When Barry Schenker first gave up meat in the 1980s, he was an avid marathon runner — and everyone asked him whether he was eating enough protein to survive, much less compete. During his twenty years as a chiropractor, they asked him the same question. When he became a vegan, they added another one: Do you get enough calcium?
"In this country, most people get twice as much protein as they really need," Schenker asserted. As for calcium, it's in green vegetables and beans, according to the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine, an advocacy group that recommends a plant-based diet and of which Schenker and his vegan anesthesiologist wife Diana Rebman are outspoken members.
Answering those too-familiar questions — "and realizing that we can live healthier lives without killing other animals" — spurred a career switch. Enrolling in courses at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy, Schenker became a chef, then "took a year off and traveled around the world to absorb other cultures through their food" and to savor the seasonality of local produce.
"I remember one week in Italy when I ate porcini mushrooms at every meal; I couldn't get enough of them." There and elsewhere, he discovered, food was not just physical sustenance, but social and spiritual sustenance as well.
"It was inspiring to see the joy that people took in shopping, cooking, eating," said Schenker. "It was very important for me to see how people can have a good time drinking wine at one in the afternoon and how they can be okay about taking naps after meals."
It was a far cry from the typical American household in which each member eats separately, "disconnected from the sources of the food and from each other." Three years ago, Schenker and Rebman began hosting monthly Marketplace Dinners at the Hillside Club (2286 Cedar St., Berkeley), where participants spend up to five hours co-creating seven-course vegan gourmet meals from fresh, seasonal ingredients. Each participant performs part of the prep work while Schenker and Rebman supervise, focusing on techniques rather than recipes. It's less a cooking class than a celebration of what Schenker calls "the beneficial qualities of eating together ... the solidarity and camaraderie that can develop when you cook and eat together."
Set for Sunday, March 28, the next dinner includes red-quinoa risotto, sautéed broccolini with chili oil, an arugula/marinated-peach/shaved-fennel salad, and more. It's based on the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine's four food groups: grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
"If someone comes away from this having learned about a new vegetable or grain that they've never tried before" — or tried before but never realized they could like — "then I've done my job," said Schenker. 4 p.m., $25-$30. MarketplaceDinners.org