By Renee Taylor
Prior to 2015, 45-year-old Massachusetts competitive barbecue chef Charles Christiansen spent his summers traveling all over New England to showcase his talents in the form of traditional Cajun cooking. The competitions were held by The North East BBQ Society, and followed the traditional rules of the Kansas City BBQ Society.
Christiansen and his team would feature large meat-filled displays of chicken, brisket, and pulled pork. Describing himself as a “Southern transplant,” Christiansen was raised in both Florida and Louisiana by his mother who he credits for inspiring his passion for cooking.
Enjoying his life, and winning competitions from time to time, Christiansen seemed to have solidified his career as a BBQ meat chef. However, a sudden chain of events would forever change his perspective.
In 2012, Christiansen and his wife adopted a mother-daughter pair of cats from The Wakefield Paws Rescue Organization. The couple soon fell in love with their new pets.
“These cats turned out to be the light of our lives,” Christiansen said. “We named the older cat simply ‘Momma’ because she was so loving, and motherly. She was the most beautiful thing in the world.”
Unfortunately Momma was unexpectedly diagnosed with feline leukemia in June 2015, and within a week of diagnosis she passed away.
“This devastated my wife and I. Suddenly through no fault of her own, the light of our lives was taken from us,” said Christiansen. “I mourned her loss for a very long time.”
In January 2016, Christiansen started already planning the upcoming BBQ season. However this time he was experiencing some conflicting thoughts about competing.
“I don’t know what it was that caused the switch to flip, but there was some thought process with Momma,” said Christiansen. “Here I am grieving about this animal who was so loving being taken away from us so prematurely, and I’m about to go do the same thing to a lot of other animals.”
Christiansen went on to explain how the BBQ competitions can be pretty wasteful in terms of food. Nearly half of the food within competitions is thrown out.
“You make approximately 20 pounds of food, and you are only turning in six pieces for the judges to try, which probably doesn’t even weigh a pound,” said Christiansen. “Most people try to give it away, but most bring their own food and don’t want it.”
Christiansen explains in detail how loss changed his perspective, as well as the direction of his career.
Around the same time Christiansen stumbled upon a 2011 documentary film called “Vegucated.” The film explores the challenges of converting to a vegan diet, which Christiansen recommends everyone to watch.
“The combination of losing Momma, the unfairness of what I was doing to other animals, and this documentary made me realize I needed to stop what I was doing,” said Christiansen.
Christiansen described his transition to a plant-based diet as a progression. He started with one meal a day, and then on June 7, 2016 Christiansen said he abruptly stopped eating meat and dairy completely.
“A lot of the marketing on TV makes it hard to make the connection,” said Christiansen. “We don’t call steak “cow,” or pork “pig” instead we make up other names for these animals to make the disconnect to what’s actually on our plates.”
Christiansen explains how marketing plays a role on what ends up on our dinner plates.
When asked what the former competitive BBQ chef missed the most about consuming meat, Christiansen said that he doesn’t feel that people miss eating actual meat, but rather the flavors.
“If you were to boil a chicken breast with no seasoning you would probably eat it, but not think it tastes very good,” said Christiansen. “It’s really about the seasonings and flavors.”
Christiansen smiled as he explained that at first he felt he was going to miss pepperoni pizza, and how he was even a person who used to make “Mmmm bacon,” jokes. This inspired him to start his own business in an effort to replace the cravings he once had.
“It didn’t feel like a huge challenge to me because I knew my way around the kitchen,” said Christiansen. “It felt like more of a fun puzzle.”
Leah Shuldiner a former barbecue chef competitive teammate had said she was disappointed initially in Christiansen’s decision.
“It was a bit of a shock at first to have Charles tell us he was becoming a vegan,” said Shuldiner. “I was sad to lose him as a member of our BBQ team, and I was also worried that he was giving up a part of his life that he really loved.”
From left to right: Christiansen (pre-beard), Cris Shuldiner, and Leah Schuldiner at BBQ competition. Picture Courtesy of Schuldiner
But after seeing how much her former teammate enjoyed cooking his vegan food, she felt happy for him.
“Selfishly, it’s been hard to support him becoming vegan because I want him back cooking with us, but I also support the choices he is making, and I’m always happy to taste-test his food, whether that’s bbq chicken, blueberry pizza, or vegan cheese,” said Shuldiner.
Christiansen said he feels that many are under the assumption that veganism is limiting, however he feels strongly that isn’t the case.
“Most people in their lives only eat 10 percent of the vegetables available, and it turns out there’s so many more to explore,” said Christiansen. “It unlocks your creativity in the kitchen.”
Christiansen feels that being on a plant-based diet is much more thoughtful and encourages anyone who enjoys cooking to try to explore different ways of creating the flavors that they grew up with.
Today, Christiansen is now proudly the owner of the “The Plant Deli,” where he recreates the same flavors he used to enjoy as a competitive BBQ chef. These days, instead of meat competitions, he attends fairs promoting his plant-based sausages, pepperoni, and even vegan cheese. He feels that if someone doesn’t want to do it for the animals, than maybe they should consider the health benefits of giving up meat.
“There’s no cholesterol in plant-based meat, and there’s the same amount of protein content within beans, tofu, and seitan,” said Christiansen. “I’m no doctor, but I can speak from my own experience and tell you that my cholesterol has gone down, and I have lost some weight.”
In 2017 a 52-week U.S. study conducted by Nielsen and published by foodnavigator-usa.com, a food industry analyst website, plant-based meat retail sales have continued to rise from a 6 percent increase from 2016, and went on to a 24 percent increase in 2018. The chart below demonstrates this data.
Christiansen compares health benefits of his plant-based meats to animal meat & discusses protein content.
Christiansen encourages people to go beyond the faux meats, and incorporate whole foods into their diet such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. He acknowledged that some people are against faux meat, but explained that eating anything besides animal products benefits one’s health and the environment.
Christiansen does feel that that the term veganism in general puts non-vegans on the defense, as it goes against something that is wildly normalized. He also agreed that some people do not have the means, or access to be vegan. That is one of the arguments he hears the most. However, Christiansen said he feels most of people within the United States does have a choice.
“I probably spend less now being vegan. BBQ meat can be very expensive, especially if you are buying meat from small farms, or packages that write humane on them,” said Christiansen. “In general I would say my wife and I spend less.”
Christiansen feels that habit plays a role in people’s diets. He feels that tradition and family dinners also affect what people normalize.
“When you grow up eating meat and potatoes, you don’t naturally tend to question it,” said Christiansen. “You just eat it because its seen as normal.”
Christiansen feels that the majority of what we eat is either already vegan, or easily can be made to be. He encourages people to make a little bit of effort analyzing the things they eat.
“I spent 44 years of my life eating meat, and if I can become vegan I believe almost anyone can,” said Christiansen.
Christiansen said that he understands that not everyone will become vegan for the animals but says he has hope that people will catch on when they learn about what consuming meat can do to their health, and the damaging effects animal agriculture has on the environment.
“If you think about it from a moral and ethical standpoint, the easier it will be to make this decision,” said Christiansen.