Cheese Nuts

When it comes to marriage, a danger sign might be when the husband says, “I’ve always been attracted to craziness.”

Another possible warning: The bride is 32, the groom, 17.

Or when your relationship makes the pages of The National Enquirer — that could mean trouble.

But Heidi Van Pelt has never been conventional.

Her parents divorced when she was barely a year old, and she was shuttled back and forth between a mother who missed her swim meets and a father who couldn’t remember her birthday.

Marsha Duncan could see that her daughter was anything but a conformist. In elementary school, Van Pelt had such a unique style that Duncan says she called a teacher to say, “Please don’t think I dress my child like that.” Still, Duncan (a native Midwesterner who has worked in corporate human resources and city clerk jobs) encouraged Van Pelt to find her niche — no matter how offbeat.

“Probably something most people don’t say to their children: I said, ‘If you want to be a prostitute, you damn well better be a good one and get the high dollar,'” she recalls.

At Oak Park and Blue Springs high schools, Van Pelt was the odd, artsy girl who wore bright turquoise and orange in the dead of winter. After graduating in 1986, she studied fashion design at Stephens College in Columbia, but her classmates, she says, were more like sorority girls than couture creators. She tried studying German and philosophy at the University of Missouri but was lured to Seattle in 1988 by the University of Washington’s Russian Studies program — she hoped to become a CIA agent.

She quit that program with one semester left. She started a media company called Emergent Films, but when work dried up in the grunge capital, she reluctantly moved to Los Angeles. She quickly grew frustrated bouncing between TV and movie sets as a production assistant and a prop master.

But Los Angeles proved an ideal place for Van Pelt to find her true calling: vegan cooking.

Van Pelt had been a vegetarian for several years, and in Seattle, she’d met animal-rights activists who also shunned dairy products, eggs and even honey. To a Midwesterner, even an eccentric one, this sounded like a cult. She joined.

In the years that followed, Van Pelt’s skills as a vegan chef took her to the center of the Hollywood party life, where she met the child star who would become her husband.

Now, her culinary skills have brought her back to Kansas City, where her ridiculous marriage is dissolving in a sordid, lawsuit-ridden explosion of vegan cheese.
In 1994, with an online certificate from the American Academy of Nutrition, Van Pelt worked as a nutritional counselor at a clinic in Los Angeles’ rough Watts neighborhood. She taught homeless people how to salvage the shriveled greens they got from food pantries and instructed Head Start families how to eat a balanced diet on little income.

Van Pelt also co-hosted a show called Raw Health on the local Pacifica radio station. When her name started circulating, she landed catering and nutritional counseling jobs — Woody Harrelson was among her clients.

So when Zachary Ty Bryant and Taran Noah Smith — both young stars of the hit sitcom Home Improvement — showed up at her house for a raw-food dinner party in 1998, it was hardly anything to write home about. Smith was just some 14-year-old, meat-eating kid; Van Pelt didn’t pay him much attention.

But the two crossed paths again at a movie premiere in 2000. They struck up a conversation about the band Radiohead. Among Van Pelt’s numerous hobbies was playing the bass; Smith invited her to his house in Sherman Oaks to jam in his recording studio.


Months later, Van Pelt gave him a call. They began spending time together. He told her about how he’d been chosen from 400 kids to star as Mark Taylor, about how he’d learned from tutors instead of going to school, about how he’d been the family breadwinner before he hit puberty.

Their personalities meshed.

Van Pelt thought the former actor was quirky and charismatic; she saw him as a fiery, self-assured Aries. He was also 16 years younger.

She felt awkward about the age difference, but she was in the middle of a nasty breakup with a live-in boyfriend. She agreed to move in with Smith.

He tells the Pitch he wasn’t bothered by the age difference or the fact that their relationship progressed so quickly. “Yeah, people would say that’s weird, but my whole life has been pretty weird so I’m kind of used to it.”

Smith still lived with his parents; he told them that the 32-year-old Van Pelt was 25. Two months later, an argument about a speeding ticket betrayed his girlfriend’s age. “They freaked out and kicked her out,” he says of his parents.

The two went on the run, crashing on friends’ couches. They traveled south of the city and worked on a farm for a couple of months. Back in Los Angeles, Van Pelt got them a window installation job at a Melrose boutique.

She remembers how the employees and customers kept telling Smith, “You look exactly like that kid on Home Improvement.”

“I get that all the time,” he’d reply, keeping his cover.

When they banked a thousand bucks, the couple flew to Maui for four months. Smith says he made $12 an hour as a landscaper. Van Pelt taught cooking classes out of their home in Haiku.

Their fugitive status kept her on edge — especially when her friends in California called and said a private investigator had been asking about her. She felt responsible for Smith, but every time she pressed for him to return home, he’d ask her to hold out a little longer. And Van Pelt knew what he was going through. She’d watched his mother confront him with head shots of him at age 7, pushing him to get back into acting, implying that the family would be destitute if he refused. Van Pelt wanted to help him out.

Then she made tabloid headlines.

“Home Improvement Kid Missing; cops called in after he disappears with lover” blared the National Enquirer in March 2001. The attention was unwanted, but Smith and Van Pelt pocketed $5,000 for the photo.

But as time wore on, Smith says he realized the gravity of their situation.

“Up until that point, I was legally a runaway,” he says. “If we’d been stopped by the police and taken back to California, I would have been locked in a room somewhere. And Heidi would have gotten in trouble.”

He also had to do something to stop his parents from siphoning funds from the $1.5 million he earned during his eight years on the show and the $60,000 in annual syndication residuals he received. Until he turned 18, Smith would have no control over the small fortune that had bought his family a $585,000 home and 49-foot sailboat — unless he found a way to make himself an adult in the eyes of the law.


Smith, now 17, thought marriage was the answer.

Van Pelt had reservations. But she had one old Kansas City friend she knew could help them — the guy who had taken her to the Kearney High School senior prom in 1985. David Scott Whinery, a lawyer then living in Lawrence, arranged a secret wedding. He took advantage of an odd Kansas statute that allowed the local district judge to swear him in as a judge for the day (Marla Luckert, who is now a justice on the Kansas Supreme Court, did him the favor) so he could pronounce them husband and wife. They held the ceremony at the law office of his pal Pedro Irigonegaray — surely the only law office in Topeka with a swimming pool.

On April 27, 2001, Van Pelt and Smith, both barefoot, exchanged mood rings.

“The most ridiculous part, I guess, was, the ring bearers were strippers,” Whinery says now.

Despite the spectacle, it was a sentimental moment for Van Pelt. “It was pretty major. I thought I was getting married. To me, I was making a commitment to a good friend. And, of course, I loved him.”

Reporters from Inside Edition interviewed Whinery. A camera crew from Entertainment Tonight flew out twice. Whinery says Hollywood tabloids offered him as much as $25,000 for the wedding video.

The courts were unimpressed. A California judge rejected the marriage. (California doesn’t recognize common-law marriage, and, according to Kansas law, both parties must be 18 years old or have the consent of a parent.) So, despite his poolside vows, Smith was denied access to his trust. The newlyweds decided to settle in Lawrence and wait out Smith’s birthday the next April.

Far from the Los Angeles party scene, Smith seemed more mature, Van Pelt says. They were just like any other couple.

“That was when I was happy,” she says. “That was the only time I liked being married to Taran.”

The marital bliss would last barely a year.

Long before she’d met Smith, Van Pelt had created a recipe to make cheese from cashew nuts.

Van Pelt says she converted Smith — a former fan of the In & Out burger chain — to an animal-free diet. Even a rookie vegan like Smith could see that there were no good fake cheeses on the market. While they were living in Lawrence, the two came up with a concept for vegan restaurants. They called the venture Playfood.

When Smith turned 18 in 2002 and the couple moved back to Los Angeles, they jointly incorporated Playfood in the state of Delaware. Smith was the chairman and CEO. Van Pelt was president.

To promote their new product, they bought a $45,000 van, painted it orange and emblazoned their Playfood logo on the side. They drove their mobile catering service to art openings and trade shows. And they invited people to the Smith family’s half-million-dollar house, which Smith now owned and his parents no longer lived in, for promotional dinners.

Van Pelt had thrown low-key dinner parties for years. This was different. Smith had built rooms full of furniture made from recycled boards and bits of glass and set up the house as a restaurant. The unofficial Playfood café could seat 80 people; Van Pelt and Smith often served more than 200 people in just a few hours.

Local artists painted the walls and hung their work. Van Pelt and Smith booked undiscovered performance artists or nationally known bands such as the Ditty Bops. Daryl Hannah was a regular; they got catering gigs for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge.


They weren’t a licensed food establishment. “This was all under the radar of the IRS,” Van Pelt adds. “This was free cash.”

The couple was also making a killing on the stock market. In 2003, Van Pelt got a tip from an environmentally savvy friend about Save the World Air, a sure-bet company that manufactured clean-air technology for cars. That year, Smith bought 600,000 shares and 600,000 options at 50 cents each. The stock peaked at $3. Smith says the couple netted more than a million dollars.

“It was a party house every night of the week,” Van Pelt says. “And I don’t just mean dinner — I mean party. We had poles in our house for people to play on. Half of my friends were strippers.”

“It was like Burt Reynolds’ house in Boogie Nights,” confirms Whinery, who sometimes visited.

But being back in Los Angeles accentuated the couple’s age difference. Van Pelt started to resent her still-teenage husband. During the restaurant parties, he got to play host, having all the fun in the front of the house. “Taran just enjoyed being a party monster all the time while I was sweeping and cleaning,” she says. “It was pretty much a nightmare. Like Cinderella and the stepsisters — I always felt like I was trapped by the evil stepsisters in L.A.”

The Playfood buzz kept them together longer than their affection lasted, Smith says. In mid-2005 he suggested that they break up. When she refused, he proposed an open relationship. A week before Van Pelt’s 37th birthday, he came back to Missouri to spend the weekend with Whinery. And another woman.

He remembers Van Pelt’s words as he left for Kansas City: “Make sure she’s pretty and use a condom.”

When she heard that Smith had spent the weekend decked out in costumes and wigs, partying in Westport with another woman, she says, “Basically, I broke every dish in the house.”

Meanwhile, their restaurant patrons were eager to see Van Pelt’s cashew cheese in grocery stores. Though they were sleeping in different beds, the couple tried to reconcile. After all, they’d just secured a storefront in the up-and-coming Studio City neighborhood, with plans to turn it into a Playfood restaurant. The space wasn’t big enough to produce commercial volumes of cheese, so they hoped to find a manufacturing facility in Kansas City and divide their time between Sherman Oaks and Westport.

Then Smith went to Burning Man, an annual festival of art, music and drugs in the middle of the Nevada desert, with one of Van Pelt’s good friends.

For Van Pelt, that was the end. “I said, ‘That’s it. We’re done. I’m definitely moving to Kansas City. Period.'”

When Marsha Duncan visited her daughter in Los Angeles, she felt out of place. Duncan says it was surprising to see Van Pelt in the Hollywood crowd.

“Her husband and those people were extremely creative, intelligent, but different, you know?” she says. “She lived that lifestyle where there wasn’t any kind of set schedule going on.”

When Van Pelt called in 2005 to say that she and Smith were thinking about a production plant in Kansas City, Duncan found a warehouse-type space in the commercial caves under Park University.

Smith shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to install electricity, put up walls and paint the interior striking shades of orange and green.


But Van Pelt admits that she wasn’t ready to run the company in Missouri. She’d been gone for nearly two decades. She knew only two people in her former hometown, and she’d just left a city of constant stimulation.

Almost immediately, she met musician Jeremiah Rozzo, then a member of the band Minds Under Cover, and turned all of her attention to him. She trusted her mother and aunt to get Playfood off the ground.

“Then I came in here one day and realized I’d kind of been on vacation for too long,” she says.

But when Van Pelt tried to get down to business in Kansas City, Smith was occupied elsewhere. He says he continued to fund the company, but Van Pelt says that when she needed money, he was traveling with his girlfriend or camping out to save an inner-city farm in Los Angeles that was being threatened by a Wal-Mart developer.

By spring 2006, Playfood was months behind in bills and two weeks late with payroll, Van Pelt says. She tried to take out a small-business loan but says her credit was shot. A Visa in her name — but in Smith’s possession — was $9,000 overdue with car payments and cable bills for Smith’s Sherman Oaks house. She says she had no choice but to take out a second mortgage on her Westport home.

“I was financially fucking ruined,” she says.

Smith says Van Pelt’s financial troubles were because of her lifestyle and that she stuck him with thousands of dollars of unpaid expenses on a joint American Express card.

In April, though, he agreed to sign over 100,000 shares of the Save the World Air stock. He says he wanted to bankroll Playfood with a sizable sum that would get the company off the ground, teach Van Pelt some money-management skills and get her out of his hair.

Van Pelt claims that he gave her only a stingy portion of what they had jointly earned during their marriage and that he said he wanted nothing more to do with her cashew cheese.

She tried to dissolve their business partnership, asking Smith to step down as CEO and sign over all trademark rights to Van Pelt.

He refused. He suggested that the company needed an independent board of directors to make clearheaded decisions, which the dueling couple was unable to do.

Van Pelt didn’t heed his advice. Her California lawyer, Dan Cross, recommended that she set up a second company to cover the Parkville operation. When she incorporated Playfood Manufacturing LLC in May, Smith was not a signer.

“He was never around, never worked a day in his life,” she says. “He was a little prince. So why would I put him on the LLC?”

Six months later, Smith would answer that question in court.

By the end of 2006, Playfood was on the verge of going national.

On an icy December day, Van Pelt was bright with enthusiasm, bustling around the painted cave as industrial blenders buzzed with the sound of crunching cashews. At the sink, Rozzo washed the raw Sri Lankan nuts in a massive silver bowl. Behind them, a cast of Nepali exchange students from Park University squirted the bright-orange spread into plastic bottles, slapped a Playfood label on the front and loaded the order onto a pallet in the walk-in refrigerator. This would be the first pallet to be shipped out of state.


Around Kansas City, Playfood was already available. Eden Alley was using it for menu items. More than 50 Price Chopper, Balls and Hen House stores were stocking it in their refrigerated sections. National chains such as Whole Foods were interested in carrying it as soon as Van Pelt could get the production plant certified as organic.

Better yet, she felt she’d finally landed on her feet. Tension with Smith had eased, she said. As she dipped organic blue-corn chips in a still-hot batch of “Nacheezmo,” she said he was doing his thing in California — opening the still-unfinished restaurant in Studio City — and she was handling the commercial production in Missouri.

“I’m being responsible, and all the earlier efforts are paying off,” she said. “Now it’s actually happening. We have a building that we’re working out of that’s legal, and we’re putting bottles out in grocery stores and coming to work every morning at 8 a.m. Here I feel really grounded, like I’m in a good, wholesome place.”

Even on that upbeat day, though, she and her mother were butting heads. Duncan was the general manager, and the two disagreed about how to run the company. They also didn’t see eye to eye when it came to Rozzo’s role as the production manager. Van Pelt said that for her whole life, she’d felt abandoned or antagonized by her mother.

In December, she asked friends to call her Solei because she was so sick of hearing Duncan bark her given name.

Duncan agreed that she clashed with her daughter but emphasized that the two had been managing to compromise.

By the start of 2007, Van Pelt was convinced that Duncan and bookkeeper Kay Honeycutt were running Playfood into the ground financially and trying to wrestle away control of the business. On January 6, she fired her mother in what she describes as “a gentle e-mail.”

She wanted to clean house and install new employees who shared her passion for Playfood.

Instead, her past caught up with her. On Monday morning, January 8, Smith was waiting for her. He’d gotten a call from Duncan with the news that she’d been fired — and that a camera crew from KSHB Channel 41 was filming a segment about Playfood that day.

Smith says he discovered that morning that Van Pelt had created a new company without him. He says Van Pelt defrauded him by taking $13,000 he’d sent in October and $7,100 he’d sent on January 2 for a company in which he held no authority.

“My first words to her were ‘I think we need to sit down and talk about this,'” Smith says. “And her first words to me were ‘I don’t care what you think.’ It went downhill from there.”

Smith found a receipt for the computers, and he and Duncan started to leave with an armful.

Rozzo and Van Pelt saw it as theft and tried to stop them. Obscenities flew. The Parkville police showed up but left without writing a report.

“It was like a Jerry Springer episode,” Van Pelt says.

That evening, she filed a restraining order against her mother. She wanted Duncan banned from the Playfood premises. Without commenting, a Platte County judge denied her claim that night.

A week later, in Rozzo’s West Side apartment at 16th Street and Madison, Van Pelt and Rozzo drank soy-milk White Russians to blunt their outrage. Company computers sat on an end table. A large silver funnel from the industrial blender sat on the middle of their queen-sized bed. They didn’t want anyone to steal from or sabotage the Playfood cave while they slept.


“He’s going after my business. He’s trying to steal everything,” she said. “He needs to get a life.”

Despite her anger, she finished the drink on an optimistic note. She’d recently secured an investor in New York City — a guy who ate three Playfood grilled cheese sandwiches a day and wanted to give her a significant financial boost.

“This year, Playfood is really going to happen,” she said. “We just have to go through this and get rid of the leeches.”
In January 30, 2007, Van Pelt and Rozzo stood awkwardly in the hallway of the Platte County Courthouse, waiting for a young lawyer they’d hired less than 48 hours earlier. Van Pelt had been served with a lawsuit the preceding Saturday; Smith wanted to shut her down until he could regain some control of Playfood.

Hands shoved into the pockets of her tweed winter coat, Van Pelt watched with a mix of anger and amusement as the opposing party filed through the heavy wooden doors of Division I.

Her mother and Honeycutt swept past with attorney Whinery, her old prom date. Behind them, attorney Patrick Miller marched in with Smith, who, despite his 6-foot frame and dark suit, still came off like a wholesome sitcom kid.

Waiting for Judge Abe Shafer, the small courtroom was taut with silence. Van Pelt stared straight ahead, her hands folded on the table. Smith swiveled slightly in his chair, flashing bashful smiles at Whinery and Duncan.

Miller argued that Van Pelt had created a rogue company, swindling Smith out of his investment of more than $100,000 by claiming that he had no control over the Parkville operation or access to future profits now that bottles were being shipped out to stores.

Miller called Honeycutt and Duncan to the stand. Their testimony suggested that the company was in deep financial trouble. Playfood was $47,000 in debt, Honeycutt said, and had $80 in the bank. Miller argued that if Van Pelt remained in control, Smith’s investment would be squandered. The judge granted Smith’s injunction, giving the former business partner access to the cave.

A day after the hearing, Van Pelt was already locked out. Weeks passed as both sides took depositions. In March, Van Pelt filed a counterclaim alleging that Smith had “abandoned Playfood during a crucial several month period,” that he was still using the orange truck and Playfood recipes to make money in California and that she’d never seen a cent of that unreported cash. Not to mention, she emphasized, the cheese recipe was her intellectual property.

Smith has offered her a deal that would free her of management duties and pay her royalties for Playfood products.

“All the years I’ve known Heidi, she wanted to be able to live a more carefree life and live off her talent,” he tells the Pitch. “That’s what I’m offering her.”

Van Pelt doesn’t see it that way.

She says that ever since she was a kid, she’s had a desire to feed the world.

Maybe it’s because her astrological sign is Cancer. Maybe it’s because she’s trying to make up for the nurturing that she says she never got growing up. Maybe it’s because her mom burned everything to an inedible crisp when she was a kid. She’s not sure. But she remembers that, even as an 8-year-old, she worried that Siberians couldn’t produce food in such frigid conditions, and she resolved to build greenhouses for them when she grew up.


“To make vegan food happen — to help animals, the planet, the human race — that’s my job. That’s why I’m here,” she says.

If things had been different, this week would have marked the celebrity couple’s sixth anniversary.

Instead, Van Pelt filed for divorce in early February, alleging that Smith owed her a portion of their marital property, financial support and attorney fees. A month later, Smith’s attorney filed for an annulment, claiming that the marriage had been a sham. After all, Smith had been only 17 and, as a minor, “lacked the capacity to consent.”

Smith says he hopes “to make it like it never happened.”

Which is fine with Van Pelt. She’s already moving on.

She has a new business office in her two-story home in Westport. On a recent evening, Rozzo mixed electronic samples in the music room upstairs as Van Pelt wrapped a mixture of blended rice and pico de gallo in collard greens for a dinner of raw tacos. Remnants of Los Angeles linger throughout the house — the couple eats at a funky, recycled-pallet table that Smith built, and the walls are covered in art created by Van Pelt’s West Coast friends.

The battle over the Parkville company continues; a second hearing is scheduled for this week. In Los Angeles, Smith continues to subsist off the earnings and interest from his trust fund and residuals from his sitcom days. Van Pelt, on the other hand, says she’s barely making ends meet with the last of her stock sales. She is determined to get her fair share of the Playfood company, but she has turned her attention to an empty building on the West Side for a new business that she says will be even bigger than cashew cheese.

She pulls out a colorful business plan for FüD, a café with both cooked and raw cuisine. She has already designed sample menus with raw pizza and mock meats. She has applied for a loan from the Missouri Women’s Business Center. She’s circulating e-mails soliciting start-up capital from local vegetarians — if they give her $100, they’ll get $120 worth of free food once the doors are open.

“I want it to be as recognizable as McDonald’s,” she says, brandishing the circular logo, the umlaut over the U making the letter a smiley face.

She says she feels foolish for getting so caught up in Smith’s story. It’s true what they say about Los Angeles, she says with a smirk. “It sucked me in and spit me out.”

But, she admits, “I was definitely very immature. I mean, I married someone 16 years my junior.”

Younger guys are in her blood, though — many of the women in her family married men more than 10 years younger. Rozzo is 26.

And even at 38, some part of her seems disinclined to grow up. She says she doesn’t know where she’ll be in five years.

“I see myself playing,” she says. “I see myself doing whatever I want.”

But that kind of ending happens only in Hollywood.

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