‘Eating better, living better, thinking better’: the Black chefs transforming vegan cuisine | Vegan food and drink

It’s just before noon, and there’s already a line forming outside one of the old Kwik Way burger shops not far from Oakland’s Lake Merritt. But people aren’t lining up for burgers – they’re ordering garlic noodles with lumpia, barbecue brisket plates with smackaroni and shrimp po’boy sandwiches – all made by Vegan Mob, a restaurant that’s dishing up recipes that mimic the flavors of BBQ and soul food without a trace of animal products.

Just about a mile away at Malibu’s Burgers, creamy milkshakes made with cassava ice cream and In-N-Out-inspired burgers on butter-free brioche buns are top sellers. Owner Darren Preston’s newest special is the Winnipesaukee: fried Good Catch fishless filets with mashed peas, French fries and dairy-free tartar sauce.

Oakland has long been fertile ground for alternative ways of living, and vegetable-centric cooking has a proud history here that dates back to the Black Panther Party, whose members used their home-grown vegetables to create school meals that were free of red meat.

But in recent years, enterprising Black restaurateurs have brought new vitality to the city’s dining scene, creating animal-free cuisine infused with the flavors of Ethiopia, Puerto Rico, Mexico and soul food. Along the way, they’re transforming the idea of what vegan cuisine can be.

A vegan Malibu Burger.
A vegan Malibu Burger. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian
Preparations for burger-making at Malibu’s Burgers.
Preparations for burger-making at Malibu’s Burgers. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

“Oakland has always been a hotbed for anything Black,” says Bilal Sabir, an Oakland food entrepreneur who invented the vegan No Cookie Cookie 30 years ago. “Oakland is a melting pot and you get a lot of ideas from other places. We’re more open-minded.”

Oakland’s vegan scene is taking off as vegan dining continues to gain cachet nationwide. In the weeks since owners of Eleven Madison Park, the Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, announced it was switching to a vegan menu, it’s been flooded with 15,000 requests for reservations. Meanwhile, celebrities such as Colin Kaepernick, Taraji P Henson, Erykah Badu and A$AP Rocky have helped make veganism more mainstream.

Now, Black chefs in Oakland are using fast food and hip-hop references mixed with a bold cuisine that pays homage to Black, African and Caribbean food culture.

Smackaroni and cheese, BBQ chicken, greens and sweet potatoes at Vegan Mob.
Smackaroni and cheese, BBQ chicken, greens and sweet potatoes at Vegan Mob. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

“We’re bringing in flavor and soul to it,” says Lourdes Nau, a Puerto Rican vegan chef. “We take pride in food and our spices and seasonings.” Historically, she says, enslaved people often were given scraps of meat or organs, and they had to find the right seasonings and cooking techniques to make those foods palatable. They’re doing the same today with vegan staples like grains and beans, as well as proteins such as jackfruit, seitan, pea protein and soy. Her top sellers at Casa Borinqueña in Oakland are her stewed seitan “chicken” with sweet plantains, rice and peas and ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban stewed beef dish that she makes with jackfruit.

Creative vegan dishes have deep roots in the African diaspora

It’s a sea change from the early approach to vegan eating that was sparked by books like Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 work alerting people to the dangers of meat consumption and production. A vegan dinner often meant a humdrum repast of brown rice, beans, steamed vegetables and maybe some tofu.

These chefs are also part of a new generation of Black food pioneers challenging the notion of who can be a vegan. Veganism has been seen as a practice reserved for the white and affluent, but according to the Pew Research Center, Black Americans are the fastest-growing segment of vegans in the US – in a 2016 study, Pew found that 8% of Black Americans identified as vegan, compared with 3% in the general population. Many cuisines of the African diaspora are primarily plant-based.

Aisha Pinky Cole, owner of Slutty Vegan restaurants and food trucks, wipes down a sign on her storefront in Atlanta.
Aisha Pinky Cole, owner of Slutty Vegan restaurants and food trucks, wipes down a sign on her storefront in Atlanta. Photograph: Angie Wang/AP

In Zimbabwe, dark greens with peanut butter, pumpkin, sweet potato, onions and tomatoes are staples. Ethiopians enjoy spiced red lentils and injera, a fermented bread cooked on a griddle. In Ghana, crops like millet, sorghum, cassava, yams and beans are often prepared without meat. In Jamaica, followers of the Rastafari faith, also called Ethiopian Christians, eat a meat-free diet called ital. Aisha Pinky Cole, owner of Slutty Vegan in Atlanta, grew up eating her mother’s ital dishes made with lots of greens, chickpeas, legumes and tubers. “I got a good head start early in my life into conscious eating,” the restaurateur says. I was able to absorb and adopt what she ate.”

Worldwide, woke Black people have practiced meat-free eating dating back to the late 1960s and early 70s. The late Honduran herbalist Alfredo Bowman, commonly known as Dr Sebi, espoused veganism and promoted herbs like sea moss as a way to prevent lifestyle diseases. His clients included Eddie Murphy, John Travolta and Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes.

A sampling of dishes from Vegan Mob.
A sampling of dishes from Vegan Mob. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

“When I became vegetarian and vegan, it was: ‘That’s a white thing, Ericka,’” says Ericka Huggins, a former Black Panther Party leader in Oakland who stopped eating meat in the early 1970s. She found eating vegetables and grains brought her the same clarity of mind and energy that she experienced while fasting during her incarceration.

“I was like, ‘How is that racial?’ It’s cheaper, it’s healthier, it’s safer. It’s always been based on listening to my body.” Huggins and Angela Davis are both vegan.

On the menu at Vegan Mob in Oakland.
On the menu at Vegan Mob in Oakland. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

The comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory was one of the first Black celebrities to start a conversation about plant-based eating. Gregory’s vegetarian and then vegan/fruitarian diet grew from his civil rights activism with Martin Luther King Jr. He decided that he couldn’t endorse the principles of nonviolence while killing animals for food, as he shares in his books, including Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin’ with Mother Nature, published in 1973.

Tracye McQuirter, a vegan author and influencer, heard Gregory speak while she was a student at Amherst College in 1986. She says it changed the course of her life. At the time, she thoroughly enjoyed eating meat, but she had gained the freshman 25 and was looking for ways to drop it. “Our Black student union is bringing him in to talk about the state of Black America, and he talked about the plate of Black America instead, and how unhealthfully Black people eat,” McQuirter recalls. “His talk rocked my world.”

She started taking out library books on vegetarian cuisines around the world. When she transferred to Howard University, McQuirter found 13 Black vegan restaurants nearby, including Soul Vegetarian restaurant in north-west DC. She eventually pursued a master’s degree in public health to help more people learn about the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

McQuirter’s book By Any Greens Necessary is the guide to going vegan that McQuirter wishes she’d had decades ago. In 2020 she launched a 10,000 Black Vegan Women Challenge. More than 12,000 women signed on to eat vegan for 21 days. The New York Times credited McQuirter with being part of the reason vegan diets are surging in popularity among Black Americans.

Darren Preston, owner of Malibu’s Burgers.
Darren Preston, owner of Malibu’s Burgers. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

Different reasons for shunning meat

People have many different paths to veganism. Members of some religions, such as Jains and Seventh Day Adventists, are prohibited from eating meat. Many others who are not part of a vegan religious tradition nevertheless view what they eat as a spiritual matter. “You’re treating your body sacredly and eating food to help clear your mind to help you commune better with yourself and your God,” McQuirter says.

Many vegans, including Preston of Malibu’s Burgers, feel sad that animals are killed for food. Preston’s feelings intensified when his co-worker regaled him with tales of hunting deer and raccoons. “She used to tell me I should be vegan, but I didn’t know what that meant,” Preston says. Movies like What the Health and a YouTube video that showed someone eating live frog sashimi pushed him to pursue a cruelty-free diet.

The Vegan Mob servers Latasha Brown and Monze Mora.
The Vegan Mob servers Latasha Brown and Monze Mora. Photograph: Robert Gumpert/The Guardian

For many, it’s also about health and beauty concerns. McQuirter says women write to her about losing weight and report that their blood pressure improved after going vegan. Her latest book, Ageless Vegan, explores the connection between plant- based diets and longevity. Toriano Gordon, the chef behind Vegan Mob, says seeing so many Black people with diabetes and cancers prompted him to change. “I wasn’t responsible with meat. I was sneaking and getting Jack in the Box and Benihana steak,” he says. “I said: ‘If I keep eating Jack in the Box every day, I’m going to die.’”

He created his vegan barbecue to help people eat more plants, and since he’s a rapper, he gave it a Bay Area hip-hop flair. This is activism: changing the way you eat and promoting others to do the same,” he says. “I want to put it out there and lead people to eat healthier and leave certain things alone.”

Tamearra Dyson, founder of Souley Vegan.
Tamearra Dyson, founder of Souley Vegan. Photograph: Courtesy Souley Vegan

But Tamearra Dyson, the founder of Souley Vegan, a Louisiana-inspired chain that was one of Oakland’s first vegan full-service restaurants, points out that not all vegan food is necessarily good for you. “People are vegan for very different reasons,” Dyson says. “Not all of it is health.” While Dyson makes all of her faux chicken, barbecue and burgers from scratch, many vegans seek out processed vegan food like soy burgers and fried foods. “Vegan does not mean healthy.”

Meanwhile, social platforms including TikTok and Instagram are also driving Black vegan culture, with popular accounts like Deondra Greene’s Alkaline Vegan Mommy and Todd Anderson’s of Turnip Vegan attracting tens of thousands of followers. “Just like on Soul Train you saw the dances and everybody started doing the dance … That’s what the internet has done for Black veganism,” McQuirter says.

And as veganism goes more mainstream, it’s also attracting curious non-vegans. Going to have a vegan meal is just another option, like going out for Cambodian food or Italian. “I’m not fully vegan, but I just think it’s nice to try and dabble,” says Djibraa Pina-Jones, who picked up an order at Vegan Mob recently. “I like to try different things.” The self-described pescatarian saw Vegan Mob online and decided to stop in while visiting from Massachusetts.

Dyson says the majority of her clientele is non-vegan, and she’s OK with that. “I didn’t build the restaurant just for vegans,” says Dyson, who opened a takeout operation in Las Vegas in June. “I built it because I had something to offer the world. I wanted to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing without animal products.’” She says it’s gratifying when clients at her Oakland and LA restaurants tell her tasting her food reassures them they could be vegan, and like it.

Cole says for many Black Americans, veganism is a way of signaling your social awareness. “If you’re not eating better, living better, thinking better about who you are as an individual, then what are you doing?”

A sandwich at Souley Vegan.
A sandwich at Souley Vegan. Photograph: Courtesy Souley Vegan

She believes today’s successful Black vegan restaurateurs are finding clever hooks to bring people in the door. At Slutty Vegan, that means music by artists like Notorious BIG and risqué menu names. “When you create an experience, you get them to stop thinking and make them feel comfortable enough to come into a space and indulge in a plant-based burger,” Cole says.

And, Cole says, many Black vegan restaurants have a judgment-free vibe. “Ninety-seven per cent of the people who come to Slutty Vegan are meat eaters,” Cole says. “I’m not pushing the vegan agenda. I want you to be whoever you want to be.”