My health-conscious cousin got married in California several years ago, and the rehearsal dinner was held at a modern vegan restaurant in the city. All I can remember from the night is trying to stifle fits of giggles as my family made weird faces at each other in response to the unpalatable plates of food being served. We kept asking each other, “Why does vegan food have to taste like this? There must be a way to make it delicious.”
Enter Heather Goldberg and Jenny Engel, the sisters behind Spork Foods, an acclaimed vegan food company in Los Angeles, California, whose mission is to change the way people think about vegan food. Explains Heather, “Our focus is to take that hippie feeling out of vegan cuisine, and make it beautiful and texturally interesting—make it gourmet.”
Heather is three years older than Jenny, but the two are so close, they could almost be twins. The sisters couldn’t wait to finish up college so they could be in the same city and live together. They even went vegan at the same time, but in different cities and with different friends. “We have been vegan for about sixteen years. It’s our lifestyle through and through, including everything we put on our bodies, the clothes we wear, the way we live our lives, the way we eat, and the way we educate,” says Jenny. “We even look at the labels on makeup and confirm there are no animal products and no animal testing. We support local farms; we compost—Heather has a worm bin at home, so we’re always lugging scraps to her house. We use sustainable dishware or compostable containers if we have a big event.”
Spork Foods was born in 2007 from a love of the environment and animals. Heather was working at TreePeople, an environmental nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, and Jenny was studying environmental law at the University of California. Jenny started cooking to relieve the stress of school and realized she loved it so much that it was time to change course. Culinary school was her new path; she enrolled at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. Afterwards, when Jenny returned to Los Angeles, the sisters combined forces, as they had always planned, and started Spork Foods. Jenny adds, “Since we are so close, I figured we could educate each other as we went along. Heather is passionate about business, and I’m passionate about the culinary side, so we brought those together. And now we both do everything. We divided and conquered.”
Though they weren’t raised vegan, they were no strangers to carob or wheat germ, having grown up in the San Fernando Valley and shopping at Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Market. It took their parents a couple years (and a long, sad goodbye to fish) to hop aboard the vegan train, but they haven’t looked back since. Heather and Jenny are quick to sing the praises of their parents and their idyllic childhood in the San Fernando Valley. Heather reminisces, “We had this beautiful little childhood in the valley. Our parents are open-minded, special people. Our mom is an artist, and our dad is a textile salesman. There were always a lot of chairs in the kitchen, and we would sit around and watch Mom cook.” Adds Jenny, “Our parents sent us to culinary school when we were five or six. We’d go down the street to the school and learn how to make all sorts of things. We learned cooking techniques and how to handle knives so we weren’t afraid of them. I remember they would do a lot of hand-holding and lay out all the ingredients, and I wished they’d give up more control because I thought it was so fun to measure and put things together.”
Their parents also encouraged them to be entrepreneurs. And the sisters consider it a calling. (Says Heather, “Once we started the cooking classes, we knew and felt innately that this was our path.”) Their business quickly expanded into several realms, including catering, in-home healthy eating consultations, private cooking parties, and corporate training events. They’re also chef ambassadors for products like Vegenaise, a vegan mayonnaise, and Setton Farms pistachios. They create recipes and show consumers how to cook with the products. When asked how they juggle so many metaphorical balls, Heather reasons, “Some people are morning people and some are night people, and I’m an everything person. I want to wake up early and go to work, and then come home and spend time with my husband and stay out late.” Jenny adds, “We love what we do, and it doesn’t even feel like a juggle. Our mom comes over and does the dishes for us, and there’s staff that we have worked with for a couple years, and they’re like family to us. We have so much support.”
The name Spork Foods feels almost like a contradiction to the gourmet, vegan cuisine the sisters aspire to show people. But equally important to them was preserving their sense of playfulness and incorporating that into the name of their business. Heather explains the humorous name of their company: “A spork is a spoon and a fork, and it’s kind of funny. It brings us a smile.” The dual purpose of the utensil is also appropriately symbolic of their business, which embodies so much more than the act of cooking. Heather and Jenny are also passionate about building community. To help foster this, they set up a beautiful, formal dining table after each cooking class. Heather articulates why this is so important: “We have about twelve people in each class. They make friends, they form these bonds, and they feel supported by one another. And that’s an important aspect of what we do. We don’t want people to feel alone in this.”
Jenny giggles as she adds, “We have a lot of feelings.” She is referring to empathy, which they both have in spade—empathy for the planet, for animals, and for the emotional and physical health of their customers.
Running concurrently with their passion for community and fun is a desire to demonstrate that vegan food is both
delicious and innovative. One of their favorite dishes to make is potpie. Says Heather, “It’s a hearty, comforting, southern-style potpie with a biscuit topping. It has grains, protein, and vegetables. It’s a well-balanced dish. We use garbanzo beans, peas, and red bell peppers. And we cover it with a fluffy biscuit topping. One of the secrets to making a fluffy biscuit is to make your own vegan buttermilk by curdling almond milk with apple cider vinegar or lemon juice, so you end up with the very flaky texture on the top, which you scoop into it and it gives way to softness underneath.”
Especially in the fall, they favor using squash in a myriad of ways. Kabocha squash lends velvety richness to vegan mac and cheese, providing that creamy texture without adding all the fat and calories. They also stuff butternut squash with very flavorful lemony rice, and sometimes currants and pistachios. A woman who took their classes for several years started a company called Farmbox, which works with a variety of small, local farms to bring the farmers market to people. The sisters are one of her customers, and she drops off fresh produce, like the delicious, crunchy carrots that are pulled out of the earth that morning, or pounds of fresh tomatillos. You can’t beat fresh produce like that.
It’s not only clients who have soaked up this love for vegan food. Jenny laughs as she talks about her husband and breakfast: “I think the way my husband shows his love to me is via a breakfast sandwich. When he has time in the morning, he gets vegan sausage and a little vegan cheese and puts it in a spelt English muffin. He makes a special sauce that’s a secret even to me. I have to leave the kitchen while he makes it.”
All of their hard work and ambition has been noticed. When a publishing company saw an article about Spork Foods in the Los Angeles Times, they called the sisters the next day, and by the following week, they had a
book deal. It’s safe to say there are always projects on the horizon when it comes to this enthusiastic duo. They explain, “It seems disingenuous, but we’re being honest. We’re really driven by what we do. We want to
teach people how to make delicious, vegan food they can feel good about.”
Not only are their cuisine and cooking classes approachable, but their personalities also have the same warmth and inclusive nature. They assured me dance parties in their kitchen occur frequently. The next time you’re in Los Angeles, stop in to Spork Foods for some delicious potpie and friendly community—and if you’re lucky, you might catch Heather and Jenny cutting a rug beside the refrigerator.
For more info, visit sporkfoods.com.