Growing up in Minnesota, Kristen Thibeault dreamed of cooking professionally, though it didn’t seem realistic. “Back in those days, Julia Child was really the only famous female chef and there wasn’t a Food Network and all that. So it was really kind of frowned upon and my parents kind of pressured me into a more traditional college environment,” says Thibeault, 46. She ended up in PR and marketing, working in the beauty industry, and keeping a close eye on what was being served at big events.
In 2008, Thibeault was diagnosed with breast and uterine cancer, requiring a double mastectomy and radical hysterectomy, and was inspired to revisit her dream. “It was a very long journey but I made it through, and kind of realized coming out of it that this is it. This is the one life I have, so I should really live my dreams and I should really do what I love,” she says.
Today the mother of two is the chef-owner of the vegan catering company Kombu Kitchen in Lynn, and earlier this month, sponsored by Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston, Thibeault became the first vegan to win a national mainstream food competition: She took top honors at San Pellegrino’s Almost Famous Chef Competition in Napa, Calif., winning $13,000 and a mentorship with a chef she has yet to decide on.
Q. Why did your diagnosis spur you to eat vegan?
A. My mom was actually diagnosed and passed away of cancer a few years before my diagnosis, and I just knew that eating and lifestyle was a big part of longevity. Early in my career, I worked with The Body Shop and Aveda, and if you know either of those companies, they’re both focused a lot on healthy living. I was really exposed to a lot early in my career about health and wellness and how it impacts us. So when I got diagnosed, I started looking at my own health, my patterns and lifestyle, and making changes. I was at Dana-Farber, where they have a wonderful holistic health program for women in recovery and women with cancer, and there’s a lot there that supports the fact that what we choose to eat and put in our bodies has an impact on us. So I very quickly started figuring out ways that I could live healthier.
Q. How did you learn about vegan cooking?
A. Looking at the proteins, I kept thinking to myself, there’s got to be a way to make this better. The more I researched and practiced and looked at it, I realized that tofu or seitan or tempeh or the myriad of plant-based proteins are not any different than an animal-based protein, in that it’s a delivery mechanism for really good flavor. So if you’re a great cook and you know how to cook chicken and you know the right techniques and seasonings, you can make chicken taste great. If you just throw a chicken breast into water and boil it, it’s not going to taste great. It’s the same thing with plant-based proteins. They taste only as good as the seasonings and the skill and the focus that the chef puts into them.
Q. Tell me about the winning dish at the Almost Famous Chef Competition.
A. I went up against lamb and spare ribs and I thought there was no way I could possibly win. But I had crafted a dish that I thought was not only delicious, but also interesting. I did a porcini-encrusted seitan. I called it vegan sweetbreads, because the texture really mimics sweetbreads. So it was kind of whimsical and a little bit irreverent.
Q. When you decided to start cooking, were you apprehensive about leaving a sure-thing career to pursue your passion?
A. It was definitely riddled with anxiety. In some ways, I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I felt like my life path had led me to this place of feeling like I had to make changes in my life. So I had some element of security in knowing that things were going to work out because I had come out of this place in my recovery where things had worked out for me. I had been given this second chance.
But at the same time the reality of changing your career and the economics of that is very scary and I gave myself a small amount of time, like I’m going to do this for one year. I’m just going to go as hard as I can and make this happen, and if it doesn’t happen within a certain time frame, OK, I tried. I’ll acknowledge that I did my best and it will be yet another experience in life that I can reflect on and be proud that I tried. The thing that really sits with me over this past year is the feeling of excitement over starting something fresh and really amazing. Even today I think if tomorrow suddenly weren’t to work out, I have an amazing period of time to look back on and it’s been such a great journey.