Had Chef Donald Lemperle not been diagnosed with multiple myeloma (blood cancer) in 2005, there’s a good chance that VegeNation, one of city’s most popular plant-based restaurants, would not exist.
This eye-opening moment for the native of New York City’s Staten Island changed everything—including the way Lemperle lived his day-to-day life.
“I looked into meditating, eating a plant-based diet,” he says of his diagnosis. Ultimately, he opted to adopt a vegan diet and beat cancer on his terms. “I lost weight, I felt really good. As I made these changes, the protein levels in my blood decreased and it never got to a critical point. It also opened my eyes to how important your diet is—not only for your health, but also for the environment and the animals.”
Thus, the VegeNation concept was born.
Opened in April 2015, the plant-based restaurant Downtown is Lemperle’s vision of creating vegan food that is “accessible and good” realized.
“My idea was to create vegan comfort food,” he says of the menu, which includes savory dishes including a Chicken Pot Pie Gnocchi and Buffalo Cauliflower Wings. “It taps into so many cultures. There are so many things you can do without using meat or dairy.”
The path to VegeNation spanned nearly all of Lemperle’s life, starting in Staten Island at his parents’ small Italian restaurant. He climbed the culinary ranks in New York City, from busboy to executive chef, landing at NYC hot spots like Le Bernardin, the Quilted Giraffe and The Sign of the Dove before heading out west as a corporate chef for BR Guest Hospitality.
“Ask any chef what they want to do and they will say they want to open their own restaurant,” he explains. It was no different for Lemperle, whose hand was forced in 2010 at the height of the recession, when Morgans Hotel Group let the bank take over Asia de Cuba, where Lemperle was serving as executive chef.
“My tail was tucked between my legs,” he recalls. So he moved his family to Las Vegas to take a position with China Grill Management. There, he created a business plan for what would be VegeNation, presenting it to the company. “I told them this is the future of food, and explained why it benefits people and that every year it is growing. They said no.”
So, the 56-year-old headed to Downtown Project when they began funding restaurants. Business plan in hand, he staged a 12-course dinner at The Ogden.
“They really loved it,” he says of the dinner, which required him to stash food in nearby apartments because of the limited space available. “Later, they contacted me and told me out of all the chefs, I surveyed the highest and they were going to look for a location for me.”
Through a series of serendipitous events—like meeting VegeNation’s creative director and new partner Kelly Bennett—the restaurant opened on Earth Day 2015 and has been going strong ever since.
“VegeNation has raised awareness [about the vegan lifestyle] and has brought more people into the circle,” he says. “I pinch myself, I can’t believe it. I see a mixed variety of people coming in, people who aren’t vegan, exploring and going further.”
Recently, VegeNation opened its second location (10075 S. Eastern Ave.) in Henderson. After that, Lemperle hopes to open additional locations and continue to help fuel the plant-based movement.
“Food is the common denominator,” he says. “If people understand where food comes from and make the right choices, it’s a shift in humanity. [Veganism] isn’t just a trend, it’s a total lifestyle, and once people realize the benefits and pursue it, they will stick with it.”
For now, he’s helping them dip their toes in with his global vegan eats.