Mark Bittman: Why I Quit My Dream Job at the New York Times

Question Everything: Would you ever leave your dream job?
Getty Images; Illustration by Kirsten Salyer for TIME

My new dream job is to get healthier food onto the plates of more Americans

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Could there be a better week to form a company specializing in vegan meals? As everyone knows, the World Health Organization last week labeled processed meat a carcinogen and said red meat was probably dangerous as well. Not news, exactly, but a further confirmation that plant-based diets are where it’s at.

It was the determination to get healthier food onto the dinner plates of more Americans that led me to leave the New York Times, where I had what most people would think was a dream job: as weekly Opinion columnist and the lead food writer for the Sunday Magazine. But really: Not only was I ready for something new, it felt like it was time to put my boots on the ground.
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So when David Mayer contacted me, I was primed. Mayer is the lead investor in The Purple Carrot, a plant-based meal kit company founded in Boston by Andy Levitt last year. Dave, who never uses 100 words when he can use 1,000, wrote me a long e-mail that said, among other salient things, that he wanted to build a company so people would “cook meals with real food, talk about it, show their kids what cooking is and connect on that and what it means. Imagine the implications … if we could help …. hundreds of millions of Americans to eat vegan at least two nights a week. Make it easy, really good and affordable.”

I was pretty much sold at that point. Dave and Andy came to D.C., where I was that week and, with my friend Maddy Beckwith—a knowledgeable food person and a savvy investor—we went out for lunch. (I tried to impress them all by booking the table, but not only did the restaurant not recognize my name they couldn’t find the reservation.) Maddy and I fired questions: Why vegan, rather than almost vegan, which has been my philosophy for the last 10 years or so? What kept them from appealing only to vegans? What about the ridiculous amounts of packaging meal kits use? Where was the food coming from? And so on.

I was perhaps a tad obnoxious, sensing, it seems to me in hindsight, that my life was about to change in a big way. But the men, who are in their mid-40s, patiently answered every question. And Andy and I proceeded to talk on the phone daily, for hours: We were, in effect, dating. And I did fall in love with The Purple Carrot. In August I told my editors at the Times that I was leaving.

TPC is the embodiment of the approach to food that I have been endorsing in my work for nearly ten years: a move towards a plant-based diet. I’ve said before (and in saying this I owe a debt to Dean Ornish), that eating is a spectrum. Both ends of that spectrum—the Morgan Spurlock end and the raw-carrots-and-celery-only end—are extreme.

But almost all Americans are way too close to the wrong end, and need to move in the other direction not only for our health, but for the sake of our planet and everything else that lives on it. The junk-food and animal-heavy Standard American Diet (you might call it SAD) wreaks havoc on our bodies, on the environment (it’s a major contributor to climate change, among other things), and on the creatures we raise for nuggets, dollar cheeseburgers, and baconators.

The Purple Carrot is an opportunity to help people change for the better; it’s not about “giving up meat,” but about adding some wonderful meals to your diet every week, meals that happen to be vegan.

We’re re-launching this week with a much-improved website and user experience, distribution in most of the country, better sourcing, a policy of paying no less than $15 an hour to all of our workers, and, I hope (my reputation is on the line), fantastic recipes.

All is not perfect (we are, after all, a start-up). Our packaging is the best we can make it (and we’re including return labels so we can handle re-use and recycling), but it has a long way to go, although this is industry-wide and I hope we can work with our competitors to improve it. Our sourcing is a work in progress; we’re establishing relationships with suppliers day-by-day, and I hope that by Spring we’ll be getting all of our ingredients from people we know and trust.

But here’s the thing: All of us need to eat dinner, most of us need to learn to cook beautiful food, with love, and all of us could use more plant-based meals. The goal of The Purple Carrot is to make all of that easier. Working toward that has been an easy transition for me to make.

Mark Bittman is a writer and co-founder of The Purple Carrot.

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