How Serena Williams’ Vegan Chef Built Her Career and Celebrity Clientele

Lauren Von Der Pool against a background of fruit and vegetable shapes.

Vegan chef Lauren Von der Pool has traveled around the world with A-list clients including Common, Stevie Wonder, and tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams, and has brought plant-based food to high-profile events like Grammys and the White House, but her life almost looked drastically different.

As a teen, Von der Pool was a self-described “gangster” who grew up in a tough part of Washington, D.C., where murders were common and gang violence was rampant. She spent her time with a crew called the Young Thug Bitches, and lost 13 friends to violence in one year when she was just 14-years-old. “People cannot even believe that,” she tells LIVEKINDLY exclusively. “And the majority of the people who were in my group are dead now.”

At 16, she was stabbed in the head from behind by a girl she’d gotten in a previous altercation with and came within half an inch of losing her life. The “tragic,” near-death experience quite literally altered the course of her life and changed how she saw the world as well as her own place in it. Von der Pool, who once ate candy bars and chips for breakfast without so much as a second thought, knew she needed to change the environment around her. She said goodbye to the “poison” that is processed foods and became an overnight vegan. 

“I feel that changing what I ate was my savior. It shifted me and it made me more aware of the other things that there were possibilities for me,” she shares. “It made me understand healing from a holistic standpoint, not just food.” Instead of wolfing down a bag of Hot Cheetos, Von der Pool turned to whole foods like dandelion greens and papaya, which she soon realized contained enzymes that improved her digestion and her skin. She also noticed that she was thinking more clearly and felt better overall.

“[The stabbing] knocked some sense into my head because it just shifted my course completely,” she explains, noting that she read the book Heal Thyself by her “now mentor” Queen Afua during her recovery and discovered the power of plants. Though Von der Pool had grown up thinking of food solely as sustenance, Heal Thyself helped her see and understand vegan food’s “magic” powers. “The next day, it was like my intuition was turned on and I began to listen impeccably to that voice inside of me,” she says.

Fighting for food justice

After nearly losing her life, Von der Pool immediately stopped eating the processed foods she’d grown up with and began nourishing her body with plants—specifically raw foods. To live, and more accurately to thrive, she knew she needed to change the crowd she was hanging out with as well as the food she was putting into her body.

She began volunteering at a local health food store, and was given fresh produce in exchange for her services. This exposed Von der Pool to whole foods that she wasn’t previously familiar with, and she used this produce to whip up an array of vegan treats. As she quickly learned via her own experience, this plant-based approach helped her heal and aided her recovery. “Food is magical. Food has power. It can shift everything in your world. The lesson I’ve got is that everything we eat becomes a part of everything we are,” she shares.

With her own recovery well underway thanks, in part, to her transition to veganism, Von der Pool shifted her focus to her hometown, which she describes as a “murder capital” and a food desert, meaning its residents had almost no access to affordable and nutritious food. To the budding chef, the violence around her was undoubtedly linked to a poor diet dominated by fast food and junk food, because that “poison” begets violence. 

Conversely, Von der Pool sees healthy food as a foundation and a key to curbing that violence. “The revolution starts within,” she explains. “It starts inside [with what we eat] and then it reverberates outside of ourselves.”

In an effort to help fight for food justice and transform the D.C. food scene, she left the health food store and activated her entrepreneurial spirit by selling her own raw pies and other raw vegan food in front of Howard University’s business school. Much like vegan food had helped her through a difficult time, Von der Pool wanted to use it to help others in her neighborhood, especially since affordable, nutritious food was almost impossible to find.

Though the Howard students were reticent at first, Von der Pool was soon making thousands of dollars a week selling her plant-based treats, proving that D.C. had an appetite for nutritious meals, even if the area itself wasn’t readily offering them. “Once I gave everyone a taste, they wanted more of it,” she says.

Getting her start as a vegan chef

Von der Pool’s stint at Howard University caught the attention of Westley Howard, founder of Egyptian Magic Healing Skin Cream. The wealthy businessman became her mentor and later her godfather, and she began cooking vegan meals for him professionally. “God has blessed me with great people who’ve stood the test of time in my life,” she says.

Throughout her time with Howard, Von der Pool once again witnessed the power of a plant-based diet firsthand. The entrepreneur had colon cancer and was scheduled to have most of his colon removed, but his health drastically improved within six months of working with Von der Pool. In addition to a vegan diet with herbal tonics, which Von der Pool says was a “foundational piece” of her mentor’s healing process, she began to do sound healing and affirmations with him as a way to raise his consciousness. 

Though Von der Pool didn’t specify if other medical interventions were used, Howard was cancer-free within six months. She notes that this positive experience propelled her forward, further into the plant-based space.

Howard encouraged a then 18-year-old Von der Pool to enroll at the Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, California, which is where she first met legendary chef Wolfgang Puck. From there, she worked for his catering company and her career really took off. “Within a month of me being at culinary school, I was catering the Oscars, the Grammys and the American Music Awards with Wolfgang, and really bringing vegan and raw foods into that realm,” she notes, pointing out that the chefs on the team hadn’t yet heard of now popular vegan foods like quinoa. ”Even though it wasn’t a vegan catering company, I really helped to bring veganism to that realm.”

Venus Williams, one of Von der Pool’s former clients, agrees, and wrote as much in the chef’s 2012 book, Eat Yourself Sexy. “Lauren is leading the charge for healthy and delicious meals in America,” the pro athlete declared.

Cooking for vegan athletes

Von der Pool began working with the Williams sisters around 2011 after being introduced to them through Common, who dated Serena. As she recalls, Serena was motivated to give a plant-based diet a try in solidarity with Venus after Venus was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s syndrome.

As a vegan chef, Von der Pool is keenly aware of the “power” she has, so she meditates before whipping up any dishes and finds her balance. As she puts it, “I am aware that how I feel and who I am is impacting the food just as much as the food is impacting me.” Then, the culinary expert taps into what she wants to taste or wants her client to taste and feel, and sets out to create a multi-sensory experience.

While each client obviously has different taste preferences and dietary requirements, Van der Pool has a roster of go-to vegan ingredients that includes coconut aminos, pink Himalayan salt, coconut oil, and plum vinegar. She also loves to decorate her dishes with edible flowers to make them more visually appealing.

When it comes to the food itself, Von der Pool mixes flavors and textures, and plays with presentation in an attempt to give people a unique experience. “It’s just these surprises from left and right, and having these different notes,” she says. “I want you to be completely moved. I want you to remember that you sat at my table to eat for the rest of your life. That’s what I go for.”

Not surprisingly, Von der Pool’s culinary approach varies from client to client. When working with the Williams sisters, athletic performance was obviously important. Von der Pool knew she had to prepare the “right” foods, including meals and juices packed with plenty of protein, such as nuts, beans, and seeds that could then be transformed into something completely different.

For example, one of Serena’s favorite meals is Von der Pool’s “Grand Slammin’ Tacos” which include vegan “meat” made out of nuts mixed with a flavorful seasoning blend that features cumin, paprika, and more. Serena has even made the tacos on her own, as she shared with USA Today in June 2013. “I used different nuts and it was delicious. I used a soft shell taco, cashews, walnuts and sunflower seeds,” she said at the time. “I put them in a mixer. You soak the nuts overnight and after you mix them you put them in the dehydrator. After that, I add seasoning, so it actually tastes like meat.”

Serena also noted that she frequently consults Von der Pool’s Eat Yourself Sexy cookbook when cooking on her own, calling it “a fun way to have great smoothies, [and a] great way to get different proteins in your system without eating meat.”

Von der Pool is quick to slam the notion that elite athletes like the Williams sisters need meat in their diets in order to thrive on the court or field. “People have this idea that you cannot be a high level athlete or high level performer on a vegan diet,” she says. “And that’s just absolutely not true, because the only thing that changed with Serena was me and her food.” Other vegan athletes, such as NBA star Kyrie Irving and football player Colin Kaepernick, are proof positive that vegan diets can lead to athletic success. In fact, many plant-based sports pros say they feel stronger, more agile, and more energetic after removing meat and animal products from their diets.

In addition to the aforementioned protein, which is essential for muscle recovery, pro athletes on a vegan diet need to make sure they’re getting enough calcium and carbohydrates. Consuming enough calories in a day to fuel their muscles and prevent fatigue is also important. “I’ll force myself to really carb up the night before [Wimbledon], especially later on in the tournament, because I know I won’t be able to eat in the morning,” Serena told Bon Appétit in 2013. “But carbing-up doesn’t mean pasta—I’m more into brown rice or sprouted quinoa.”

To ensure that Serena was getting the nutrients she needed to succeed, Von der Pool whipped up nutritious vegan smoothies and tossed plenty of hearty veggies in the drinks as a way to “trick” the tennis pro, though they took a little getting used to. “When I first started, Serena would pour out the green juices into the plants and act like she was drinking it. Serena is so funny, she’s the absolute best, but she’s just also like a mischievous child,” Von der Pool recalls. 

What followed was a “serious conversation” between the pair, in which Von der Pool pointed out that, at that time, Serena wasn’t playing to the best of her ability. “Once I said that to her, she got serious and was just eating and drinking everything I gave her,” Von der Pool says. “And that’s when she really started to see the difference. She understood that and she started to really make that shift.” 

Case in point: During that Bon Appétit chat, Serena noted that her refrigerator was packed with vegan smoothie staples such as “coconut water, Gatorade (my favorite!), cucumbers, mint, kale, vegetables, ginger, and wheatgrass.”

The lighthearted trickery extended to Venus, too, and was made possible thanks to some bold plant-based flavors. “Venus normally hates spinach, but I make a sesame spinach salad that she loves,” Von der Pool told Cooking Light in 2013. “I use ingredients like sesame oil and mix in different flavors—plum vinegars, curries. Food that’s flavored beautifully won’t be a chore to eat.”

Von der Pool echoed that sentiment in her chat with LIVEKINDLY, reiterating that she’s not above tricking clients who might be wary of sampling vegan dishes. “I don’t even make a big deal of it. If your food is bomb, [it doesn’t matter,]” she explains. “I don’t tell them what’s in it, and I give them things that they’re familiar with.”

Speaking of familiarity, Von der Pool also wants her food to tug at something a bit deeper when she’s working with clients, and strives to make sure that every meal isn’t just about satiating hunger. “I really like to get into who each person is. Once I know their background, what they like, what their grandma or mother liked to feed them—all those nostalgic points—I give them what they love,” she continues. “Then I ease in all the juices and the herbs and all of those different things. I don’t make it a big deal.”

Serena has said some of her favorite foods are her mom’s chicken, with rice and gravy and gumbo. In addition to making vegan versions of those dishes, Von der Pool threw together other plant-based staples like vegan sushi and a plant-based tuna wrap made with walnuts.

While Von der Pool notes there were some other “little” tweaks, she credits vegan food for vastly improving Serena’s tennis game. And the superstar’s record (and rapid improvement) speaks for itself. After a rough patch that lasted about three years and included a series of potentially career-ending injuries, Serena returned to the top of women’s tennis in 2013—within months of starting her work with Von der Pool. Since then, Serena has won dozens of matches, including numerous Grand Slam titles.

Making veganism accessible to all

Though Von der Pool acknowledges that working for and with celebrities and people in power is wonderful she wants to do more and make vegan food and the vegan lifestyle more accessible. With that in mind she founded her nonprofit, Von Der Pool Healthy Living Services, and the Fresh City Kids movement. Both initiatives strive to improve mind, body and soul through food choices and healthy lifestyle change.

The Fresh City Kids movement is aimed at young people and includes Washington. D.C.-based Fresh City Kids camp, which teaches youngsters about the importance of healthy eating. In 2017, Von der Pool authored the Fresh City Kids Recipe Book, which contains vegan recipes inspired by many of the campers.

On a larger scale, Von der Pool was also asked to serve as an executive chef for former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” childhood obesity prevention campaign in 2009. In that role, she encouraged youngsters to stay active and eat healthy, with a particular focus on whole fruits and vegetables.

“If I can’t bring this to the people who might not ever have access to the Olympics or Wimbledon or the White House or anything like that, I’m still not doing my job correctly,” she shares. “That’s all great and I feel like working with people on the high level is excellent because they have influence over the masses, but then it’s also getting into that grassroots, going into the community and making real-life shifts, that’s also super important to me.”

Van der Pool has also lobbied to get the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in the United States in 2010, and, just as she did after her near-death experience at 16, believes healthy, vegan eating is crucial. “This is going to help to heal the entire planet just by something as simple as what we’re eating. It seems so simple, but this is why I chose food, because people want to make a change,” she concludes. “I think this is the most gangster change you could ever make. You’ll be happier. You actually feel better.”