Today’s feature with The Power of Women is on HEALTHY LIVING from a woman who is the face of a fresher plant-based movement who refuses to compromise style for sustainability. Leslie Durso and I had the opportunity to work together when I was the CEO of FARE, the world’s largest NGO investing in food allergy research and advocacy. Leslie brought her farm fresh recipes and warm-hearted sensibilities to an audience of 80M people who avoid the top 9 allergens due to life threatening food allergies and intolerances. A vegan chef for the Four Seasons, Leslie has appeared on The Food Network, The Discovery Channel and The Hallmark Channel. For her work with FARE, she has won a silver Telly, a platinum Hermes, a gold Hermes and a Muse Creative award.
Leslie, it is great to speak with you. Please tell us a bit about yourself before we dive into your fascinating personal journey.
I had a great great upbringing in San Diego, California and have always had a deep connection to animals. As a child, I chose to stop eating them. It just didn’t feel right to me. It took my family a bit of time to realize this was not a phase I was going though and ended up being supportive of my decision. I always had a deep desire to change the world and make it a better place. When I started my career, I had opportunities in the entertainment industry. I loved modeling and acting! My career guided me into an opportunity to be Leslie the Lab Girl on Bill Nye, The Science Guy, which I happily accepted. It was on that show that I fell in love with using tv as a medium for education. I decided to take my passion for food and education and create a career. It started with becoming a chef and being taken seriously in the industry and is now swinging me back into entertainment. I love doing content with FARE and making healthy, food allergy friendly food available to all!
The question I know everyone is eager to have you answer is how did you become Leslie the Lab Girl on Bill Nye, The Science Guy?
A friend of mine was a producer at Discovery and thought I might be a good fit. I loved my time on that show!
What was your favorite episode?
We did an episode featuring animals and when the dog we hired wasn’t preforming, I got to bring in my rescue pup Pepe.
He was so adorable on the show! What is your funniest memory?
The same episode featuring animals had a scene where I am trying to potty train a cat. The cat on set was the biggest cat I had ever seen! I had to do the scene holding the cat as it dug it’s claws into my arms. I know that sounds more painful than funny, but believe me, it was hilarious!
You then became an actress, and you talk about your phase of wearing fake glasses. Why did you wear them?
Haha, yes, I did wear fake glasses to my auditions. As a sunshiney blonde, I was having a hard time getting auditions for sophisticated characters so I wore glasses to look “smarter”. Did it work? It did! The first part I booked with glasses was a receptionist on Veronica Mars.
Health and wellness is a focal point to conversations in schools, restaurants and at the dinner table. Living an active healthy lifestyle has become a touchstone in Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs and summer camps. Today, you are a leader in that space. Why did you shift from your love of education and science to plant based diets?
When the show ended, I looked around and saw a society full of people who were unhealthy and a bit lost on how to get back on track. I believe so much of your overall health starts by what you put in your body, so I decided to make it my life’s mission to inspire others healthy eating habits.
You were a chef for some top celebrities and now design meals for the Four Seasons guests. Are you able to share names of our favorite stars that you worked with? Are there favorite recipes that emerged from those relationships?
I wouldn’t be a very good personal chef if I was spilling the secrets of my celebrity clients and friends… but if you follow me on instagram you can see shouts out from many of my favorite clients. I will say, they all have the same favorite recipe which is my chocolate cake.
Our readers may not have the pocketbooks or access to the same ingredients as a Hollywood celeb. What are cost effective, easy to make options that our readers can incorporate into their diet? If someone has food allergies, what are tips and tricks that you share in your work with FARE?
Cooking at home is really the best way to feed yourself nutritious and budget friendly meals. There are so many ways to take commonly used ingredients and use them in unexpected ways. If you watch my show Around The World in 80 Plates, you will see that I do that a lot. There are so many simple ingredients that can be used to swap out allergens. It’s really just identifying which ones will be best.
You have a deep love for animals and support animal welfare organizations including The Humane Society, Best Friends Animal Rescue and Farm Sanctuary. Did you have pets as a child? How did you get into this area?
I have alway loved animals and felt connected to them at a very early age. Probably why I stopped eating them at such a young age. We had dogs growing up, but it was my pup Pepe that I rescued when I was an adult that sparked my interested in helping animal welfare.
What are issues about which you are passionate and want our readers to know?
I’m passionate about making the world a healthier place. I believe eating a whole, real food diet is the number one thing you can do to increase your chances of a long and healthy life! My recipes are not necessarily designed to make everyone go vegan. They are designed to show that healthy delicious food can be delicious and exciting. You don’t have to sacrifice flavor for health!
The Big Three:
What women inspired you the most?
In the culinary world: Alice Waters, Susan Feniger, Nancy Silverton. In the media world: Martha Steward, Oprah, and Madonna
What are you doing to inspire the next generation of female leaders?
I’m trying to lead by example that you are able to do anything you want.
What advice do you have for a young woman watching who’s trying to break through or a woman who might be re-entering the workforce?
Find a mentor and champion. Knowing that you are not alone can me hugely comforting and finding a mentor who can give you some much needed guidance can be invaluable.