach in April, 2011. Crandall happily accepted.

"It's an amazing opportunity," says Crandall of his new digs. "There are no short cuts. We use the best ingredients, because that's what people expect and want. We don't tell people they're getting one thing when they're getting another. And I'm very very proud with the food that we do here at Red. It goes along with my whole mentality of, whatever food I'm cooking, I want to know where it comes from and I want to know how it got to my plate."

Crandall may now be a happy omnivore, but he hasn't forgotten his vegan roots. Check out the elaborate vegan meal he prepared for the Beet Reporter's vegan challenge a few weeks ago.

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.

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