Unlikely Vegetarian Restaurant Owner Inspires change at Heirloom in Vancouver

I love good vegetarian food. When I lived in Vietnam I discovered so many new and crazy ways to cook with vegetables and create flavourful and delicious meals. Now that I'm back in Vancouver, I'm seriously loving the few vegetarian gems around that inspire me with that same sense of wonder. I got in touch with the owner of one of my favourite places in Vancouver to talk sustainability, vegetarian food, and living a healthy lifestyle the best you can. 

 

I spotted Yogi Johl, seated at the bar and working on his phone with his laptop and papers laid out nearby. Johl is a former wrestler who competed in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games for Canada. Give him a leather jacket and he could be a bouncer at a raucous night club. He looks like the last person you would expect to be running a chic vegetarian restaurant. 

The story starts on a night when Johl was enjoying scotch and cigars with his friend after a steak dinner. They joked that this kind of lifestyle would probably kill them. That’s when they decided to do something about it. Johl went into business with that friend, Gus Greer, and together they co-founded Heirloom. The pair of them consider themselves to be “two bigger gentlemen who decided to get healthier and eat a healthier genre of food.” 

Inspired to be healthy

Inspired to live a healthier life by eschewing meat, they started checking out vegetarian options in Vancouver. Disappointed by the lack of diversity, they saw an opportunity to do vegetables done right and shake up the local scene. 

They surprised everyone by their turnaround. 

“Two big guys opening a vegetarian restaurant is the equivalent of two sumos wanting to do a marathon. You’re looking at them like, really? You’re going to run?”

Johl grew up with vegetarian food at home. His mother and sister didn’t eat meat partly because of their family’s Indian heritage. Even though it was part of his family life, as he grew up, he didn’t stay vegetarian. “Now it comes full circle, it’s like I’m back that way now because it’s a healthier genre of food. It’s better for you.” In a karmic twist, he’s right back where he came from. 

Back in his wrestling days, it seemed like everyone was telling him what to eat and what to put in his body. They would encourage him to carb up in the days before matches and always eat protein from meat or fish. “I’m looking back now thinking that I didn’t need all those carbs. I didn’t need all that meat for protein. You can get what you need out of your diet from vegetables.”

Coming to your own conclusions

Skeptical of the advice he got, his inclination is to do his own research. “We’re living in a day and age where right now there’s so much fake news in society that people just believe what they read on their phone,” He said. “Look up 20 different sources and make your own conclusions. Don’t take anybody’s word.”

Given our ultra health conscious culture, it comes as no surprise that Johl was looking for a way to get healthier. Diets low in meat are linked to longevity. “In life, there’s little old men, because all the big old men are gone. You don’t see an 80 or 90-year-old 300-pound gentleman because they’re gone the way of the dinosaur.” 

Johl is right. In those famed Blue Zones, where life expectancy is often over 100 years, their diets consist of little to no meat. But It isn’t always easy to subsist on soybeans. As emotional creatures, we’re guilty of eyeing that box of Oreos when we’re stressed. It’s easier to grab a burger and fries on the way home from work than to make a healthy meal from scratch. “That’s the way I am,” Johl said. “I try not to have junk food in my house because I know that’s what I’ll reach for.” 

Labels are for soup cans

You don’t have to call yourself a vegetarian to reap the benefits of healthy eating. Leave terms like vegetable-forward, flexitarian, and vegan behind. “Just say you’re a healthy eater and that kind of encompasses what you do,” Johl said. Try following Johl’s simple rule when shopping for groceries, “If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it’s made in a plant don’t.”

The benefits of a plant-based diet extend beyond your own health. It’s an ecologically friendly lifestyle. Pound for pound, meat is wasteful to produce and process. It takes thousands of litres of water and hundreds of pound of grain to produce a pound of meat. “We gotta start looking at what we’re doing to the planet. It’s funny because everyone’s talking reducing reusing and recycling, but you know one of the biggest changes you can make in your life is becoming a vegetarian or vegan.”

He might not be standing on a soap box preaching veganism, but he’s doing something to inspire change in his community. “I like to think in our small way here we’re a little cog in a big system that's starting to make a difference.” 

There are plans to expand to more locations by 2018 after an already 5 successful years with Heirloom. “I rather be the tortoise than the hare. Take things slow and grow at a nominal pace.” They’re going strong and Heirloom seems packed 7 days a week from brunch to late night and welcome continued, if not dated, backhanded compliments like ‘Wow, this tastes good for vegetarian food.’