Necessity cultivates innovation, and no one knows that better than Alex Cheblal. The chef, native to France and its intangible cultural heritage, is passionate about good food. “To love yourself is to fuel yourself well,” he said. “And good food is fuel to the body.”
While stuck in his house during the first few weeks of the pandemic, Cheblal thought of those words: “good food is fuel to the body.” Not a new concept, he understood. But the idea gave him and his wife, Mino Netta, food for thought. They invited their friends, health educators, Jodi, and Sean Herbert, who are the owners of GotSprouts? to join in the conversation.
Inspired by Hippocrates, a natural healing place centered on a wholesome, natural diet, the two couples resolved to educate and equip people with a convenient, effective way to take responsibility for their health. Then, Plant Forward was born.
The new plant-based gourmet market offering freshly harvested organic sprouts and a wellness center opened in December at the Grandview Market in West Palm Beach. Looking closely at Chef Alex Cheblal in the kitchen preparing all that good food, cooking and eating such great meals, living in a community; this is really what matters to him.
Red meat and dairy products? Not so much. Though, Plant Forward doesn’t just bandwagon onto the trend of veganism. As Chef Alex says, “it’s all about community, good health, and amazing plant-based meals you will actually love to eat.”
What’s your secret to eating well?
Eating well is not just about eating, indulging, and entertaining ourselves, but about nourishing our bodies—a perfect machine—so that we can live a long and good life and be very happy.
And how do you attain that good life, exactly?
First of all, there’s no good life without good health. We’ve dedicated our lives to do that. And it’s all about community. It’s about who you are but what you can learn from others, and what you can give back. If I can teach someone about good health and good eating, and they can bring it back to their husbands and wives, to their children, to their friends… then, I did well. And that’s what we’ve done at Plant Forward.
Plant Forward offers people a better and healthier food option—not having to source the food or cook the food. Because you know, finding the right foods, preparing it and cooking takes a lot of work. And if you work, preparing food is something you often don’t have too much time for on a daily basis. You often opt to grab something to-go at a fast food place or from the supermarket, or you go to a restaurant to eat.
A lot of people don’t know what good food really is.
I agree. If you read the labels of the products you buy, you may conclude, as we have, that this is not food anymore. Many are heavily processed with various chemicals that your body can’t recognize and turn into energy, and not get all the nutrients it needs.
So, Plant Forward is a grab-and-go café where you can find a nutritious meal, and also a place where you can be educated about proper, healthy eating. The large area of the 3,000 square feet space is being used to offer private events like Yoga, dance, painting, and health and cooking classes.
On Sundays, we offer brunch and customers can take a yoga class and later have a glass of juice and sprouts salad, which will help regenerate their body.
We’re trying to bring something different to the community as an alternative perspective on the things that we like to do, but with a conscious impact by choosing plant-based nutrition, learning how to make this food with workshops, and classes taught by me and other trained professionals.
Eating more plants is better; not just for our bodies, but also for the environment and the economy. We all need the energy of the sun, which provides nourishment for the plants, which is called protein. The cows eat it and so you now have dead protein. I say, cut the middle-man [the cow] and go directly to the source [plants]. Go to the green!
How did you find this space for Plant Forward?
I was making some food for Subculture Coffee for an event, so we contacted the Warehouse District to see this space to prepare the meals here. It used to be a space where they offered yoga classes, so it was the perfect scenario to add a platform for Plant Forward.
It is very minimalistic—a white canvas that emulates fitness, rest, recreation, and health. It has two doors—one is for the public to choose and grab their food. The other is for those who want to go deeper and to learn new things.
We’re all health coaches. So, our aim is to educate people and allow them to learn the process of switching to something different—to a new way of life.
The magic cannot happen if you don’t at least invest in a 28-day program. For several years, we have been helping people in Palm Beach County lead healthier lives. If people want to live healthier, if they want to lose weight, if they want to manage their diabetes better, or want to be vibrant and sleep better, they have to commit to the 28-day program. Then, they can pick and choose and go for the 80/20 percent [80 percent green or vegan and 20 percent other foods].
What are some of your new creations?
With over 30 years of experience as a chef, most especially in French, Italian and Japanese cuisine, it’s easy for me to cook new meals. So, now I like to entertain myself by taking the challenge of making new vegan creations that are culinary so that people don’t miss the experience of going out to a restaurant.
That’s why we’re doing the Supper Club social events, where people come and have a drink, an appetizer, and then sit down and have a five-course dinner. I’m there, serving them and talking to them, and hosting the whole event.
Do you think people are shifting to a healthier lifestyle?
During this Covid-19 pandemic, we have all learned to make a shift towards something better—something healthier. We are spending more time with our families, cooking and eating together, and having great conversations at the table. Instead of running, running, running, and not having a lot to speak of.
I see this as a great opportunity to choose what’s essential in our lives. Community is important. Eating the right foods is important. And, supporting our local economy is extremely important—especially the farmers and people who need to be educated about healthy living.
It was only five years ago when one percent of the population was vegan. Last year, it was five percent. And this year, it looks like it’s going to be seven percent. The plant-based movement has been growing with products such as VeganMe and Impossible Burger. People realized, “I can still have a burger experience.” It’s become a mass-produced and promoted item.
Milk and dairy products are the worse things that you can put in your body. I come from a small village in France, near Geneva, Switzerland, where we make blue cheese, so I grew up drinking a lot of milk. At eight years old, I stopped drinking milk completely because I had asthma and allergies. And it worked. I haven’t had milk since then.
What attracted you to become a chef?
In France, you have to cook for your family, starting early in the morning. Making breakfast, preparing the salad, and dressing for the afternoon meal… simple things. They teach you that really early. And I liked the experience and the taste of food.
I was lucky that I was so close to Geneva, which is an international city with over 80 different restaurants from different world cuisines. I tasted Japanese food from real Japanese people before it was trendy! Now you can find that in Publix! [laughs]
What inspired your style?
I traveled a lot so I began to experience and get inspired by other cultures and cuisines. I visited Italy and lived in Japan for two years, where I learned how to cook Japanese food. I went to New York, California… I traveled everywhere where there was a new restaurant with an interesting chef whom I could follow and be an apprentice. I was very passionate about that.
And what did you learn from that?
That you need to make a business about what you love. So, you can immerse yourself in it. When I’m in the kitchen, I like to work with all local products. When I go to the market in West Palm Beach, I know all the farmers and vendors by name. I like to choose and buy whatever I like. That makes me happy.
What do you like to eat?
I love making a bowl of sprouts with olive oil and lemon juice, and a nice slice of bread. I like to eat three times a day—varying in how abundant each meal is.
The life of a chef is made up of many adventures. Tell me about some of yours.
Professionally, I’ve been a chef since I was 14 years old. I was lucky to do a series of apprenticeships in Geneva in many of those 5-star restaurants in that region. During every three-month summer break from school, I worked myself from the bottom up—as a dishwasher, cleaning and cooking the vegetables, cutting the fish, making the sauce, being a sous chef . . . I was lucky because my parents traveled a lot, so I got to experience many cultures and different cuisines.
Living in France is great; you go to the market every day to buy fresh bread and vegetables for the day. We cook together, and in my family, like most French families, the men are the ones in the kitchen cooking.
And what was it that inspired you to become a chef?
Both of my parents had cancer. My father passed away. And I saw how this disease is related to food, stress, and emotions directly. It matters what you put in your diet. If you change what you eat, there is a profound effect of curing those affected cells. Food is medicine and medicine is food. And that inspired me not only to eat better but to cook better. To make good food for people.
Twenty years ago, I opened a vegan restaurant called The House Around the Corner in South Beach, Miami. It was the start of the food fusion movement. I truly believed in this and so, I was a pioneer in this movement at that time, and clearly, it was not the right time. The restaurant closed but the idea of making the right food for people remained.
Today, restaurants like Planta in Miami are doing well. They have their farm in Homestead so they know the source of their products. Eighty percent of my job is not cooking; it’s finding the right organic products. The labeling is not the issue; it’s about you connecting with the local farmer. And, all of this, of course, affects our planet.
And Plant Forward provides that!
Yes, we have created a good community right here in West Palm Beach, which reportedly is considered to be one of the “healthiest places to live in America.” Many young professionals and retirees are moving here because of that. I can see it in the streets.
It’s a small town, kind of like a village, and people like that because they enjoy real relationships with one another and that impacts the human environment and our businesses. I come from a village and I chose West Palm Beach as my new village.
I love to cook because I love to eat. I didn’t go to a special culinary school, but I’ve worked in this industry for over 30 years.
When I lived in New York City, I worked 80 to 100 hours a week and that gave me lots of experience. I’m an older guy now; my knees are broken, my back is broken, but I can cook.
If you would like to visit, Plant Forward Palm Beach is located in the Grandview Public Market at 1401 Clare Ave, West Palm Beach, 33401. Online at plantforwardpb.com
(This article was first published in the print edition of WPB Magazine, winter issue, 2021. The story has been republished on WPB Magazine website to correct a typo in Chef Alex Cheblal’s last name.)