A Veggie Affair – He worked in restaurants. She worked as a nutritionist. Their union yielded lil’ Vegerie

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by Rachel Reeves

In the summer of 2018, at Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant in West Hollywood, she started to see him differently. 

Scarlett Curtis sat across the table from her longtime friend, Jason Cervantes, who was then the director of food and beverage at Hotel Maya in Long Beach. She met him in 2008 when they both worked at Kincaid’s on the Redondo Beach pier, her as a hostess and him as a server. From then on, whenever he wasn’t in a relationship, he was trying to get her to see him differently.

He’d take her to see reggae and jam bands play. He’d tell her about the girls who pursued him, hoping to make her jealous. “Ew,” she’d reply. “Gross.” Sometimes he’d work up the courage to tell her there would be fireworks if they kissed. He’d promise that if he was wrong, he’d never try again. She’d roll her eyes and tell him she saw him as “more of a big brother.”

At Gracias Madre, he wore the same purple hoodie he’d been wearing for years and told her stories about high school that she’d already heard. But something in her shifted. She thought about how he drove them there from Redondo Beach, even though he wasn’t a vegan, because he cared about her allergies and food sensitivities.

His quirkiness was suddenly charming. His persistence seemed endearing. He got “really sparkly and handsome,” Scarlett recalled, laughing. “I was getting this little girl butterfly in my stomach and going, what is going on here? At that moment I was like okay, alright. Alright. I think I like him.” 

Two years later, a coronavirus would reshape the world. Jason and Scarlett would quarantine together in their apartment in South Redondo. They’d get engaged. They’d cook up a concept for a restaurant that combined their passions and backgrounds so seamlessly it seemed inevitable.

In May of 2022, they’d open lil’ Vegerie, a restaurant in Redondo Beach that both joins and heralds the growing movement to make vegan food more accessible, more affordable, more familiar, and more delicious. 

Scarlett, who grew up a mile from the restaurant, was a sensitive kid who could feel what other people were feeling – a gift that, like any gift, is a blessing and a curse. She’d learn decades later that there was a word for this kind of person – empath – but at the time, she understood only that she experienced anxiety, insomnia, and a deep depression she describes as a dark blanket. She also dealt with severe stomach issues.

Being unwell became normal. She carried on with her life: she got a degree in marketing and communication from Cal State Long Beach, worked at restaurants in Hermosa and Manhattan Beach, and hung out with friends on weekends.

In her mid-twenties, she developed acne and her confidence plummeted. Desperate and idealizing suicide, she prayed for guidance, though she had been raised atheist. She also looked into Accutane, a medication used to treat cystic acne, but the side effects – dizziness, seizures, stroke – unsettled her. Already she was wary of pills; a boy she dated in high school had overdosed on Oxycontin.

She began reading every book she could find about healing skin issues naturally. All of her disposable income went into research or natural health treatments, ranging from digestive enzymes to lymphatic drainage massages. 

Still, the acne persisted. After years of this, she found the books that changed the trajectory of her life, written by Anthony William, the chronic illness expert who developed the “global celery juice movement.” 

She realized she’d been treating the symptoms of ill health, rather than pulling it out by its roots. She learned how to use fruits, vegetables, and herbs to heal her body and mind. Her skin, depression, and stomach issues cleared up. 

From that point forward, she dedicated her life to healing people who are unwell. She earned a master’s degree in nutrition and functional medicine and studied under naturopathic healthcare practitioners at Blaine’s Nutrition in the Riviera Village. She built a practice in Torrance, where she offers nutrition coaching, Reiki treatments, and a range of other tools intended to heal the body, mind, and spirit. She named her business Heal with Scarlett.

Scarlett Curtis and Jason Cervantes, owners of lil’ Vegerie, South Redondo’s newest takeout vegan restaurant. Photos by Kevin Cody

Looking back, it seems to Scarlett there were signs pointing her to Jason long before the night they had dinner at Gracias Madre.

For one thing, they ran into each other on their hardest days. There was the day he was let go from his dream job as general manager of Bestia, a trendy restaurant in the arts district of downtown Los Angeles. He drove to the Riviera Village to apply for jobs. As soon as he parked, Scarlett walked by on her way to get a foot massage.

There was also the day she was eating strawberries on a bench outside Trader Joe’s. Her boyfriend of three years had boarded a plane that morning for Thailand, where he would soon die of an illness, though she didn’t know that yet. She knew only that she felt grief over their mutual decision to part ways.

Jason walked by with his daughter and Scarlett gave him a hug. She felt something in her chest. At the time, she identified it as a feeling of newness, signaling a transition into a lighter chapter of singlehood and adventures with friends. Later she would recognize it as intuition pointing her into the rest of her life. On days she felt sad, she would run past him jogging on The Strand.

They moved in together in October 2019.

“Just before the whole world changed,” Jason said. Five months later, he was furloughed from his job at Hotel Maya. He remembers grabbing his briefcase and thinking to himself he’d be back in a few weeks. 

As the Covid-19 pandemic stretched into months and then years, Jason spent a lot of his time experimenting with recipes for meals Scarlett could eat. He made black bean burgers, mushroom gravy, and vegan desserts. For Thanksgiving, he made a lentil meatloaf. 

Finally, he had time to do what Scarlett had been telling him to do for a long time: transition from a diet of pastries and fast food to a diet that made him feel good.

“We were cooking a lot – buying, prepping, cleaning – and one day we didn’t feel like cooking,” Jason recalled. “We’re like, let’s go eat somewhere. There are good vegetarian restaurants around here, but the way we were cooking – with no soy, no gluten, no animal products, no bad oils – it was hard to find something. That was the first time we thought, holy sh#t. What if we built a restaurant on this?”

The thought was in direct conflict with a promise he’d made to himself years earlier. His parents owned El Portal, a Mexican mom-and-pop in Glendale. He was bussing tables at the age of 10. He knew firsthand the stress of owning a restaurant, and swore to himself he’d never do it.

But the vision was beginning to take shape. The idea had purpose. If a cookie-loving carnivore like him could be convinced that healing foods taste good, then other people could, too. 

A growing body of scientific knowledge attests to the health and environmental benefits of a meat-free diet.

Kaiser Permanente, the largest healthcare organization in the U.S., began recommending plant-based eating in 2013. In 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study that indicates reducing meat consumption could save up to eight million lives per year and $31 trillion in healthcare and climate change-related costs. 

Due in part to this data and documentaries showing how meat products get made, vegetarianism and veganism are no longer the purview of hippies and activists. Researchers at Cornell University found that in January 2022, 10 percent of adults in America considered themselves vegan or vegetarian – double the number published by Gallup in 2018. 

Corporations and markets are also responding to the rising demand for plant-based options. Even Tyson, the world’s second-largest processor of chicken, beef, and pork, announced it wanted to be “part of the disruption” in the market by buying shares in a company that makes plant-based proteins. The Bloomberg Intelligence Report is forecasting a fivefold increase in plant-based food sales by 2030. 

Jason isn’t a vegan and Scarlett is open to eating fish, but making lil’ Vegerie fully vegan seemed, to them, like the most responsible way to serve their community and the planet. It also, at this point in time, seems to make good business sense.

Whenever Jason’s mind flicked to the restaurant, the details seemed overwhelming. He put the idea on the backburner and continued interviewing for restaurant management jobs.

In July of 2020, his favorite guitarist, Trey Anastasio of the jam band Phish, released a song called “Evolve.” The song is written from the point of view of the creator of the universe, who is contemplating the deadening impact of overthinking. “A million little things to solve,” Anastasio sings, “or not. I’ll let them all evolve.”

Jason teared up. 

“This song is talking about letting things flow and evolve and not overthinking them,” he recalled. “I’m like, I can’t find a job, we have this idea for a restaurant and I have the experience to do it. I’m like, screw it. Let’s do it.”

For a year, Scarlett prayed about the idea every day. 

When Jason came home from dead-end meetings with potential investors, frustrated and exhausted from waiting tables at North Italia by day and Playa Provisions by night, she’d place her hands on him and tell him not to worry. 

“I told him, just watch,” she said. “This is how spirit works when you pray and ask for help.”

Following a string of rejections, a guy Jason met at a sober event asked him to have coffee. Jason was busy and stressed, but according to the etiquette of his sober community, if someone reaches out and asks to meet, you say yes. He said yes. 

“So we’re having coffee and he’s telling me about all this crazy stuff he’s doing – building a house in Manhattan Beach, just got back from Europe on a yacht – and I made a comment like, I should’ve done what you’re doing for work. I can’t even raise a quarter of a million dollars for my restaurant,” Jason said. The guy and his business partner ended up giving him half the capital he needed.

Jason found another investor in Mike Zislis, a South Bay restaurateur whose quiver includes Strand House, Rock & Brews, Rock ‘N Fish, and the Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach Shade Hotel. He knew Zislis from working as a server at Strand House and as general manager at Rock ‘N Fish. Zislis didn’t hesitate. 

“Jason was one of my best GMs,” he said. “He’s such a people person and he really is so damn charming [and] that’s half the business. Half is the recipes and execution, but the other half is the charm. If you can deliver on those fronts, you have a successful business.”

For a year, they couldn’t find a suitable space. Jason mentioned this to the owner of Mama D’s, where his teenage daughter Zoey was working. The owner told him to knock on doors. 

One of those doors opened to a little taco place in Knob Hill Plaza. The owner told Jason to make him an offer. Jason did and the guy laughed.

“I spent that much on the custom countertops,” he said. “If you have $400,000, cool. If not, it’s not for sale.”

Jason left his number. He found a dental office for sale on Pacific Coast Highway and Prospect Avenue. It wasn’t turnkey, and while he had an investor who was willing to front money for a conversion, it meant paying back a large loan.

Scarlett didn’t feel like it was the right space; Jason was stressed and wanted to proceed. He made an offer and hired a lawyer to draw up a lease. 

On the day the lawyer was scheduled to finalize a copy of the lease, the owner of the taco place who had laughed him out the door sent Jason a text message.

“If you want it, it’s yours for $150,000,” the text said. Jason called Zislis.

“All the equipment’s in there, it’s on PCH, and it’s three years old,” Zislis told him. “Do it now. Before he changes his mind.” 

Jason and Scarlett returned to Gracias Madre, where it all began. They asked to talk to the head chef, who at the time was Mario Alberto, now the owner of Olivia, a restaurant in Koreatown recognized by the LA Times for its “culinary chops.” Alberto came to their table, listened to them talk about their vision, and brought out dishes for them to taste.

They talked about hiring him to create a menu but lost him when he decided to open his own restaurant. Jason was telling a coworker at North Italia that he was disappointed over losing Alberto. The bartender overheard and mentioned he had a friend who cooked vegan food for celebrities. Jason found her on Instagram and sent her a message.

“Hi! I work at north italia with a friend of yours Devon. I’m opening a vegan restaurant. He says you’re good at vegan cuisine!”

Chef Eileen Elizabeth responded: “How can I help ya?”

Jason Cervantes brings to lil’ Vegerie more than 20 years of experience in restaurants, including South Bay restaurants Rock ‘N Fish, The Strand House, and North Italia.

Eileen, who lives between Arizona and a boat in Marina del Rey, switched to a vegan diet after her boyfriend did some research into how animals raised for slaughter suffer throughout their lives. Life seemed to open up for her after that. She lost 30 pounds in 40 days. A vegan chef who worked for celebrities became her roommate and asked her for help with an event. Soon she was catering NBA dinners, weddings, wellness retreats, film productions, and for actor Joaquin Phoenix. She landed gigs styling vegan food for commercials. People she knew started asking for help going vegan.

Then, in 2017, she started making meal plans and meals for a woman diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. After a month of radiation treatments and vegan food, the woman was declared cancer-free, before even beginning chemotherapy. Eileen now coaches people in how to eat vegan and makes customized vegan meals for clients, many of whom are ill. 

“I’ve worked with people with heart disease, cancer, diabetes – across the board, no matter what the issue is, the result is the same,” she said. “What you put in your body and your lifestyle is contributing to the disease so once we shift that, it’s always the same result: success.”

After a few meetings that confirmed Eileen was right for the job, Jason and Scarlett gave her their criteria: multicultural, no soy, no gluten, no MSG, no nutritional yeast, no vegetable oil or canola oil. For a year, she tested the recipes she was developing on her clients, most of whom eat meat. Most are in their sixties. Half are struggling with a health problem and the other half are trying to eat more vegan food because they’re tired of losing friends to ill health. 

Eileen refers to herself as “a vegan chef for meat eaters.” She puts thought and artistry into mimicking meat; lil Vegerie’s menu features dishes that use caramelized coconut as bacon, for example, and jackfruit as barbecue meat.

“We eat with our eyes first,” she said. “And food is something we have an emotional attachment to. It’s something we learn from our parents. You can’t get somebody to veganism by offering them a watercress salad; you have to offer them something that’s familiar to them. I want my food and the taste and texture of it to replicate what people know.”

The rest of the pieces seemed to fall easily into place. 

Jason found his kitchen manager, Ignacio, through a connection at Playa Provisions, where he worked during the pandemic. Ignacio was fresh out of running high-end Mexican restaurant Yxta in downtown Los Angeles and instrumental in adapting Eileen’s dishes to the pace of a kitchen line. 

The logo was designed by a friend in the South Pacific who founded a magazine highlighting the value of indigenous knowledge and a natural diet. Scarlett’s childhood friend, Tory Marshall, who graduated from Redondo Union High, painted a mural on the restaurant’s wall that bears the likeness of a tropical Eden; Scarlett describes it as a nod to the indigenous healers around the world who are asking us to pay attention to what we’re doing to nature. Tory is also an adherent to the plant-based diet.

“It all linked – exactly what she was looking for is exactly what my forte is,” Tory said. “I think it was sort of serendipitous.” She added, “It’s really special to kind of transition to this different phase of our lives where we’re able to contribute, and be this sort of fundamental part of the community that we grew up in. Now we’re writing the script and forming the city. I think that’s really special.”

The community is responding with open arms. Since lil’ Vegerie opened in May, Zislis has been tracking its metrics.

“The Yelp reviews are stunning – five stars – and business grows by 5 to 8 percent a month,” he said. “That’s how you build a business. I couldn’t be any prouder [of Jason]. Eventually he’ll be in Hermosa, then Manhattan, then El Segundo. This will be a SoCal brand.” ER

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