This weekend, millions of Americans will be celebrating Memorial Day outside, eating hamburgers and hot dogs fresh from the grill. As a vegan myself, I was thrilled to get the chance to interview Danielle Konya — vegan baker, chef and star of Animal Planet's summer series, "Sweet Avenger" — and I hope this column will inspire you to put one less animal product on your plate this weekend.
Celebrity Extra: Was there a specific epiphany that lead you to become a vegan? Or was it a culmination of events and realizations? How did you first decide to do that?
Danielle Konya: It was a very specific moment. I was out for dinner and I saw a lobster being boiled alive. It was just one of those nice restaurants that had a big, open kitchen and I was kind of staring off into the kitchen, and I saw them take the lobster and throw it into the pot. And I wasn’t really even thinking about it. I was just kind of watching the chain of events, and it made this really loud crying noise and then scratching to get out of the pot. And it was just the moment that I connected the suffering of animals as our food choices.
CE: A lot of people are vegetarian, but they're not quite vegan, but you researched everything and came to harsh realizations about the dairy industry, yes?
DK: I think if anyone researched what happens in the dairy industry, they would wish for those cows to be meat, because it is just a life of suffering.
CE: How long have you been vegan?
DK: Almost 20 years. I was 17 at the time, and I’ve just never been able to turn a blind eye — ever. It’s one of those things that once you learn it you can never unlearn it. I guess it’s been my life’s goal to make people more aware of the ramifications of their food choices. Because it effects the world around them.
CE: And when you mention the lobster — that brings to mind the Maryland crabs. My mother is from Maryland and when I would go up there to visit, they would cook them and I would hear that noise, they would say: “Oh, that’s just air being released from their shells.” I guess so the kids wouldn’t be scared to know the crabs are screaming, and if I had known I probably would have become a vegan back then too.
DK: You know, I was actually questioning what I heard for quite some time, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I had read that a lobster has one of the most painful deaths, because it takes a few seconds for the hot water to get deep under their shells. And they can actually retaliate against it for a few seconds. So, you get even more disturbed.
CE: How did you translate your veganism into deciding to open Vegan Treats Bakery? That’s a huge decision to start your own business.
DK: I was just trying to find a way to satisfy my own sweet tooth by making vegan desserts. My mom would always bake, and I tried to emulate her and relate some of her recipes, but minus the egg, minus the milk. And I quickly realized that people loved it. Friends would come over and ask, “Hey, did you make any vegan treats?” So, that’s where the name came from and how it stuck. I quickly realized that it was the magic wand to get people to listen or to get them to eat vegan. It was like this magical tool and it completely was like a light turning on.
You can talk to people about being vegan all day long, but the second you give them cake, all of a sudden they are paying attention. I noticed that early on and I thought, this is the best medium ever.
CE: Did you approach Animal Planet to do this or was it vice versa? How did the idea for "Sweet Avenger" come out?
DK: They approached me. They called me last summer and said they were possibly interested in doing a TV show, and could they come down and meet with me. And then all the events unfolded since then.
I was really excited that it was Animal Planet. That was the pinnacle thing for me that Animal Planet was calling. It wasn’t just any network. This was a network that I cared about, that I watched religiously, I know all of their shows and am a big fan of them. I was completely floored.
CE: I know that animal-rights awareness is a driving force behind you wanting to do the series and why you want to do it to bring it to everybody else. What are some other reasons behind it and things you hope to accomplish with your series?
DK: I guess I’m just hoping that people could make small choices. I want them to understand that their small choices make big changes. So, even if someone left the show thinking, “Hey, maybe I’ll try some almond milk on my cereal in the morning.” I feel like those small changes have a huge global impact. I’m hoping to just make people aware and teach them that compassion starts with their fork.
For me, it’s completely about animal welfare, but I feel like it’s not the only reason to be vegan. I feel like there’s also a second reason for the health benefit. Or a third reason even environmental concerns. So, I’m trying to tap into whatever could sway people.
CE: What are some health benefits that you’ve learned yourself that you’ve noticed?
DK: I have more energy than I know what to do with. I think that’s one of the big things. People around me are like: “What is wrong with you? Do you ever slow down?” But I feel that eating a diet that’s so rich in nourishment, it’s really easy to have a lot of energy and feel really good. I feel like that’s a big thing.
I think for me too it’s these little things that drive me insane. Like the statistics, you just can’t not look at them. How one species becomes extinct every 60 seconds due to the destruction of our rainforest, and the No. 1 reason for that is livestock production. One-third of our lands is used for livestock. I can’t sleep at night knowing these facts.
CE: What can you tell me about what viewers can expect from "Sweet Avenger"?
DK: The viewer will quickly realize that it’s not just another baking show. It definitely goes a lot deeper than that. It talks about conservation and what it means to eat vegan and how it affects our planet. It also dives really deep into the details about my personal life: my humanitarian efforts and my adoption with my daughter, Brittany. I feel like people will learn a lot about the bakery, the comradery between the employees, the world around them. It just not your ordinary baking show.
CE: Vegan baking has come a long way in the past few years. What would you say to skeptics who would assume you can’t bake unless you have eggs, butter and milk. What would you say to them?
DK: The desserts speak louder than my words, and I would encourage them to try it. Because they will quickly learn how wrong they are. Or tell someone it’s vegan afterward they eat it, because they would never believe it.
CE: How do you juggle being a Mom, a businesswoman and now a TV star? I know you have more energy, but how do you find the time in a day to do it?
DK: I don’t know. I guess just one day at a time. I’ve always had a little bit more on my plate than I could ever possibly handle, and I kind of just take on one task at a time till I get it all done. I utilize the people around me who are helping me and do the best I can.
CE: I know that you have some celebrity clients who love your food, and since I do write a celebrity column, I was wondering if you could tell me some of the celebrities who have given your baked goods some rave reviews?
DK: Alicia Silverstone is a huge fan. She was working on Broadway and we were delivering Peanut Butter Bombs to her on the set. We do bake for a ton of different bands. Pretty much the vegan community is synonymous with a lot of rock stars. We bake for Alkaline Trio and AFY and Bayside. We’ve even done Paramour and No Doubt and Eddie Vedder. As far as actors and actresses, we’ve done a birthday party for Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, Apple. We’ve even baked for Dennis Kucinich a couple of times. He’s the only vegan member of Congress.