vegan chef Tabay Atkins poses against a yellow geometric backgroundShare on Pinterest
Photo courtesy of Tabay Atkins

If you’re ever hungry and find yourself in Orange County, California, you might want to make your way to 17-year-old Tabay Atkin’s gas station food truck.

It may look like your typical roadside eatery from the outside, but there’s a lot more going on at Tabay’s Mindful Kitchen than meets the eye.

For starters, the burgers, tacos, wraps, and nuggets on offer all have one thing in common: They’re 100 percent plant-based.

Atkins doesn’t advertise his offerings as vegan, but everything you order from the menu just so happens to be meat, dairy, and animal product-free.

While it may not be what you expect from a roadside dining experience, Atkins has plenty of happy customers who appreciate the taste and the benefits of his vegan fare.

Tabay’s story

Atkins was only 12 years old when he decided he wanted to become vegan. However, the story starts when he was even younger.

Atkins’ mother, Sahel, had recently fought a battle with cancer. She went through intensive chemotherapy with debilitating side effects and joined a yoga teacher training program when she was just two weeks cancer-free.

At just six years old, her son was by her side every step of the way.

As Atkins watched his mother grow stronger and more resilient as she practiced, he knew that yoga was his calling.

“I got into yoga after my mom beat cancer,” says Atkins. “After practicing Yoga, she was able to recover from the effects of chemotherapy and cancer, and that inspired me to start teaching yoga.”

Since then, Tabay has completed a number of yoga teacher trainings, healing certifications, and specialty modalities.

After being immersed in the yoga community at six years old, it was a logical step to Tabay when he finally went vegan six years later.

“If yoga is a big part of your life, you’re going to start hearing about veganism, whether you like it or not,” Atkins shares.

Atkins and his mother explored veganism, encouraged by their newfound community and commitment to health. What finally prompted them to make the switch turned out to be a an airplane dinner.

“We were in New York flying back to California on the airplane,” says Atkins. “I had a chicken pasta and a cheese platter, and after eating that I felt like there was a rock in my stomach. I felt really sick. I said, ‘okay, that’s enough. I’m going vegan now.’”

Back at home, Atkins and his mom watched the documentary “What the Health,” which helped cement their decision. From there, Atkins did more research and eventually opted for a whole food, plant-based diet (WFPB).

“You still don’t eat animal products,” Atkins says. “You don’t eat meat, dairy, and eggs, but you also take out processed sugar and refined oils, so you don’t have any processed foods of any kind.”

Tabay’s Mindful Kitchen food truck

While Atkins prefers the WFPB lifestyle, he still offers other options at his food truck.

“Some people don’t even know what vegan is, or they have a wrong idea of what the plant-based diet is,” says Atkins. “I wanted to offer people the first step of the plant-based diet, but I also have lots of whole food plant-based options on the menu. That way people have options.”

He likes to call his food truck offerings “undercover” vegan. Rather than being labeled as plant-based, the menu features items like “f’sh tacos,” “buffalo chik’n wrap,” and “beaf burger.”

“It doesn’t look like a vegan food truck,” Atkins says. “I tell them it was vegan, and they had no idea. And it kind of opens people’s minds to the plant-based diet.”

When it comes to the business, Atkins says the idea was on the table for him and his mom for a long time. They saved up to eventually make their food truck vision a reality.

“We always knew that we wanted to eventually have our own eatery,” he says. “We got very close to buying a restaurant in probably 2013 or 14, but it all worked out for the best when we moved back to California and eventually we built a truck.”

The 36-foot custom-designed truck lives at a Dana Point gas station Atkins and his mother run together.

“This is something that we really wanted to do,” he says. “I’ve been in the food world for a while. Teaching cooking classes, making cooking content, and even doing small private events, but nothing of this scale. So it’s very exciting for us.”

Veganism, yoga, and non-violence

As Atkins learned more and more about the vegan lifestyle, he began to make connections with his yoga training.

“I started learning even more about how much better the plant-based diet is in relation to animal rights and the non-harming of animals,” he says.

Atkins notes that the yogic philosophy of “ahimsa,” or non-violence to all living beings, played a major role in his decision-making.

“I started learning more about the animals and became more of an advocate for stopping animal cruelty,” he says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is good for not just my health. It’s also good for the animals, and also the environment. It helps reduce carbon emissions. It helps reduce deforestation and water use.’”

The benefits of plant-based

It turns out that Atkins did his research.

Environmental sustainability

According to a 2016 review of 63 studies, switching from a typical Western diet of mass-produced animal products to a plant-based diet focused on local ingredients could result in a 70 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and land use and 50 percent less water use.

Human health benefits

When it comes to human health, a whole foods, plant-based diet offers plenty of benefits too.

These may include:

  • reduced risk of some cancers
  • reduced risk of heart disease
  • reduced risk of diabetes
  • reduced risk of cognitive decline

A 2017 study of over 200,000 people found that those who followed a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts and avoided processed, sugary foods had a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease than those on non-plant-based diets.

A 2013 study of more than 63,000 people found an association between a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet and a significantly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer.

Another 2015 study of 77,000 people found that vegetarian diets resulted in 22 percent lower risk of developing colorectal cancer than non-vegetarian diets.

Tabay’s tips for going plant-based 

If you want to try a plant-based diet for yourself, Atkins has plenty of helpful tips.

Step by step

First off, he suggests reducing the overwhelm and taking it one step at a time.

“The best way to describe moving to a plant-based diet is: It’s a journey,” says Atkins. “It’s not you do it. And then you’re there.”

Instead of jumping in all at once, ease yourself into changes one at a time.

Home cooking

He also suggests getting comfortable with cooking at home. This can reduce the expense of dining out and purchasing specialty vegetarian items at the store, which are often processed.

Use an app

If you’re looking for local places to get vegan fare, Tabay suggests the Happy Cow app. Just plug in your zip code or city, and the app displays vegan options near you.

Stay sweet

When it comes to keeping things sweet on a WFPB diet, Atkins has two favorite sweeteners he uses in place of sugar: dates and jaggery.

Dates, the fruit of the palm tree, are high in fiber and antioxidants, making them a great sugar swap. To sub dates for sugar, follow these simple steps:

  1. Blend 2 cups (480 grams) of pitted dates with 1 1/4 cups (300 ml) of water to make a paste.
  2. Add the paste to recipes in place of sugar with a 1:1 ratio.

Atkins’ other favorite is jaggery, a sweetener found frequently in Asian and African dishes. Jaggery is made from sugar cane or dates but isn’t spun during processing. This leaves more nutrients behind.

Jaggery may contain significant amounts of:

  • iron
  • magnesium
  • potassium
  • manganese
  • B vitamins
  • minerals like zinc, copper, calcium, and phosphorous

However, it’s important to keep in mind that jaggery is still sugar. It makes a good replacement for the added nutrients, but it doesn’t reduce the calories, fructose, or sucrose that regular sugar involves.

Takeaway

Ultimately, Atkins’ commitment to sharing plant-based eating with the world is a reflection of the intention he shares at the end of every yoga class: “Think good thoughts, speak kind words, feel love, be love, and give love.”


Crystal Hoshaw is a mother, writer, and longtime yoga practitioner. She has taught in private studios, gyms, and in one-on-one settings in Los Angeles, Thailand, and the San Francisco Bay Area. She shares mindful strategies for self-care through online courses at Simple Wild Free. You can find her on Instagram.