I grew up eating meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner: huevos con chorizo, huevos con weenie, lechón. As a chef, I can safely say that meat is my life. My wife, on the other hand, has been vegetarian her entire life.
When we first met, we hit it off right away. We geeked out on the universe, planets, and general philosophy. I knew I had met the girl of my dreams. For our first date, I wanted to cook for her but I knew she wasn't the type of girl that you invite over to your house on the first date, so I took her out to my favorite Korean BBQ spot instead. It was the next best thing to cooking at home.
My mom always taught me to keep the restaurant a surprise for as long as you can, so I picked her up and we rolled out. As we parked, I noticed that she started to show signs of being really uncomfortable. When we sat, I ordered everything but the kitchen sink: intestines, octopus, pork belly, chicken, and bulgogi. She looked even more distressed after that.
"I have something to tell you," she says.
I was prepared for anything since I really liked her.
"I don't eat meat."
When I heard those words, I was in shock. Where I come from and how I was raised, I might as well have been dating an alien. It was uncharted waters for me since I'd never dated a vegetarian in my life. It was more than a big deal to me. How was this going to work? How were we going to share plates whenever we ate out?
The secret is accepting, embracing, and respecting each other for who we are and what we eat.
I excused myself and went to the restroom. As the good momma's boy that I am, I immediately called my mom for some quick advice: "Ma! No come carne!"
My mom responded, "It's OK! Everyone is different, and as long as she doesn't try to convert you, everything will be OK."
I went back to our table and I asked my future wife, "Are you OK with me eating meat? I eat quite a lot of it." The amazing woman that she is, she responded, "Of course not. If that's who you are, that's who you are. I respect you." I ended up canceling our order, drinking sake with her all night, and having the time of my life.
As our relationship developed, I started realizing that compromise was going to be the name of the game. Yes, I grew up in a Hispanic family that valued sharing plates of meat-filled food with each other, but I also knew that she is a devout vegetarian Hindu. We were complete opposites. Nonetheless, Who was I to tell her how to eat? Like all differences in relationships, we can either celebrate or resist them. I celebrated hers. I started sharing vegetables with her because her happiness was the most important thing to me.
Food is love—not racism, extremism, or elitism.
As a result, I became healthier. I'm eating more vegetables than ever. Speaking from a chef's perspective, having a spouse who is vegetarian-almost-vegan has made me cook my plant-based dishes with as much love as a lamb shank. I have realized that food is supposed to bring us together, not divide us. In the current political climate, this realization couldn't ring truer. We all need food to survive. Food is love—not racism, extremism, or elitism.
Now, half of our refrigerator at home is filled with chorizo, foie gras, and steaks, and the other half is filled tempeh, tofu, and seitan. Whenever we go out to eat, we skip the whole "what are you craving?" bit and just look for somewhere that has vegetarian-friendly options that are beyond salads. It's not fair for her if I'm eating a juicy tomahawk steak and she is stuck eating lettuce.
To date, we have never had an argument about food.
It is not worth walking away from your potential soulmate just because of diet beliefs
When we had our daughter, we both came to the decision that she was going to eat meat. If she decides to stop eating meat when she gets older, I'm going to support her with that decision, too.
The secret is accepting, embracing, and respecting each other for who we are and what we eat. To any other omnivore chefs who are falling in love with a man or woman who is a vegan or vegetarian, know that it is not worth walking away from your potential soulmate just because of diet beliefs.
As told to Javier Cabral
Chef Mario Christerna is the chef and owner of The Briks in downtown Los Angeles. For more information, visit his restaurant's website.