St. Louis is now home to the nation’s first plant-based nutrition, culinary and lifestyle education center. The Center for Plant-Based Living debuted on Aug. 13 in Kirkwood, Missouri, featuring cooking classes and programs, a speaker series and much more.

The concept comes from Caryn Dugan, a.k.a. STL Veg Girl. In 2008, Dugan adopted a plant-based diet following her father’s untimely passing from cancer and her own diagnosis only 10 weeks later.

“That one-two punch really woke me up. I went to Dr. Google as we all do and started searching for things like cancer prevention, and that kept generating results that had something to do with a vegan diet,” says Dugan, who proceeded to attempt a new plant-based diet without prior experience in the kitchen.

“I was the most horrible cook in the world,” she says. “I took all the animal products out of my kitchen, threw it all in the dumpster and went to the grocery store. I had no idea what I was doing.”

It was only after attending a vegan cooking class with her husband at Whole Foods Market that she truly began developing a newfound passion for food and wellness. She soon became a cooking assistant for the classes, and when the instructor left in 2011, was asked to take her place. To become more knowledgeable in the field, she received a certification through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Ever since, Dugan has taught classes under the moniker STL Veg Girl for the Cancer Support Community of Greater St. Louis as well as in culinary education environments including Kitchen Conservatory and Dierbergs School of Cooking. Last year, she held a sold out, plant-based summit at Washington University for 350 participants.

“Opening a brick-and-mortar location seemed like a natural progression of the business,” says Dugan, who opened the center in honor of her father on the anniversary of his passing. “All the programs and classes I run outside of larger events will all be here under one roof.”

According to her website, she created the Center for Plant-Based Living with a simple mission of “A Plant On Every Plate” to focus on “the irrefutable health benefits of a plant-based diet – how to start, how to maintain and how to teach others.” The center’s goal is to assist a range of visitors, from those dealing with chronic illness to “plant curious” individuals.

The Center for Plant-Based Living fills an 800-square-foot space complete with a home kitchen for both hands-on and demonstration cooking classes. Events include everything from health and wellness classes and corporate team-building to advanced gourmet classes and a Forks Over Knives community program. A speaker series will include local chefs including Natasha Kwan of Frida’s Deli and the upcoming Diego's Mexican Restaurant and chef Rex Hale. 

Popular courses include a plant-based kitchen basics demonstration. Some examples of techniques Dugan enjoys teaching are how to make creamy dressings without dairy, how to correctly dress kale and how to cook gourmet recipes such as eggplant manicotti with tofu ricotta and cashew bechamel. For more information about class registration, visit the center’s website.

“I invite everybody to come in. You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian or on a plant-based diet. You don’t have to identify with any way of eating,” Dugan says. “If you just want to add plants to your plate, come in and we can work together.”

St. Louis Center for Plant-Based Living, 131 W. Jefferson Ave., Kirkwood, Missouri, 314.394.2063, cpbl-stl.com

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