Plant-based foods educator returns to school, fine-tunes skills for ‘food revolution’ (with video)

City College student, solutions-minded vegan foods advocate Liz Gary focused on promoting a plant-based foods diet


Book Arts professor Mary Singer, right, instructs student Liz Gary, left, on her first book project of the semester, which she hopes to incorporate in her culinary labs with the community, March 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Guajardo/CityTimes Media

Marco Guajardo, Multimedia Journalist

Pizza night arrived at the Point Loma Library culinary lab and Liz Gary’s plan was already in motion.

The behind-the-scenes co-conspirator recruited by Gary had executed his part of the deal.

The pupil Gary dispatched for the rendezvous hand-off was already walking back along Voltaire Street to deliver the promised goods.

While she distracted her audience to buy time, Gary waited on her mark to push the button.

This wasn’t any ordinary pizza night.

Two weeks before this developing March 2019 scene, the culinary instructor entered through the doors of The Venetian, a family-owned Italian restaurant a block away from the library that is known for its traditional menu of iconic plates featuring whole servings of full-flavored meats and cheeses.

She had a bold proposal in mind.

Knowing what she was up against, Gary introduced herself directly to the chef and owner of the restaurant.

“And I went in,” she said, remembering that day, “and I said, ‘Hey, will you make my class some vegan pizzas?’”  

That night, Gary and the Venetian struck an unusual deal, one that at first, the chef resisted.

But Gary’s plan was multifold.

Her goal, the same that anyone would find her striving for in all of her spirited interactions, was to prove to the world that a plant-based diet can seamlessly supplant the standard American diet.

The night of class, Gary arranged to have a student walk the freshly baked vegan pizzas from the Italian restaurant into the library’s community room where the cooking class awaited.

Gary cued the music and as the stacked pizza boxes floated in through the community room entrance, Dean Martin’s 1953 song “That’s Amore” played out on the speaker: 

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore. …

The delivery hit home.

Traditional Italian melodies drew the students to the unveiling of the savory pizzas. The attendees gathered and passed out the samples while talking, laughing, singing along and loving the pies.  

Inspired by their instructor’s taste-test offering, the students proceeded to throw their own pizza dough that night to make meatless dairy-free pies.

“It was all perfect,” Gary said of the way her plan was executed. “Everyone was delighted, there were people singing and having a great time – delicious, educational and entertaining.”

Such is the experience when the vegan proponent runs the show, as she always thinks outside the (pizza) box. 

Already an established culinary educator and vegan foods advocate, Gary is actively developing her creative skills in promoting viable vegan alternatives across San Diego County.

This spring, Gary enrolled in Book Arts, one of City College’s graphic design courses, seeking to advance her page layout skills on a computer screen for a forthcoming book project.

Liz Gary prepares the book cloth dimensions in class for her first project of the semester, March 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Guajardo/CityTimes Media
Liz Gary prepares the book cloth dimensions in class for her first project of the semester, March 2, 2023. Photo by Marco Guajardo/CityTimes Media

To her surprise, she found a creative hands-on study in constructing numerous styles of interactive tangible books using a variety of materials in unique designs.

The course description emphasizes combining the elements of visual design, physical structure and the expressive potential of the artist.

The idea is to incorporate graphic design in the book art to bolster the students’ portfolios, according to professor Andrea Singer.

“What (graphic art) does is it enhances the experience of the user,” Singer said. “Every time you can make something more interactive, your user, your audience, is more engaged, and honestly, that’s one of my primary objectives.”

A sample of the coursework reveals an assembly of different forms of hardcovers, called structures, wrapped in a variety of distinctly textured and designed book cloths.

The manner in which the pages are assembled determines the build of the spine and serves as the book’s distinguishing feature, depending on the graphic artist’s vision and purpose.

Some page construction styles featured in the class include accordion fold, stiff leaf and envelope storage.

Garys said the stiff leaf model, “makes me think of consulting on custom menu designs, kids books and teaching vegan cooking with recipe collection.”

The practical possibilities for Gary in this medium, coupled with the creativity of her plant-based savoir-faire, are extensive.

The book arts student envisions applying the accordion fold page style to build a compare-and-contrast presentation with a timeline on how cow’s milk is made on one side and how plant-based milks are made on the other for exhibition.

The envelope method inspires Gary to construct a vegan bingo leadership guide with playing cards inserted into the storage slits.

An instructional vegan-themed Dia de los Muertos altar display using traditional Mexican recipes on stiff leaf pages is already a work in progress for the prolific advocate.

“I’m enrolled in the graphic arts program exploring the classes that will help me get the tools I need to be successful,” Gary said. “And I’m finding them here.”

The tools she’s gathering at City are morsels of a larger banquet of accomplishment she is continuously expanding on.

The two-time PETA Compassionate Activist Award winner’s resume reveals a thorough participation in the local plant-based movement that seeks to move society on from the standard American diet of an entrenched reliance on animal-based and processed food products.

The culinary arts instructor holds a Master of Arts in Management and teaches culinary labs like the one featured as part of that memorable 2019 pizza night at local library branches in Point Loma, Coronado, and Downtown. 

But that barely scratches the surface of her endeavors. 

The intrepid advocate also organizes animal-free cooking clubs at public schools and churches spanning southern San Diego up to the central areas of the county.

Gary’s plan for the schools is to take all the vegan club cookbooks she has advised on and turn them into “Master Vegan Club Cookbooks” to publish in the near future.

In addition, Gary has collaborated with supermarket chains such as Northgate Market and Jensen’s Foods to introduce hundreds of vegan recipe alternatives.

Using grant funds from VegFund to influence recipe changes in commercial bakeries, Gary successfully persuaded Northgate Markets on 43rd Street and in Barrio Logan to replace their Mexican sweet bread’s traditional pork lard with vegetable shortening for a vegan club event.

“I ordered 500 vegan pan dulces for students at Lincoln High and then another 500 for Chula Vista,” Gary said. “The kids loved the vegan version – it’s the same – and no pigs required.”

Her approaches to inspiring lifestyle changes range from writing grants, recipes, and books to organizing creative vegan-themed takes on sponsored food fairs, fashion shows, cooking competitions and sampling events.

She has even broken vegan cooking records.

The Guinness Book of World Records now has an entire vegan category, which opens a realm of possible records for Gary to break.

“I’ve made the world’s biggest vegan sub sandwich,” Gary said.

With the help of product sponsorship attained by Gary’s grant, the undertaking began at one San Diego high school vegan club, which succeeded in making a six-foot-long sandwich. 

The club advisor then passed the baton to the next vegan school club, which matched the previous club’s sandwich size, with a third taking on the challenge to make a 16-foot sub, winning them the record for the longest vegan sandwich. 

Gary was consequently recognized with her first of two PETA Compassionate Activist Awards.

Her second award was received via her collaboration with a biology teacher at Southwest High School in which they hosted a Vegan Fashion Show and Food Fair.

“It was a first of its kind and a huge success,” Gary said. “Later PETA honored me individually and I got to meet (PETA president) Ingrid Newkirk here in San Diego in March of 2020.”

While acclaim and standards-setting provide her with due publicity and gratification, the food educator knows firsthand that the road to societal transformation involves more roadblocks than openings.

Her experiences include a fair share of encounters with “vegan phobic” types, “but it’s amazing how it just continues to unfold,” she said. “It’s happening, and the right people, places, and things keep coming together for success.” 

Through her struggles, she realizes her skills need to continue evolving to achieve the farthest-reaching accomplishments.  

The plant-based foods advocate is in the midst of a technical calibration through one of two graphic arts programs she has enrolled in the last three years.

The overarching goal is for Gary to help herself in developing, and ultimately publishing, her own forthcoming book titled, “Black Belt in Tofu: Today’s Plant Based Protein Rich Alternative to Meat, Seafood, Eggs, and Dairy.”

The book is a chronicle of sorts, 25 years in the making, born of Gary’s wide-ranging culinary consultation and education in public and private spaces.

A decade of those endeavors leading up to today has Gary expressly focused on vegan cuisine promotion.

“Black Belt in Tofu” started out as a project at High Tech High Elementary Explorer Elementary School before COVID hit. 

The cooking instructor was giving tofu presentations to each grade level with the usual intention of compiling the recipes with photographs and turning the cumulative effort into a cookbook for the school.

With the pandemic causing schools to close in 2020 and derailing the High Tech High cooking program, Gary started morphing her work into what the book is today – almost 200 recipes of the four major flavor profiles referenced in the title.  

The tofu book is a comprehensive presentation of the soy-based food as a versatile staple to any diet, demonstrating Gary’s mastery of its universal application alluded to in the title.

She tested the recipes on hundreds of people in public libraries, local churches, and schools, claiming to have achieved broad public approval.

The book’s introductory section begins with myth-busting tofu’s many misconceptions, as well as the history and role of soy in the world today. 

Including references that outline soy’s contribution as a vital food source, the book illustrates how, for thousands of years, civilizations were not subject to the standard American diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. 

Gary doesn’t shy away from adding her signature interactive element by including a “Black Belt in Tofu” certificate program via online activities and an exam. 

Compiling a masterclass in tofu’s culinary applications resulted organically from Gary’s efforts. However, the visual presentation and marketing aspects of the book were points of improvement she caught at a fortuitous moment.

Gary had a critical realization one day when she attempted to digitally share one of her high school cookbook compilations with participants at Lincoln High.

“The files were so big I had trouble sharing them and I didn’t know anything about page layout,” Gary said. “My goal was self-publishing, (but) I was having a hard time with layout and file size.”  

In an attempt to address those shortcomings, the author enrolled in the Digital Media program with the College of Continuing Education a few months before the pandemic would ultimately obligate her to reimagine her advocacy as an author.

Gary started the Digital Media program in December 2019 and completed her certificate in 2021.

The following fall, with her book a fully developing concept, Gary continued her graphic design development and took a City College typography class, proceeding to enroll in this spring’s book arts course with Singer. 

The book class has given the culinary artist inspiration for new artistic projects that will help to promote the tofu book and more.

“You know, education is like the spark that you need sometimes,” Gray said. 

That spark is exposing Gary to mentors with professional backgrounds in digital production who are helping her develop familiar concepts to present them in innovative ways.

“I’m learning and coming up with skills that help me make my vision become a reality,” Gary said. “It’s about taking a concept and giving it life, and that’s what we can do here when you create these books as art.”

Gary will begin her in-person library seminars in early spring and has an extensive lineup of promotional activities, events, and ideas to keep observers engaged.

The emerging author will continue thinking outside the box, ensuring her interactions stay delicious, educational and entertaining.