Her culinary skills may be one of Bermuda’s best kept secrets, but for vegetarians and vegans whose choices are limited at local restaurants, her cafe and catering businesses are household names.

Tucked in a small section of ABC Natural Foods on King Street in Hamilton you’ll find a menu like no other attracting a steady flow of patrons. It is a hub of choices that range from Bean Chilli, Haystacks, or Steak n Takes to Ezeikiel, Lentil or Nutty Oat Burgers with fresh smoothies.

Days start early at Cafe Eden with breakfast and lunch specials made strictly without meat. Instead of scrambled eggs you’ll find scrambled tofu and vegetarian cheese with no dairy content.

Contrary to its name Simply Green is not a cleaning agent, it’s one of their most popular smoothies made from spinach and fresh fruits. If you’re not a big fan of dark green vegetables it looks like it tastes awful but it’s actually quite good. Surprisingly, you don’t even taste the spinach, all you taste is the natural sweetness of the fruit.

For Cheryl (Virgil) Kerr, also known as Sistah Saute, specializing in a vast array of vegetarian and vegan cuisine is a way of life. Raised as a vegetarian she learned early in life that there’s a host of myths and misconceptions about vegetarian and vegan diets.

With 30 years under her culinary belt through Personally Yours Catering, she decided to expand her business two years ago to introduce healthy veggie options to an under-served market.

In recent years that market appeal is growing to reach an increasing number of meat eaters with diet restrictions due to medical and other health concerns.

“The response has been very good and surprising to many, as people are always looking to improve the quality of their health. Many people also venture into the cafe purely out of curiosity,” said Ms Kerr.

“I’ve seen a great deal of change over the years in people’s outlook, perception and habits towards the consumption of meat for various reasons such as health, religion, and ethics.

“As more information becomes readily accessible and health issues become more of a concern, people are increasingly looking for healthier and delicious food options without meat.”

Her advice to critics who say veggie meals are bland or boring she said: “Just try it, you’ll like it. Most people are very surprised to learn of the endless variety of delicious options available in vegetarian and vegan diets.”

Passionate about “cooking period”, she decided to pursue it as a career professionally. After graduating from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama, she attended the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York before working as a chef at various hotels abroad.

Experimenting with vegetarian foods from a very young age, eventually she returned home to open Island Hut, a vergetarian restaurant serving locals and tourists alike for eleven years.

For the past 30 years, she has run Personally Yours Catering to serve vegetarian and vegan food at a wide variety of private events from large wedding receptions to small intimate dinner parties. And in recent years she has also seen more and more visitors who are vegetarians or vegans come through Cafe Eden’s doors.

Following a short visit during the lunch time rush, it was clear that her vegetarian version of a Steak n Take is one of her most popular signature dishes. The Haystack, she said runs a “very close second”.

While substitute meat products are not one of my favourites, the mini version of her Steak n Take is not bad. It’s light and served with a special sauce that lifts the flavours mixed with lettuce and tomato to new levels.

High demand for another customer favourite served once a week was pushed to the regular menu. “People kept asking for our Bean Chilli daily to the point where we felt like we were being harrassed,” said Ms Kerr.

“We used to serve it only on Wednesdays as a special but now we serve it daily with vegetarian cheese on top as an option, with lettuce, tomato and guacamole. We also sell a lot of Nutty Oat Burgers, Ezeikiel Lentil Burgers and Double Veggie Burgers.

“The Haystack is like a Mexican taco salad is another favourite. It has tortilla chips multigrain or regular chips on the bottom with our homemade Bean Chilli on top.”

Using social media is also an integral part of her business with regular updates on Cafe Eden’s Facebook Page. “I like to put the menus up to three times a week so people know what the specials are.

“It’s probably is one of Bermuda’s best kept secrets although I’m trying not to keep it a secret. We’re working on all of that with postcard flyers that we’re hoping to get out to the public in a mass mailing as well.”

Trained in areas of healthy dietary practices she insists that eating whole foods without meat maintains higher energy levels. “Your food is utilised and processed better than with meat. A lot of people don’t realize when meat gets in your digestive system it doesn’t fully break down for almost seven days. So it sits in your system while it’s trying to be digested.

“With beef, everybody wants a nice piece of steak – that’s all well and good. But what do cows eat? Cows eat grass so you’re getting your proteins second hand, you’re getting it from an animal that already got its protein from plant sources.”

She also noted that humans by design were not meant to consume meat. “First of all our teeth were not designed to eat meat. Look at any canivore animal – lions, bears, whatever, they have fangs. They have sharp teeth in the front that’s meant for ripping and tearing,” said Ms Kerr.

“Humans have grinders just like any other leaf eating animals because we’re only meant to grind and mash, we’re not meant to rip and tear.”

But she said it’s the high energy levels fuelled by vegetarian and vegan diets that makes all the difference. “You’re thinking is clearer when your body is healthier and lighter and it’s not bogged down with a digestive issue.”

Admittedly she said there was a time when she ate meat on a regular basis. “As a Seventh Day Adventist, both of my parents were vegetarians before any of us children were born, so we were raised that way.

“Like most children you go through your little stage, so when I was away in high school and college I did eat meat. But as I got older I really understood the benefits of being a vegetarian so I stopped eating meat.

“I raised my daughter as a vegetarian the same way my parents did, and she does her little chicken thing also but we still understand the benefits. I may occasionally eat Bermuda fish, but that’s about it,” she said.

To help meat eaters make the transition to a whole grain healthy diet, she also published a book last year entitled Soulfood with Sistah Saute which details techniques for vegetarian cooking and offers a host of alternatives to unhealthy eating habits.

“I wrote it for people who don’t really understand or know about vegetarian and vegan diets, and they want to learn more about it,” said Ms Kerr. “It teaches you how to make your own vegtarian meats but it also teaches you about other things that are out there like tofu.

“You can learn the whole gamut then you could decide whether or not you want to go cold turkey and jump all the way over here and just do full a full healthy diet, or start gradually and build up to it.

“Most of what I have is vegan and homemade so I do my own mixes. Some things I do use the vegetarian meat substitutes,” said Ms Kerr.

Those substitutes include basic vegetable protein products, some of them are processed and very high in sodium.

“We’ve gotten to a point where our diets and our mouths are used to a lot of salt and a lot of sugar,” said Ms Kerr. She noted that meat substitutes were initially developed by John P Kellogg “to help meat eaters make the transition to a whole grain healthy diet”.

“What happened is most people got stuck on that bridge eating the processed substitutes. Look what’s happened to Kellogg’s cereals, you can look on any grocery store shelf now and find a Kellogg’s cereal box that’s full of sugar, but that wasn’t his original vision.

“Things have become more commerialized, and it’s the same thing with a lot of the vegetarian meat substitutes that are processed, they’re very high in sodium at times because they’re trying to give you the flavours that you’re used to.”

In any case, Cafe Eden continues to attract a growing number of meat eaters looking for healthier options, although some venture in reluctant to try something on the menu.

“We have nutty oat burgers, black bean burgers, the Ezeikel burger which is a lentil burger all of those I make, the vegetarian fish cakes, the tofu I scramble every morning, my point is to try to introduce the public to it,” said Ms Kerr.

“A lot of times if all you have up there is an oat burger or a grain burger people are reluctant to try it. But if you have a veggie dog or something like that they’re more willing to try that, and then you introduce them to other things.”

Two years on she said: “It’s working very well because I have people who come in here and they screw their face up at the menus. I say just try it or I’ll give them a sample and they’ll say ‘that’s not bad’. Then I’ll see them come back and they bring other people with them.”

By Ceola Wilson