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A savory barbecue aroma filled the kitchen as vegan chef Kiki Rochelle chopped potatoes, mixed seasonings and tended the simmering pot of sauce on the stove.

She kneaded seitan, a wheat-based dough with the starch washed away until all that is left is the protein, she said. The dish dates back to ancient China, its texture is similar to meat and it’s versatile, she said.

The meal she prepared for her customers last Thursday was a little different than what she usually makes, but perfect for cold weather. The “comfort food bowl” featured barbecue pulled seitan, garlic mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables crusted with a Parmesan-like topping. But the topping, like the rest of the meal, contained no cheese or any other animal products. Everything was made from scratch, even the side of vegan ranch dressing.

Rochelle started her homemade meal business Vegan in Wyoming in September. It’s been her full-time job since January. She prepares and delivers meals to customers twice a week.

Rochelle learned to cook out of necessity when she decided to go vegan as a teen, but it soon became her passion.

She returned to Casper after graduating from the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York City. Now she’s added a rare vegan dining option in her hometown. Through the Vegan in Wyoming website, she spotlights and helps connect fellow vegans to each other. Her aim is to show people that it’s easy and delicious to eat vegan.

“As far as what I am doing, really all I hope is I can just educate people and make veganism more accessible and help people realize that isn’t that hard, if you’re educated,” Rochelle said. “If you know somebody else who is doing what you’re doing, then it’s not as difficult and showing them how simple the food is to make.”

Growing passion for veganism and cooking

Rochelle was 14 when she found out some of the musicians she enjoyed were vegan. She never heard the word before and looked it up. She started reading about veganism, the meat, dairy and egg industries and animal rights. She realized that eating animals didn’t make sense to her.

“Before I knew it, I was watching videos and reading these articles about things that were going on in the meat industry and it was so horrifying to me,” Rochelle sad. “And it was a pretty quick decision. I realized that I didn’t want to support that at all.”

Her mother thought her decision to become vegan wouldn’t last.

“I thought it was a fad,” Ann Rochelle said. “I thought ‘I’ll support you,’ and I didn’t think it would go on — I thought maybe it would go on for a year or something.”

Rochelle knew she’d have to start cooking for herself, but she had no idea how. For the first month, she ate the same meal of tofu with tomato sauce and spinach, she recalled.

Then her mom gave her a cookbook and she started learning new recipes. She’s been cooking since.

Rochelle trained at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Art, where 80 percent of the curriculum focuses on plant-based food, she said. Rochelle graduated in 2016 from the school and worked in a vegan café for about half a year in New York City.

Last summer, she started selling vegan desserts at the Wyoming Food for Thought farmers market in Casper. People suggested she offer meals, she said. With few dining options for vegans, she decided to create one of her own, she said.

Rochelle didn’t know what to expect when she started Vegan in Wyoming.

“Before I started this, I had only met one other vegan,” she said. “So I wondered, ‘Are there actually any of us out there?’”

A growing movement

She’s since met about 20 vegans in the Casper area through her growing business, she said. She started off preparing a few meals once a week. Now she sometimes delivers up to 20 meals and offers her food twice a week, she said. Her blog on her website features cooking tips, product reviews and the stories of other vegans in town, like Sabrina Finch.

Finch was pleased to have a new dining option and to learn about other vegans in the Cowboy State, she said in a message.

“I think that it is easy to feel alone in Wyoming for those who don’t like meat as it is such a cultural norm here to hunt and fish,” she said. “This means most people aren’t quick to tell others that they are vegan or curious about it. I was skeptical at first about putting myself out there, but nothing but positivity has stemmed from it.”

But not all of the customers are vegan.

Barbara Maguire has enjoyed Vegan in Wyoming meals at her daughter’s suggestion, she said. She’s not vegan, and wasn’t sure about the food at first, she said.

“It’s just so surprising how good it is,” she said.

She didn’t miss eating meat while they enjoyed the barbecue seitan dish last Thursday, she said.

Ann Rochelle is a customer of her daughter’s business too. She and her younger daughter have not become vegan, but they enjoy meals and have become healthier since they’ve been eating more vegetables, Ann said. She never expected Kiki’s veganism to last, but her daughter pursued it in a culinary education and career.

“I wasn’t really sure where it was going to go for Kiki, and I’m proud of where it has taken her,” Ann said.

Wyoming offers few options for vegan dining and groceries, Rochelle said. But as she discovered as a teen, everything needed for vegan cooking can be found at grocery store, she said.

“One of the most frequent things I get asked is, “Isn’t it hard to be vegan here?’” Rochelle said. “It’s just a misconception.”

But in Wyoming’s meat-and-potatoes culture, connecting with other vegans to share ideas and support can be tough.

“It makes it really difficult because nobody really wants to talk about it, and there isn’t a whole lot of support out there unless you find other vegans,” Rochelle said.

Rochelle would like to eventually open a storefront, perhaps a café and bakery. The best part about running her own business is the people she meets. Some are vegan or interested in becoming vegan. She’s encouraged to see the demand and excited to be part of a growing vegan movement in Casper, she added.

“That encourages me and makes me want to do more of what I’m doing,” Rochelle said. “Because when you find that one person, even if it’s one out of every 100 people that appreciate what you’re doing and realize that this is a helpful thing, it definitely makes it.”

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Follow reporter Elysia Conner on Twitter @erconner

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