As a vegan, I am often faced with trying gastronomic predicaments when I travel.There are the constant questions about whether some dish or other is “kosher,” whether it contains eggs or butter.A couple of years ago, with my belly rumbling, my eye fell on the vegetable soup item in the Norwegian restaurant I was at, only to be told that it contained fish. A few months later, it transpired that the same item in an Amsterdam eatery had been “enhanced” with bacon and butter. This is vegetable soup we’re talking about here which, by rights, should comprise nothing but vegetables, water and seasoning.There were no such dilemmas at the Duhl Center in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago. Strolling around the food stations at the annual Vegan Conference, all one had to do was consider what took their fancy, purchase a coupon and tuck in.However, the conference was not just about vegan-friendly chow. There were matters of a more serious nature taking place in the auditorium. The 620-seater hall was packed to the rafters and there was a pervading sense of unison and an almost celebratory buzz in the air.The speaker lineup included a mix of pioneering activists and the odd VIP. One of the most pleasing aspects of the proceedings was the absence of preaching, and sanctimonious ranting and raving. Ronen Barr, a mover and shaker in trying to put a stop to abusive behavior towards animals at such organizations as the Tnuva dairy product giant, talked about the importance of eschewing sensationalist and provocative activity to get the vegan message across.“Today, we are part of the mainstream, and we want to stay there,” he said, noting some unsavory incidents involving extreme behavior by vegans in the past. “We are not going there,” he declared to wild applause. There is, of course, the widely held view that in order to get your body to perform at peak level you need to ply it with substantial fuel that can only be had by sinking one’s teeth into a juicy steak or two. That notion was totally blown out of the water by the appearance at the conference by two athletes who engage in the very highest level of their respective fields.Ariel Rosenfeld took part in a three-member panel discussion, alongside clinical dietitian Tal Haikin and GP Dr. Zvia Schiffer who has made a name for herself in recent years as a determined advocate of veganism as a means of preventing the incidence of serious ailments, such as cancer and heart disease.Rosenfeld is an ultra-marathon runner, and frequently covers distances of 61 to 100 km. He has also completed a mind-boggling 246 km. race. His nutritional mainstay, he informed the audience, is almost exclusively fruit and vegetables with the odd supplement of pulses. He added that since he became a vegan his recovery times after his runs have shortened appreciably.The second super-athlete on call at the conference was hard to miss. The security personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport didn’t miss Patrik Baboumian either, as he lined up with his German passport.The problem with the 36-yearold strongman was the fact that he was born in Iran.“They were all very nice to me,” said Baboumian. “I have no complaints about their behavior, but it wasn’t fun being detained for two hours.” Thankfully, he made it to the Duhl Center and he was soon into his stride, posing for photos with all manner of admirers – generally of the feminine gender.Baboumian cuts a striking figure, with his long sleeked-back hair and impressive bulk, not to mention the carefully coiffed facial hair, which even takes in a couple of luxurious plaits hanging down from the corners of his chin. Like many with such a muscular physique, Baboumian is the gentlest of characters and he greets you with a soft smile and handshake that is firm but considerate.The German-Iranian, who in fact calls himself an Armenian, has quite a record of accomplishment in the sport. He won the German Junior Bodybuilding crown at the age of 20, he holds various log lift records and has held a log weighing 190 kg. aloft. In 2012 he won the German log lift title for the fourth year in succession, also winning the European Powerlifting title in Finland in that, which followed his 2011 Strongest Man crown in Germany in the 105-kg. category. At the time, Baboumian was a vegetarian, and his success did a lot to raise the vegetarian banner. But shortly after his Strongest Man win he completed eschewed animal products and is now a vegan.“I was the first vegetarian to win the title, but I was an ethical vegetarian and I realized I was not being consistent,” he says.“If you look at how eggs are produced, and how dairy products are produced, that also involves a lot of animal suffering.”Baboumian was also keen to use his stardom to good advantage.“The media made a big deal out of me being a vegetarian, and when I announced I was vegan they went even more crazy,” he laughs. “They said, ‘he’s gone completely nuts.’ They also wanted to see if it would work – if I would crumble or I’d maintain my size.”If the media people were expecting the muscle man to lose volume they were to be sorely disappointed.“The funny thing is, when I became vegan I weighed 115 kg. and I’m now 135 kg.”That is surprising, considering Baboumian has not changed his routine at all, just his diet.“I trained for quite a long time, but I have always made progress in little steps. I have never had a plateau and I think I would, naturally, have increased by around 10 kilos. But going vegan has had a lot of positive effect on my health – my blood pressure was getting better, joint pain was getting much better, inflammation got better, my recovery got better and when you have better recovery you can train more.”Hence the muscle mass upturn.There’s more.“When I was a vegetarian, I had a lot of problems with acid in the stomach,” Baboumian continues. “That was probably from dairy products, but I didn’t know that at that time. The funny thing is, I used milk and dairy products with my stomach pain because, when you drink milk, it helps at first. But I didn’t realize I was putting wood into the fire. I was trying to put the fire out by putting more and more wood inside,” he laughs.“When I stopped using dairy products the stomach pain just went away.”Hallelujah! The other foreign VIP at the gathering was former Citibank CEO Philip Wollen. The 65-year-old Australian became a vegan after quitting the company and is now a prominent member of the global animal rights movement.The Medal of the Order of Australia recipient prompted wild applause as he told the conference goers about his help with funding efforts to prevent whaling and the hunting of baby seals in the Antarctic Ocean.Wollen’s address did not always make for pleasant listening, as he “regaled” us with some highly disturbing facts and figures about the global meat and dairy industries, and likened the cries of hunted animals to that of his late father who was dying of cancer.“We are fed not by farmers but by contract killers,” he stated. “Veganism is a baseline for an ethical form of life.”That’s certainly food for thought, and things appear to be moving in the desired direction as more and more vegan eateries, or vegetarian restaurants with separate vegan menus, open up for business.The scale suggests that veganism and vegan- friendliness in this country are clearly way past the “popular trend” stage.