Elizabeth Kurban's commitment to a vegan diet has also contributed to her passion for a career in the kitchen.
The 20-year-old Egg Harbor Township woman loves creating and preparing her own meals using fresh and healthful ingredients.
"I became a vegetarian about six years ago. My family has always been very supportive of it. For the first couple of years, my mom would make substitutions or make meals for me, but as I got more into healthy eating I also got more into making more of my own food. That really helped my passion for cooking," Kurban said.
Kurban is pursuing that passion at the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing. She just started classes there, but she already dreams of finding employment as a personal chef or as the owner of her own vegan restaurant.
"This is something I want to do. I have fun doing it," she said.
Kurban has to look no further than her own home for an inspiration in the culinary field.
Her father, Nicolas, has built a career in the restaurant industry, including a recent stint as vice president of food and beverage at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, where he oversaw the operation of the casino's restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Nicolas Kurban recently left that post to take a job overseeing food and beverage operations at Crown Casino and Entertainment Complex in Melbourne, Australia, his daughter said.
The elder Kurban is Lebanese. Elizabeth Kurban lived in that country until the family moved when she was 7.
After living in Las Vegas, the family - Kurban has three younger sisters - moved to New Jersey when she was about 15.
It was about this time Kurban began to get interested in healthy eating, first embracing vegetarianism and then becoming a vegan.
"I've always been interested in health, and I've always been a cautious eater," she said. "I've never really liked meat, so I decided to say 'Let's just be vegetarian.'"
Kurban is the only one in her family who has embraced the meatless lifestyle, although that hasn't stopped her from trying to make converts.
One weapon in this fight is a kale smoothie she's created that she'll share with her younger sister, Kloe, 6. Kurban created the recipe while experimenting with fruit smoothies. She knew kale was full of nutrients and decided to come up with a recipe that was good and good for you. Once Kloe tried it, Elizabeth knew she had a winner.
"She has learned to absolutely love kale - and because she had the opportunity to prepare the smoothie with me and learn what was going into it, she is always so eager for the next smoothie to try," Kurban said. "The green color used to scare her. But once she tried it, she could care less about the color."
The smoothies, however, haven't convinced the young girl to give up eating meat, too.
"Kloe loves the smoothies - but she still eats McDonald's," Kurban said a little ruefully.
As a student at the culinary academy, Kurban hopes to learn techniques she might apply to her own healthy cooking projects. It can be tough, sometimes, attending culinary classes when you can't taste the meat dishes you must prepare for the instructors.
"I told them about me not eating meat and dairy and they said they won't force me to do anything I don't want to do," Kurban said. She asks classmates to taste dishes that she can't sample to tell her if she is preparing them correctly.
And even as she learns to cook new foods in her classes, Kurban is also continuing to experiment with her own vegan recipes at home.
These include raw tacos, marinara sauces and soups.
"Raw is a really good way of eating. I took a real interest in raw vegan food recently, so I've been doing a lot recently and it tastes really good. It's a lot of fun,"she said.
Some day she hopes to be serving these recipes to her personal clients, people coming to her restaurant or stopping by her vegan food truck. But whatever the setting, Kurban will be sure to serve up a side order of advice on healthy eating with any meal she prepares.
"I would really like to be somewhere where I can teach people, where I can help them understand that healthy eating doesn't mean eating things that all taste like cardboard," she said.
Contact Steven V. Cronin:
•2 frozen bananas
•Half a pineapple
•1 ripe mango
•1/2 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
•5 kale leaves
•1 cup water
•1 cup ice
•2 tablespoons Chia seeds
•Frozen blueberries (optional, to make the smoothie purple instead of green
Blend all ingredients in the blender. And there you have a nutrient-packed smoothie that is not only good for you, but tastes great too.