St. Albans Vegan Café Nourish Grew From a Love of Plant-Based Cheeses | Food + Drink Features | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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St. Albans Vegan Café Nourish Grew From a Love of Plant-Based Cheeses

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A plant-based burger and onion rings served with a Fresh Press apple cider at Nourish - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • A plant-based burger and onion rings served with a Fresh Press apple cider at Nourish

Last year, when Dara Lavallee joined a cadre of dairy devotees to take an online cheesemaking course, she was the only student choosing cultures and calibrating temperature to make cheese out of plants, specifically cream from soaked cashews. Instead of turning up their noses, her classmates were fascinated — and impressed.

"'That's beautiful!'" she recalled them exclaiming over Zoom when she cut into her wheel.

Lavallee had created what has become her signature brie — her proudest plant-based creation. For anyone who avoids eating dairy products, cheese is among the most challenging to substitute. Few alternatives have the right texture and tanginess. A taste of Lavallee's brie reveals that it does: It's a dead ringer in flavor and feel to the gooey French-style cheese.

Lavallee and her husband, Ric, started selling the brie and then blue- and feta-style cheeses online and shipping them across the country. Catalyst Coffee Bar in St. Albans stocked Dara's products in its cold case, and the couple developed a following.

When pandemic-related shipping delays left them with one too many ruined loads, the Lavallees decided to set up a physical storefront and expand their offerings made purely from plants.

In March, they opened Nourish café in the former Evelyne's on Center bakery at 15 Center Street in St. Albans. Among the prepared foods in the display case, Nourish sells Dara's cheeses, including a wedge of feta ($6.95) and a tub of chive-and-dill spread ($9.95), as well as breads and baked goods. The café also offers takeout meals; a few stools at counters facing the front windows allow customers to dine in.

The menu covers a range of standard American fare in plant form, including burgers, pizza, chicken wings, mac and cheese — which customers swear is the real thing — and even vegan poutine with air-fried potatoes. Dara crafts the Nourish burger ($9.95) from pea protein and makes a housemade sausage from a textured, soy-based vegetable protein, sprinkling in spices to get the flavors right. Her lasagna ($12.95) includes her own feta and ricotta, which she makes from pulverized almonds, and she can add any of her cheeses to Nourish flatbreads.

Some of Nourish's selections taste closer to their real-meat counterparts than others. The chili, a special item on the day I visited, boasted a hearty meatiness derived from the Beyond Sausage crumbles mixed in. The tuna salad, a blend of chopped artichoke hearts and capers with a little seaweed for umami flavor, lacked the requisite fishiness of actual tuna but made for a meal-worthy dip with Nourish's kalamata olive bread.

Ric and Dara Lavallee at Nourish - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Ric and Dara Lavallee at Nourish

For the Chikin Waldorf sandwich, Dara blends Mindful Chik'n with a dressing that's half plant-based mayonnaise and half tofu, lending a creaminess that balances the sweetness of the cranberries in the salad. Nourish also sells prepackaged brands: nonmeat deli slices from Mia and Plant Provisions, as well as Be-Hive pepperoni derived from seitan.

The dessert case bursts with cookies, cheesecakes and bars, such as chocolate espresso ($4.25), which incorporates tofu for a silky, mousse-like consistency — as rich as any full-dairy delicacy. Last week, in anticipation of Halloween, Nourish offered a cupcake topped with broken-glass sugar pieces and beet-based bloody drippings in the white frosting.

"We are supplying people what they want," Ric said. "We are trying to transition them to what they need to be healthy."

The Lavallees use the phrase "whole-food, plant-based," rather than "vegan," to describe Nourish's niche. "The term 'vegan' scares people away from the food," Ric said.

Many people still associate vegan eating with salads, bland tofu and off-tasting substitutes for animal products. Today, though, plant-based food manufacturers such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have broadened the appeal and reach of vegan options.

"In the last five years, we've seen tremendous innovation — some of it good, some of it not good," Ric said. Critics have argued that heavy processing and excess sodium offset the potential health benefits of some faux meats.

Good or not, the Lavallees credit the attention given to the new meat alternatives with convincing more people to eat more fruits, veggies, nuts and legumes. Some who had never considered giving up burgers and fried chicken are reasoning that they might be able to help their bodies without sacrificing flavor.

Sales of plant-based foods increased 27 percent in 2020 to $7 billion, according to a study funded by the plant-based foods industry and released in April. That dwarfed the 15 percent growth in overall U.S. retail food sales, the study found.

Louise Fitzgerald of Swanton is among the consumers driving that trend. After her husband had a heart attack in September, he upended his previous way of eating, she said last week as she picked up a few Nourish dishes for dinner — mushroom risotto with roasted vegetables ($10.45), which was a daily special, and Thai noodle salad, one of the couple's favorites.

Their old standby restaurants and dinner plates full of meat and dairy had to stop. Now, she drops by Nourish about twice a week.

"Our diet has definitely changed," Fitzgerald said. "This has been a godsend for us."

Nourish's owners met in 2005 in Atlanta, where Dara worked as a special education teacher and Ric sold Wi-Fi systems for a telecommunications company. She liked his pet dogs first, then him, she said.

They married a year later. Soon after, Ric decided he wanted more meaningful work. He trained as a paramedic and continues to work for the St. Albans ambulance service — for the satisfaction and for the health insurance coverage — while helping his wife with the café.

Housemade plant-based artisan brie and blue cheeses - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Housemade plant-based artisan brie and blue cheeses

Before getting her teaching degree in Georgia, Dara studied at Le Cordon Bleu, the revered culinary school in Paris. "And it's classic training, so I could cut up a whole pig," said Dara, who has been a vegetarian since she was 28. She then worked in a high-end restaurant and a cooking academy in Los Angeles.

The Lavallees, who are both 62, moved to Vermont in 2015. Dara started making cheese soon after taking a workshop on plant-based eating. On social media, she found a British cheesemaker using cashew cream and figured out the correct cultures, or bacteria, for specific kinds of cheeses — the same way she would for dairy versions.

Ric still consumed meat but, about five years ago, began thinking about the people he pronounced dead of cardiac arrest, some in their thirties. One day, he came home from his shift and asked Dara, "Am I next?"

Ric has type 1 diabetes and a family history of heart disease. Two weeks after taking that same workshop on plant-based eating, he ate his final meat-based meal of beer and chicken wings.

Not every plant-based food is healthy. Oreo cookies are vegan. So are French fries. At Nourish, the Lavallees emphasize health. Some of their products contain no oil and little or no sugar. Dara makes an oil-free hummus and a fruit-and-oat bar with no added sugar.

Plenty of nutrition experts tout the benefits of olive and avocado oils as healthier alternatives to butter. The Lavallees subscribe to the doctrine that all oils, which are fats, contribute to arterial inflammation and heighten the risk of heart disease.

"If you really want to learn about it, come on in," Ric said. "We will introduce you to a new world of food that will excite your taste buds."

Customers have traveled to Nourish from as far as Portland, Maine, and some from Burlington have become regulars, Ric said. The Lavallees plan to expand to a larger restaurant space with more seating, kitchen capacity to provide a week's worth of reheatable meals, and a place to host vegan wine-and-cheese tastings.

They also would like a separate plant-based cheese production facility so they can take on more wholesale clients — and Dara can continue to perfect her cultures and nurture her bloomy rinds.

"My goal," she said, "is to have a factory to make cheese."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Nourishing Fare"