By Stephanie Villafuerte, Livingston Fellow 2015

As part of my Livingston Fellowship activities, I decided that I wanted to learn how to cook. This originated from the bigger idea of exploring how to create balance between my work world and my personal life. I believed more balance in my life could create longevity for me as a leader–you know, “clear the cobwebs, take a little breather” from the hustle and bustle that has always been my world.  To my lawyer mind–the end goal was clear and logical–anything that facilitates my ability to work better or harder has to be a good thing–even if it means taking a time out.

What I did not anticipate is that the experience would be far more profound than a professional self-improvement project. The experience would serve to re-ignite my soul, my senses, and my passion for learning about the world around me.

almostveganThe scene–The Almost Vegan Cooking School in Centennial Colorado.

I chose a vegan cooking school because one of my daughters became vegetarian and another is gluten intolerant. I knew that my days as a working mom, serving dry chicken breasts and pastas were over.

The owner of the cooking school is Debbie Devore. She runs the school out of her home.


Debbie’s Kitchen

Debbie has a huge kitchen that seats about 15 students every Saturday morning. When you arrive in her kitchen, you are met with dozens of amazing smells. Fresh, colorful food is simmering on the stove tops and the oven is hard at work. There are place settings for each student–cheerful napkins and place mats topped with bright pieces of china. Debbie stands at the front of the kitchen, apron on, ready to lecture on the day’s topic.

Debbie is a ray of sunshine and loves teaching others about the health benefits of plant based nutrition. She is warm, authentic and enthusiastic. She makes you feel like a family member and a friend.

With a twinkle in her eye, and a bright smile–Debbie begins each class by saying, “Welcome to my Home.” The first time she said this I was touched–I felt like I made an immediate connection with her.  I was comfortable, eager and excited to be present.  I knew I had picked the right class for me.

My fellow classmates and I met for five weeks. Each week we studied a new topic: Rise and Shine Breakfast foods, Our Daily Greens, Whole Grains, Plant Protein-Beans and Legumes, and Vegetables–the Center of our Plate.

Debbie provided an animated lecture on the topic and prepared her recipes while we looked on and eventually sampled her amazing dishes. She taught me how to slice and dice, how to prepare whole grains and beans in the most nutritious way possible, and the health benefits of the vegan diet. She also introduced me to foods that are only available in international food markets. The first time I ventured into the Asian food market in Aurora, I spent three hours! It was fascinating to see so many foods that I never knew existed. I loved spending time there with people from all walks of life and trying new things. It was exhilarating!

creationsAfter spending time with Debbie and my classmates, I began to look at food so differently. I looked at food as a healer, a way to bring joy to others, a way to nourish and honor our bodies and the environment.

During our classes, fellow students would talk about why they were vegan or vegetarian. Many talked about beating cancer and other chronic diseases such as diabetes. Some talked about how they used to take dozens of medications and now took none. One woman talked about how she, her husband and daughter each lost over 100 pounds –she credits the vegan life style with saving her family’s lives.

Other students said they were vegan because they wanted to have a smaller environmental footprint. They talked about animal cruelty and the impact that raising animals for food has on the environment. They talked about wanting to reduce the number of pesticides and GMO’s in their diets and their children’s diets.

Over the course of my experience, I began to reflect on how much I had taken food for granted. It was always present. I never thought much about what I ate, how much I ate, who it impacted or what impact it even had on me. I also never took the time to think about how many human beings worked to provide me with these daily gifts on my dinner table.

These cooking classes became important exercises in self-reflection and in the significance of connectedness. I felt connected with my fellow students and their willingness to share their personal journeys with me. I felt connected to the food, as I would select food, dice it, watch it simmer.

The surprising lesson I learned is about connectedness. In the food world, it is easy to become disconnected when we don’t see how our food is grown, harvested, shipped, produced or packaged. It is easy to lose all appreciation for the experience.

I developed an appreciation for food and the community around it. I learned that we all are connected by this need to eat and nourish ourselves. I learned that we can walk more gently in the world–being kinder to animals, the environment, ourselves and to each other.

When I think about this experience and its impact on me as a leader—I would say it is simply this–take time and examine everything–be open to listening and learning–and of course, never forget to eat!

Learn more about the Livingston Fellowship Program.