Updated February 2021.
Transforming the food industry is challenging, energizing, and necessary — for both the planet and the people who inhabit it. Plant-based protein brands, fast-food chains, and supermarkets are all significant in changing the way we eat and consume. But chefs also play a critical role — and we’re highlighting 9 Black vegan chefs who are changing the food industry for the better.
Why Does the Food Industry need to Change?
Changing the way we produce food is one of the most important tools we have for combating the climate crisis. Last year, an environmental impact report, commissioned by investment firm Blue Horizon and PWC, found that replacing 10 percent of animal agriculture with plant-based food could save the equivalent of 2.7 billion trees in CO2 emissions. It could also save an area of land bigger than Germany, and save enough water for the entire state of New York for five years.
Transforming the food industry could also help us fight other major global issues like food insecurity and inequality. A 2018 study found that a global shift to a more plant-based diet, combined with cutting food waste in half and improving farming practices, could feed the world’s population by 2050.
But convincing people to change the way they eat is not easy. Food plays a big role in our daily lives. Food is more than just survival; it’s joy, comfort, and escapism. This is where chefs come in. A delicious, expertly crafted meal can make a vegan-skeptic want to try the plant-based lifestyle. It can show them that there is another way to enjoy all those same textures and tastes they’ve grown up with, and introduce them to a whole new way of thinking.
But, it’s important to note, in many cases, it’s not about convincing. It’s about providing basic access. Although they occur in a number of other countries, food deserts are particularly common in the U.S. These are large geographic areas where affordable, healthy, fresh, culturally relevant food is difficult to access. Around 23.5 million Americans live in a food desert; a disproportionate amount of which are low-income and people of color. (You can find out more about food deserts here.)
Many of the U.S.-based Black vegan chefs listed below are about both convincing people to try vegan food and providing access to it. They’re committed to building a better future — one where food is healthy, delicious, accessible, and good for the planet.
9 Black Vegan Chefs Changing the Food Industry
Based in Oakland, California, Bryant Terry is a James Beard award–winning vegan chef, food justice activist, and author. He is also currently the chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. Terry believes that healthy food should be a human right, and not something that only those with relative wealth and privilege can have.
To that end, he founded an after-school program in New York in 2002, based around growing and cooking fresh food. He also hosts dinner parties at the museum, to encourage people of color to talk about “real-food diets,” he told Fast Company in 2016. (The publication named him among 9 people who are working to change the future of food.)
But one of the most impactful ways Terry advocates for plant-based food is through his recipes. He creates dishes that place plant-based foods at the center of the plate, in an easy, yet considered, way. Forbes wrote of his latest book Vegetable Kingdom: “It places plant-foods as the star of, not an after-thought on the table.”
Vegetable Kingdom features 100 recipes. For each dish, Terry utilizes creative new techniques to “build flavor and texture.” Terry has also penned four other cookbooks: Afro-Vegan, The Inspired Vegan, Vegan Soul Kitchen, and Grub.
Aisha ‘Pinky’ Cole
Aisha “Pinky” Cole is the founder of Slutty Vegan. The Atlanta-based burger chain was an instant hit after its launch in 2018 and remains popular among celebrities and locals alike.
In 2019, actor/director Tyler Perry visited Slutty Vegan and jokingly accused the servers of lying about the burgers being plant-based. He said: “This is too good to be vegan. This is really good.” And that’s the crux of why Cole’s food is so important. It shows people that plant-based food can be meaty, delicious, moreish, and comforting, without any need for animal products. According to an interview Cole did with Parade in 2019, on a typical day, she serves more than 1,000 vegan burgers.
Cole is also the founder of the Pinky Cole Foundation, whose goal is “to provide opportunities and financial literacy resources to people to help bridge the generational wealth gap,” she told Bon Appetit last year. Last year, through a partnership with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the foundation was able to offer scholarships to 30 juvenile offenders at Slutty Vegan restaurants.
Chef Charity Morgan is passionate about opening up people’s minds to the plant-based lifestyle with healthy, nutritious foods. She has over 15 years’ worth of experience in the food industry and holds a degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
Tennessee-based Morgan, who made an appearance in the Netflix documentary The Game Changers, is most well-known for her work with the Tennessee Titans. She is passionate about proving that meat isn’t necessary for athletic success. Every day, she cooks three balanced protein-packed vegan meals for more than 17 members of the popular NFL team.
Ultimately, Morgan is all about inclusivity and meeting people where they’re at, which is why she coined the term “plegan.”
She explains on her website, “[plegan] is an inclusive space for people that have a non-animal based diet.” Her website is home to a number of “plegan” recipes, as well as her own chef’s tips on transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle, and a range of merchandise.
Public health nutritionist and vegan of 33 years Tracye McQuirter is the author of “By Any Greens Necessary,” a comprehensive guide on how to go vegan, written specifically for Black women. The book includes more than 40 “delicious and nutritious” plant-based recipes, as well as meal plans, and advice on how to transition from meat-eater to plant-based.
To mark the tenth anniversary of the book, Washington DC-based McQuirter announced a new program to help 10,000 Black women go vegan. In a promotional video for the campaign, which launched in October, she said: “while Black women are leaders in so many progressive ways, we are in a crisis when it comes to our health.”
“We experience the highest rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer—the top four killers and disablers in the nation. And we’re getting these diseases as younger women,” she continued.
McQuirter’s work is much-needed. According to the Food Empowerment Project, a nonprofit that promotes healthy and sustainable eating habits, diabetes diagnoses are up to 80 percent more likely for Black people than white adults (again, this is linked to food deserts and a lack of access to healthy food).
McQuirter also wrote “Ageless Vegan: The Secret to a Long and Healthy Plant-Based Life” with her mother Mary. It includes more than 100 plant-based recipes and a 14-step guide on how to go vegan.
If you’re a Whole Foods fan, you may already be familiar with Ayindé Howell’s work. The life-long, Los Angeles-based vegan and restaurant-trained professional chef is the creator of Mac & Yease, a creamy, nutritious dairy-free mac and cheese, available at select Whole Foods’ Hot Bars. Howell adapted the recipe from a dish his grandmother used to make, which included animal-based ingredients.
According to Corey Smith, the prepared food’s coordinator for Whole Foods Market Southern Pacific region, Mac & Yease is “one of the best Southern-style, baked vegan macaroni and cheeses” available. In a similar way to Cole, Howell is changing the food system by proving that comfort food doesn’t have to include animal products. (He has also developed a Jalapeno Mac & Yease and BKLYN Bolognese sauce.)
Howell is dedicated to empowering the Black community through his work, too. In June 2020, he announced on Instagram that 5 percent of his annual net sales would go to organizations “dedicated to the education, justice, and liberation of Black Americans.”If you love Howell’s creations, he has also co-authored a cookbook packed with 80 delicious plant-based recipes, designed specifically for those situations when one person “wants a cheeseburger and the other wants a tempeh slider.”
Los Angeles-based vegan soul food chef Lemel Durrah grew up in a food desert, so he knows what it’s like to go without easy access to fresh, healthy foods. And it’s this memory that motivates him to help others in a similar position.
In 2017, Durrah founded catering service Compton Vegan. Now, he provides healthy, affordable, plant-based versions of soul food classics (like fried chicken and mac and cheese) to inner-city communities in need.
Like many of the other chefs on this list, Durrah recognizes that low-income communities and communities of color suffer the most with diet-related chronic diseases.
He told LIVEKINDLY: “there is a need for healthier food choices in predominantly minority and low-income communities because [they] have some of the highest rates of cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes, to name a few. Compton Vegan is revolutionizing the country’s food system by providing healthier options in inner cities.”
Plant-based chef, food innovator, and activist GW Chew is the founder of The Veg Hub, an Oakland, Calif.–based nonprofit and vegan restaurant that also provides cooking demos and classes.
Chew is passionate about educating people about the health impact of eating nutritious plant-based foods, and helping them gain access to them. That’s why he opened The Veg Hub in East Oakland, a food desert area. In 2019, he told Mercy For Animals that food deserts in the U.S. are caused by “systematic racism.”
“Behavioural change is one of the hardest things to do. When you’re growing up, if all you see is meat three times a day, you’re used to getting the fast-food dollar menu. It’s cheap, it’s quick, it’s affordable, and it’s killing us,” he says in a video for the animal rights organization.
He adds: “The way we eat in this country is 100 percent a social justice issue. And communities of color especially have heavy amounts of fast-food restaurants. You might have 20 liquor stores in a one mile radius, without any grocery stores in reach.”
In a bid to close the gap and make tasty nutritious food more appealing and accessible, The Veg Hubs sell affordable vegan meat that looks, cooks, and tastes like the real thing, but is also healthy too. “We want plant protein for all people,” Chew says. “This is something that has to happen, it’s something that we have to fight for by any means necessary.”
At the age of 21, in 2018, Francesca Chaney opened Sol Sips in Brooklyn. The idea was to make plant-based food, and the wellness movement, accessible and affordable to everyone. In 2019, The New York Times called her “a rising star in New York’s food scene,” and now she has a second location of Sol Sips with a larger kitchen.
But despite all of her success, she hasn’t lost sight of her goal. Her prices are already considerably lower than other wellness cafe menus, but on Saturdays, Chaney still asks customers to simply pay what they wish. She told Essence back in 2018: “My mission to help close the accessibility gap in wellness.”
Chaney is also passionate about looking after her own employees and helping to influence a change in restaurant culture as a whole.
She told Eater last year: “I would really hope that we’re moving away from valuing nourishing people based on the numbers, the amount of orders we can put out per hour. Can we actually consider the human experience in consuming this food? I would really like to see more reverence toward the human body in the everyday work of nourishing human beings.”
Together with her son Aaron, Brenda Beener runs Seasoned Vegan in Harlem, New York. Beener focuses on making traditional soul food dishes, but with plant-based ingredients. The menu includes vegan BBQ Riblets, BBQ Crawfish, made with grilled burdock root, and Sweet Potato Souffle.
Aside from good food, Beener’s restaurant is all about love. Last year, she told VICE that “food is love” is the founding principle of Seasoned Vegan. She explained, “[I’ve said to my cooks] if you don’t feel like cooking or you come in with an attitude, don’t go near my stove because that vibration goes into the food. If you’re going to step to my stove, step to my stove with love.”
Aaron also told the publication that Seasoned Vegan is about setting an example to the community around healthy living. He explained: “When we were writing our business plan we said we wanted Seasoned Vegan to be a beacon of healthy living for all of us. We have to raise our vibrations in all areas of our lifestyle. Eating plants helps because they’re mostly alive still. They’re metabolizing, so they’re giving you life energy, and it helps to raise your overall vibes.”
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