It all started in the late 1970s, when I was a curious and compassionate little boy growing up in Detroit. I had an inherent love of animals; the natural world; and fresh, healthy foods. Born lactose intolerant, I was unable to eat any dairy products without major digestive distress. Lucky for me, my mother was a super-dedicated health nut, giving me soy formula and driving two hours to Ann Arbor every Sunday afternoon to pick up organic produce and natural products from small specialty markets that carried farm-fresh foods. She would also frequently visit the biggest farmers market in Detroit, Eastern Market, to pick up locally grown produce and artisan products. As a result, I was a really healthy vegetarian for the first few years of my life.
Over time, though, through the strong urging of my pediatrician, combined with seeing my friends’ Happy Meals and other fun, brightly packaged foods, I slowly fell off the veggie wagon and was swept into the Standard American Diet. For the next 15 years of my life, I consumed anything and everything that was put in front of my face, just as long as it looked cool and tasted good! Drive-through fast food runs for gooey seven-layer burritos, late-night eating with greasy double cheeseburgers, binging on fantastically fluorescent junk food candies—these were all commonplace activities that felt completely normal to me. Like most teenagers, I didn’t think this was weird, because everyone else was doing it. As a track sprinter and varsity cross-country runner in high school, I felt physically invincible and blissfully ignorant to what I was putting in my body.
Then, when I was 18 years old, my grandfather was diagnosed with a metastasized tumor—a remnant from his first bout with prostate cancer 30 years earlier. I didn’t know it at the time, but his diagnosis would have a profound and lasting impact on the rest of my life. Watching my grandfather—the strong, reliable patriarch of our family—slowly wither away and die was mentally unsettling and emotionally painful for me to witness. After he lost his second battle with cancer in 1995, I wanted to learn more about the origins of disease and find out why people were getting sick for seemingly no reason. At the time, there was a lot of information coming out in the media about mad cow disease and its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The more I learned about factory farming, the less I wanted to eat and live the way I did. It was heartbreaking and horrifying. The thought hit me: not only could the overconsumption of processed meat, cheese, milk, and eggs lead to life-threatening diseases, but this way of eating might also be massively contributing to global warming and environmental pollution.
After more than a year of detailed and exhaustive research, I began experimenting with my diet, gradually eliminating one animal product at a time. Over the course of three years, I transitioned to become fully vegan at the age of 20. I remember feeling like I was the only vegan in Detroit. Honestly, I was probably one of a dozen! It was a scary decision, but it resonated deeply with me. When I told my mom I had decided to be vegan, bracing myself for the inevitable backlash, surprisingly, she just said, “Okay, but just make sure you’re doing it in a healthy way.” In fact, several months later, she actually decided to become vegan herself! Fast-forward a few years, and more friends and family members are eating primarily plant-based, organic foods. It’s been a true gift to watch them open their minds and hearts and take greater responsibility for their health and longevity. Little did I know that the decision to be vegan would not only affect my personal health and the health of my loved ones but also provide a passionate career direction for the future.
In my early 20s, after I completed my college education in marketing and theatre, I bounced around from job to job. In my heart, I really wanted to be an actor, comedian, and singer, but I settled for the cold comfort of a steady paycheck in the advertising world as a copywriter. After several years in advertising, I felt wealthy in my bank account but not in my soul. So after five years in the trenches, I quit my job, packed my bags, and did some much-needed soul-searching in Central America and Europe. It felt so liberating to give myself the space to explore and reimagine my life. By the end of that year, I made good on a childhood dream and moved to Los Angeles. I landed in Hollywood and started auditioning for acting roles and bands to play with. Nothing seemed to stick, and after a few months I found myself wondering how I was going to pay the rent. As fate would have it, I discovered a vegan culinary school in Northern California called the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute. When I saw their curriculum and chef’s training program, I felt instantly compelled to drive up to the Bay Area and see what it was all about. I packed up my electric-blue Honda Prelude with a few outfits, some chef’s knives, a book of CDs (full of ’80s heavy metal and Motown classics), and drove up to Fort Bragg.
After graduating from Living Light, I began a journey into the culinary arts that led me back to Los Angeles, to a start-up café in my native Detroit, to an assistant chef position at the Jivamuktea Café in New York City with one of my future culinary mentors, Matthew Kenney, then to a vegan café in Silicon Valley, and finally back to Los Angeles. During my first few years as a professional chef, I definitely got a crash course in the tumult of the restaurant world. I started a few small businesses, including a raw food catering company, a boutique copywriting firm, and a private chef agency for celebrity clients. None of those ventures, though, truly fulfilled my deep desire to be on stage or in front of a camera, teaching others how to make healthy, vibrant, delicious food.
A few years after grinding it out with the catering business and private consulting, I was asked to cater an online launch for David Wolfe’s new event, The Longevity Now Conference, in the summer of 2009. That day, I was given a golden opportunity to start my speaking career and lecture to thousands of people in the global online audience. That experience jump-started my media career, which now includes a successful YouTube channel, The J-Wro Show; books; DVDs; teaching programs; and speaking tours. I was finally able to combine all of my talents in acting, marketing, presenting, and the culinary arts to create a potent amalgam that inspires change and transformation in others