Gwyn Whitaker teaches a class that emphasizes a plant-based diet at her restaurant in Herndon. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Wearing an apron and sterile gloves, Gwyn Whittaker emptied packets of diced tomatoes, peas and onions into a heated pan, then stirred in some mushrooms and spices. She was giving a cooking demonstration for customers at her restaurant, GreenFare Organic Cafe in Herndon, Va. Ten minutes later, voilà.

Dinner was served.

"All it takes is a little planning, and preparing a nutritious and tasty meal can be fast and easy," she said.

Whittaker sounded like a seasoned chef on a TV cooking show. But her restaurant venture was barely two years old — and a marked departure from her previous line of work. A graduate of Virginia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering, she had founded an information management technology company that provided supercomputing power to the nation's counterterrorism efforts.

Then, in response to her fiance's death of a heart attack in 2009, she sold the company and last year opened GreenFare — a cafe that serves as something of a dietary training camp in her war on heart disease.

"He was 50 years old, from South Carolina, and his favorite topic was barbecue," Whittaker said of her fiance. "I thought the heart problem was genetic until I watched a film where doctors concluded that heart disease shouldn't even exist. They said it was the result of dietary choices, as was diabetes and some cancers. So I decided to pursue it."

Whittaker invited me to the cafe after reading a column about how much I hate broccoli. She empathized, having also dined on canned broccoli and asparagus as a child.

"They were all stringy and slimy and had a tinny taste," she recalled. Exactly.

Now, she wanted me to taste those same foods the way they were meant to be consumed — fresh, organically grown, cooked without oils (if not eaten raw) and lightly seasoned with natural spices.

Whittaker, 60, grew up in Norfolk. Her father worked for 40 years as a rocket scientist at NASA, and her mother was an accountant who ran her own business. At Virginia Tech in the late 1970s, Whittaker became the first female student elected to represent the college of engineering in student government.

She was working as a technology consultant in New York on 9/11. The next day, she began setting up her own company, Mosaic, which performed cloud computing and satellite data processing for intelligence agencies.

Her fiance's heart attack eight years later led to another life change. "I kept wondering what could I have done to prevent it."

A friend showed her a film, "Forks Over Knives," which explores how a plant-based diet may prevent or control diabetes and cancer. She read books on nutrition and delved into the scientific data on foods that have been shown to work like medicine in the prevention and reversal of heart disease.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) — which leads to heart disease, heart failure and stroke — accounts for an estimated 800,000 deaths in the United States annually, according to a 2017 report by the American Heart Association. To put it in a different perspective, the report said, "an average of one person dies from CVD every 40 seconds."

The main culprits are fatty foods, which clog the arteries with plaque, and salty foods, which raise blood pressure too high. Each year, an estimated 790,000 Americans have a heart attack, the report said.

That's a lot of 911 calls.

"When I drive to Virginia Tech, through the back roads of Southwest Virginia, I look at the food choices — the Dollar Store, the gas station, the convenience store — and I notice all the pharmacies — Walgreens and CVS and the new hospitals," Whittaker said. "Our society is like a disease industry in which people get to buy cheap processed foods, then pay for expensive medicines when the food makes them sick. How do we break that cycle?"

GreenFare was her answer.

Whittaker enrolled in a dietary program at Cornell University and became certified in plant-based nutrition. She spent 10 days at a wellness clinic in Santa Rosa, Calif., run by John McDougall, a physician and author of several books about treating degenerative diseases with a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based vegan diet. She took cooking classes and became a master gardener.

Then she found space in the Herndon Centre mall and hired a general manager, Pericles Silva, a world-class athlete from Brazil who had developed a healthful eating program for the Whole Foods store in Reston. She pledged to pay all her employees a living wage. Dishwashers make $15 an hour.

There was a full house for the cooking demonstration I attended earlier in December. The cafe also hosts a nutrition lecture series and shows films about healthful eating, which also are well attended. Anyone interested in turning a whole-food meal into a lifestyle can sign up for a GreenFare 21-day "kick-start" program, which comes with three weeks of prepared meals, group support and shopping tips. A version of the meal plan without the food is available free.

Neal Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a fellow of the American College of Cardiology, helped Whittaker set up the nutrition program. He called GreenFare "a restaurant on a mission."

Whittaker, who practices what she preaches, said, "I feel better today than I did at 40. Sleep issues, gone. Anxiety issues, gone."

For me, when it comes to restaurants, the proof of the pudding is in the taste. I had a GreenFare house salad, enchiladas, hibiscus tea, and "lava cake," a dessert made from red beans, sweet potatoes, dates, vanilla and cocoa powder. It was delicious.

As an electrical engineer skilled in big-data computing, Whittaker had helped transform the nation's defenses against terrorist threats. Now, as an organic restaurateur and advocate for healthful eating, she wants people to stop terrorizing themselves with toxic foods.

"It's really just going back to what we were intended to eat," Whittaker explained. "We don't have carnivore teeth. We have fingernails instead of claws. We are too slow to chase down animals. Our eyes are designed to pick up the colors of fruits and vegetables. So, it makes sense that we should be eating plants, not animals."

An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified Neal Barnard as a cardiologist at George Washington University. He is an adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.