Chef-Cindi-Chopped

“What does the meat really add to lasagna?” asks Cindi Avila as she shakes her brunette head almost knowingly.

Sitting in a booth at the vegan restaurant Blossom on the Upper West Side, the vegetarian chef, mother of two and entrepreneur takes a bite of her lentil rings, which look like eggrolls wading in green sauce. She has just come from dropping her children off at public school.

 

“I want people to know that vegetarian and vegan food can be really flavorful,” she says between bites. “That’s why I like places like this. I think a lot of people still think that vegetarian and vegan food equals not flavorful and not hearty and it’s not going to fill you up, and it’s 100 percent not true.”

 

But the Miami native who’s preaching to the meat-less doesn’t own a restaurant or has a cookbook. Her passion for vegetarianism has instead propelled a career that includes certification as a natural foods chef, appearances on several television programs, and now to running a public relation firm specializing in food health. But her real goals lie within revolutionizing the television industry to appeal to vegetarians, even being the first vegetarian chef to compete on Food Network’s popular “Chopped”.

 

The 40-something year-old’s first career was as a news anchor in small cities like Saint Joseph, Missouri, and Brunswick, Georgia before returning to Miami, where she had gone to college. After getting married to Mike Avila, the two moved to New York to pursue a more exciting television career, but she felt disillusioned with the news business.

 

“The news business just started to depress me because the news is so depressing, and it’s only gotten more depressing,” she says. “I started to think I went into the business to make a difference and now I think I’m not and I’m not having as much fun as I thought I would have, and what do I really love? I love vegetarian food and vegetarian cooking.”

 

Avila has sworn off beef since she was 15 years old, when a school project forced her to sign up for graphic mailings from animal-rights group PETA. They often depicted factories or cow slaughtering. “I was in Miami; I wasn’t in the Midwest so I had no idea what was really going on,” she says.

 

Eventually she gave up pork and chicken, also never being a fan of fish. Not a full vegan, she sometimes eats cheese and butter. Her husband is a pescetarian meaning he eats fish and their four and a half year-old and infant daughters have never even tasted meat.

 

In 2007, her on-camera background landed her an audition with TLC’s amateur cooking contest “Dinner Takes All.” In the show, five contestants cooked each other dinner in their homes over the course of five days, and then democratically voted on a winner. To her surprise and pleasure — as the only vegetarian — she won.

 

“But that…means that even people who are really skeptical of vegetarian food loved it,” she laughs. As a result, she felt motivated enough to earn professional training, and in 2008, she enrolled in New York’s Natural Gourmet Institute, a vegetarian culinary school in New York. Although they were at full capacity, she reveals that they squeezed her in because she was a journalist. “It was one of the greatest experience of my life,” she recalls.

 

She had just graduated culinary school in 2009 when an old coworker reached out to her via Facebook asking if she wanted to meet a friend who was casting for a new show on the Food Network called “Chopped”. “I was super excited to go on “Chopped” because I wanted to get a vegetarian cooking show on the Food Network and six years ago it was really hard…because it was all Paula Deen and Guy Fieri,” meaning butter and meat, Avila says. It’s easy to see her confidence in speaking, stemming from years in news casting. She’s articulate and authoritative, her hands refraining from gesturing as she talks.

 

 

The casting director was impressed with Avila’s television experience, making her a shoo-in. Three other — and male — chefs were chosen to compete with her on presentation, creativity and taste of a three-course meal compiled of pre-chosen ingredients, all in a timed event.

 

The filming began at 7 a.m. with an appetizer basket of asparagus, chorizo, button mushrooms and canned peaches that the contestant had to use. “She was trying very hard to give a different appearance as strong and focused, but she looked scared,” says fellow contestant Lucas Manteca, owner of café and general store The Red Store in New Jersey. The other contestant, Robert Burmeister, chef and owner of The Culinary Renegade Events & Catering in New York was impressed that she stuck with her vegetarian approach, saying, “I was really shocked when she went vegetarian on us all. She stuck to her guns and that scared me a little.”

 

Avila went with a trio of pureed beans. Although she couldn’t taste the sausage, she felt it “natural” to pair it with black beans. “Because I was a vegetarian I was like, oh, I have to go above and beyond,” she admits. “I have to try to be complicated with things.” And in the end, it was the 20-minute time limit rather than the meat that did her in. When the time ran out, she hadn’t figured out what to do with the peaches and they were left off the plate.

 

While the three judges applauded Avila for her dish’s distinct textures and flavors, she was still the first to be chopped. “I didn’t realize how heavily they were going to weigh that you didn’t use all the ingredients,” she sighs.

 

Although her stint on “Chopped” was short-lived — she was home by 12:30pm to her husband’s surprise — Avila’s meeting with its casting director catalyzed her career. “We hit it off and she cast me on the first season, and from there I’ve just kind of made a career of combining food and television and journalism,” Avila says, having worked with the same director for the past six years.

 

A friend of that casting director saw Avila on “Chopped” and pursued her to be in in Bravo’s “Pregnant in Heels,” where a pregnant Avila was followed around for a few months, guided by “maternity concierge” Rosie Pope who tried to have Avila overcome her fears of non-holistic hospitals.

 

Since then, Avila has been approached by several reality shows, including one Food Network venture that would put her on the road for over two months. Avila declined. “I turn them down now because I have kids and it’s just like if I’m not getting paid, why am I going to go away from my children and if its not advancing my career,” she says matter-of-factly.

 

Currently, she is on the other side of the table, casting participants for a new health food show that’ll air on the channel Pivot. The casting director friend approached her for assistance due to her connections in the food world. “It looks really easy to be on TV but there’s actually not a lot of people who are good on TV so you have a small pool to choose from of people who have actually been on TV and have the credentials to back up what they’re doing,” she says regarding casting and her own experience as a television chef, which she was in 2007 on KHOU-TV and with her self-produced “Green Goddess” short series that aired partially on NYC-TV.

 

“Sometimes it was nerve-wracking doing breaking news but if I’m talking about food it just comes natural,” she says about herself on camera.

 

In 2010 after being a spokesperson for several vegetarian companies with hopes of her “getting her name out there” to get closer to earning her own show, Avila is also running her own public relations firm Green Goddess Public Relations, which starts her day at 6:30am. “I don’t need to look up stuff, I know it from the top of my head,” she says about her helpful knowledge of the vegetarian food industry. “I try to stay true to vegetarian and vegan clients. I would never take on a steakhouse.” Somehow, she always manages to turn the conversation to be about clients she represents.

 

Still, she has not given up on TV. She and a friend are working on pitching a cooking show entitled “The Herbivore and the Carnivore” to the Food Network. The idea was originally all vegetarian but she added the carnivore chef to appeal to more viewers. If she earns the show, she won’t give up the PR firm.

 

But she has consistent difficulty with getting pitches picked up due to the small percentage of viewers who are interested solely in vegetarian cooking. According to a 2012 National Harris Poll, only four percent of the U.S. population is at least vegetarian.

 

But she’s not about to give up, and for inspiration Avila remembers what “Chopped” celebrity chef judge Alex Guarnaschelli told her, “I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re great and … you remind me of myself; you’re really ambitious.”