Toronto’s Mena Massoud goes from Aladdin star to culinary series host

It was while living with his two best friends in Toronto in 2015, and going to Toronto Metropolitan University’s theatre school while pulling 12-hour restaurant shifts together, that actor Mena Massoud — and his buddies — discovered what it truly means to be vegan.

Little by little, they learned about animal and meat products and how they affect the body, and how cutting out meat could lead to a number of benefits. They’d share their research with each other and, one by one, slowly stripped their diets of eggs, chicken and meat. Soon, it became a lifestyle.

“All of us really started noticing a lot of very big shifts in our bodies and in our minds that we never thought we would,” says Massoud. “We would be zipping around the restaurant, we had more energy it seemed than anybody else. That’s where the idea for Evolving Vegan came from. You come to it in your own time, in phases and stages, because food is how we connect to our emotions.”

That sentiment, which helpfully eliminates any intimidation surrounding a vegan diet, is the core thesis of Massoud’s TV series Evolving Vegan, which debuted its second season on Crave and CTV Life on April 16. 

It follows the actor-turned-host through various major cities known for their cuisines as he steps into popular kitchens and discovers how local chefs craft their signature vegan dishes. It also makes each vegan meal look better than any meat dish (seriously). This season, we watch Massoud make his way through Philadelphia, Montréal, Miami, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Tokyo, with guests like magician and actor Penn Jillette; comedian Maz Jobrani; educator and food historian Zella Palmer; and New York Times best-selling cookbook authors Carleigh Bodrug and Radhi Devlukia.

Not only does the series capture Massoud engaging with his two great passions — food and travel — but it signifies just how far the actor has come. Performing for over a decade, his very big break came with Disney’s 2019 live-action Aladdin remake in which he, of course, played the beloved lead alongside Will Smith and Naomi Scott. 

He followed those with roles in Jack Ryan and Reprisal, the Rob Ford drama Run this Town, and a few TV rom-coms, but it’s when he headed back home to Toronto — with Evolving Vegan, for which he’s also a producer and picked up a 2023 Canadian Screen Award nomination for his hosting skills — that he seemed to finally be holding the reins. He also published a cookbook in 2020, inspired by the show and his mother’s own kitchen.

In fact, one might say its family — and food — that’s always kept him coming back home. “Growing up in Toronto, my parents were very Egyptian,” says Massoud. “We spoke Arabic at home and we ate Egyptian food, so I was very connected to my culture and have always been fascinated by all cultures. It’s opened my eyes to how people think, live, work and eat differently. I think we can get so caught up in the North American way of doing things; we’re hyper-obsessed with work, it’s hard for me to shut that part off. But when I travel, I see how shutting off benefits a lot of other cultures. They’re able to build a community and connection.”

So as much of a busy guy as Massoud is — he’s got a few upcoming films, a podcast and a production company — it helps to involve his family.

“That’s the amazing thing about a show like this, I’m playing myself,” he says. “And because I’m playing myself, I get to show different parts of my life.” 

For instance, in Evolving Vegan’s first season, one particular episode centres entirely around Toronto, and pays a visit to his sister’s home as viewers watch his whole family cook together.

“When you leave all your cousins, aunts and uncles in Egypt and emigrate to a country like Canada, it’s important to stick together and build that family bond because you really don’t have anybody else,” adds Massoud. 

A benefit in keeping close to home has been the balance Massoud’s family often provides him. He’s the only one who is a performer, while his two sisters are pharmacists, and his brothers-in-law are, respectively, also a pharmacist and an engineer (like his father). And yes, in case you’re wondering, they did hope and pray he’d become a doctor — as brown parents are wont to do.

Massoud explains, “[I] tend to live in a bubble now in Hollywood; they ground me and remind me of the real world.”

Another important person Evolving Vegan viewers have gotten to know is Emily Shah, Massoud’s frequent collaborator and fiancée, whom he proposed to while shooting the show in Japan in December. Which means wedding planning is one more thing on his already lengthy to-do list.

“I’m a horrible husband! I’ve sat down to talk wedding maybe twice so far,” says Massoud. “We’re in the very early stages of it, and haven’t set a date yet. I’ve been busy, I haven’t had a chance to really sit down and get planning, but hopefully soon.”

Surely, with him being Egyptian and his love of food, and her being Indian, there’s going to be an incredible dinner?

“I don’t know! We’re probably going to do an Indian ceremony and then an Orthodox ceremony, so it’ll be a couple nights, but the Indian night, that’ll probably be a buffet,” Massoud says, wheels spinning. “It should be, right?”

Whatever the case, this is one vegan all wedding guests can be sure to trust.

FAST FACTS:

Favourite vegan restaurants in the city: 

“If I want a quick bite and I want something healthy, I always go to Fresh. I love Planta. But if you want to go to a really intimate place and have some of the best pasta you’ve ever had, Gia. And if you want dirty comfort food, l would go to Hogtown Vegan. Try their wings or mac and cheese. And finally, Honey’s Ice Cream, which was featured on Evolving Vegan’s first season.”

Favourite local coffee:

Rooster Coffee House

Favourite Toronto chef:

Matt Ravenscroft, currently head chef at Gia, and formerly of Rosalinda, The Drake, and Parts & Labour

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO