photo courtesy Chef Donald Lemperle

As healthy dining choices continue to gain steam, Las Vegas has a strong option at VegeNation, led by Chef Donald Lemperle. 

Chef Lemperle grew up in a restaurant owned by his parents and worked in his native NYC for years, at restaurants like Le Bernardin, The Quilted Giraffe and The Sign of the Dove. Prior to his move west, he was executive chef at Park Avalon Restaurant and The James Hotel. Then he made his way to Scottsdale, Arizona, before his final stop in Las Vegas. 

Now he aims to prove eating a plant-based diet can be as satisfying as one with meat.

I know you grew up around a restaurant. How did you know it’d be your career?

My folks owned a small restaurant on Staten Island and I loved that, but my mom discouraged me. She said the only people who work as chefs are alcoholics and crazies. But I love the fast pace and camaraderie, the creativity and the ability to get results immediately. 

When it was time in high school to make a career choice, they discouraged me, but I helped out a lot at the restaurant and it really gave me a work ethic and taught me discipline.

If you go to culinary school, you do one dish and move on. This was repetitive and real life. 

How long were you in New York? 

I was in the New York area most of my life, and went to work at some of the best restaurants, three and four star New York Times reviewed restaurants. I was able to learn quite a bit.  

How’d you end up in Las Vegas? 

I was working for a restaurant in NYC; it was after 9/11 and I wanted to make a change. My kids were in junior high and I wanted them to see another part of the country and there was an opportunity with the company I was with. They opened a restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona and I worked there a few years, but when the recession hit, the hotel I was working at went bankrupt, but they had a joint venture in Las Vegas and that’s how I got here. I ended up here by accident, not planned. That was 2010, and I’ve been in Vegas since.

At what point did you know you wanted to open a place of your own?

When I came to Vegas, I was looking to do something, and initially wanted to do it in Arizona, too. Mario Batali had a farmers market on Dean Martin, and it was only on Thursday afternoons. I told my wife there’s a bigger opportunity for people looking for a healthy model. 

Where’d that healthy idea come from?

At a restaurant in Arizona: In the Jungle. They weren’t vegan, but were geared toward healthier options and the price point was moderate, so I modeled after what they were doing there.

Why do vegan?

I’ve been in the business for a long time and food is fashion. It has its trends, but this is more than a trend. It’s a lifestyle shift. What you eat matters. An important thing for health and the environment is to choose a plant-based lifestyle.

Why did you go vegan? 

In the back of my mind it was always there, but 16 years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It was a huge wakeup call and I examined my lifestyle and totally changed my lifestyle. I remember I’d be in the kitchen with the soda guns and drink tons of Diet Coke. Now going vegan I drink green smoothies and so far it’s been good. I don’t want to say whatever I did was magic, I don’t want to say become vegan to cure cancer, but 60% of chronic diseases are caused by diets. 

And so you’re trying to spread that message? 

I’m trying to change the paradigm. My food is comfort food. Every culture has a different vegan dish and I try to give good variety. One of the things is, I have a huge appetite. You can be the biggest carnivore and come here and still be satisfied. A wife might be transitioning to a plant-based diet and the husband resists; he might be a big baby about it, but we have a meatball grinder made with plant-based meat and they’ll say, ‘This is not too bad,’ and open their eyes to what can be done with vegan diets.

What are the plans for the future? 

We’re looking to do a kiosk at T-Mobile Arena. Like I said, what I’m trying to do is make people aware to fit and change the paradigm that it is regular food, it’s just plant-based. I have a few concepts, like Mexican cuisine “Adios, Carne.” You can have a lot of fun all based on the plant.