She's famed for her vegetarianism, having penned seven veggie cookbooks, and been at the pinnacle of the London food scene. She's counted Sir Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and Prince Charles among her clients.

But these days Nadine Abensur is more likely to be chowing down on a burger than a Brussels sprout.

The French-Moroccan chef and author followed a strict plant-based diet for 29 years after an incident when she was 19-years-old that shocked her into a meat-free lifestyle.

"I was at uni and I remember walking past a butcher's shop in the north of England in 1976 and a truck pulled up with a whole dead cow in the back. It was obliterated. I just took one look at it and was completely horrified," Nadine says. "So I became vegetarian overnight."


Looking back now, however, Nadine says her food choices during those almost three decades were misguided.

"I can honestly say that for every single day of those 29 years I felt unwell and I was in complete denial about it because I assumed, like everyone else did, that I was on a healthy diet. I ate lots of vegetables."

Nadine's food journey began early. Born in Casablanca to French-Jewish parents, her paternal grandparents arrived in Morocco - on foot - in 1917 following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Nadine's mother came from a long line of Spanish Jews, who'd gone to Morocco from their home country following the Spanish Inquisition.

"(My family are) really, really sophisticated and varied and brilliant cooks. Every single one of them was a brilliant cook. So I saw a lot as a child."

In 1950s and '60s Morocco, wealthy families often had servants, so Nadine would have people cooking for her during her early years. Yet when she stepped into the kitchen herself, she says it came naturally.

"It was in my blood," she remembers. "When I started cooking I just knew how. I never had to have a lesson or go and train with anybody.

"It was just in there."

And it still is, despite her drive to break free of her cooking pigeonhole.

"People would say to me: 'Oh, you're such a brilliant cook', and I would bristle because I'm so much more than that. It used to really upset me. So when I came to Australia I was determined to do something else."

On the trail of the late spiritual leader Barry Long, whose teachings she had closely followed for years, Nadine arrived in Australia in 2000.

"(Barry Long) taught everything that now has become so commonplace, like meditation and what we now call mindfulness, which is just a euphemism for meditation."

Yet Nadine's move didn't go quite as smoothly as she'd planned. She contracted whooping cough, an illness that would plague her for seven months and resist five courses of antibiotics.

"I just got sicker and sicker and sicker," she says.

"One morning I woke up and said: 'I want a beef burger.' So I went to a restaurant in Bangalow and I ordered the organic beef burger and I said: 'No chips, no bread.' The guy looked at me and said: 'Well you won't have much to eat then.'

"I took one mouthful and it was like every pore that was in my body just lapped it up. Then I went back three days in a row and ordered the same beef burger and by the end of the third day, I didn't have whooping cough anymore."

As a self-described "born again meat eater", it took Nadine some time to move on from her years of strict vegetarianism.

"I resisted it. I'd buy a piece of salmon or a piece of chicken that was already cut and just sort of tip it out of the tray without touching it because I was so grossed out. It took me years to surrender to the fact that, actually, I felt 100 per cent better when I ate meat and poultry and fish."

What triggered Nadine's latest personal food revolution was a cicatricial (or scarring) alopecia diagnosis. An auto-immune disorder that destroys hair follicles and replaces them with scar tissue, in some cases hair loss is gradual, without noticeable symptoms, and may go unnoticed for some time. I

"I got to my wits end about it, so I decided I had to do something," she says.

So she took to her diary, listing all of the foods she felt no longer agreed with her body.

"Then, two days later by complete fluke, somebody wrote to me and mentioned AIP. I Googled it and found 'auto-immune protocol'. And, I mean, you could have made a carbon copy of my diary pages, it was exactly the same thing. And I knew I had to do this."

Now focused on a diet of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and "zero sugar, zero dairy, zero pulses, zero nuts, zero seeds", Nadine says she's never felt better.

"People often talk about the sense of deprivation, but I don't feel remotely deprived. I feel liberated from my addiction to sugar, which I loved. I was the biggest chocoholic on the planet."

Once a jetsetting cooking teacher, Nadine now prefers to hold monthly local events, and for the past nine years has focused on her Mullumbimby Art Piece Gallery.

It's where her love of all things creative comes together, and food is never far from the focus.

When painter James Guppy exhibited at the space, and due to the dark and gothic nature of his work, Nadine held a themed sit-down dinner to complement an artist talk, which she catered herself.

"We turned the whole gallery into a medieval banquet and ate off stone plates and the waitresses dressed up as medieval kind of wenches," she chuckles. "It was absolutely fantastic."

"People look at me like I'm crazy, like having an art gallery in Mullumbimby, I must be nuts. But they have no idea who pulls up outside. I had Princess Mary in here last year."

Seems even holing up in Mullumbimby couldn't stop the twinkle of foodie fame from following Nadine Abensur.

Originally published as Famed vegetarian a 'born again meat eater'