*Sweet potato waffles with fried chicken, creamy grits, blackberry and peach cobblers, shrimp and grits, hot water cornbread, and butter beans… are your taste buds humming yet? Native to Oakland and now residing in Los Angeles, Chef Rene Johnson is the culinary creator of such signature dishes like these and specializes in giving traditional soul food a vegan spin. Meals that are considered staples of Southern cuisine now meet the revolutionary skills of Chef Rene.
Her acclaimed feasts have served exclusive soirees from Washington to Hollywood for dignitaries such as Vice-President Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Dr. Cornel West, Danny Glover, and California Governor Gavin Newsom among others. With a 20-year reign feeding in-demand food to A-list clients, she currently hosts an instructional YouTube Channel that helps anyone who loves a healthy, delicious meal prepare something noteworthy. Considering the food deserts and diet dilemmas that came with the pandemic, she also recently introduced a quarantine eBook to her website.
And to think it all started in her grandmother’s kitchen.
“I was the first grandbaby to a grandmother who made absolutely everything we ate. She was that grandmother who put the food in your mouth and said, ‘baby tastes this…’ If she made salmon croquettes, she didn’t use canned salmon she baked it fresh. I got my palette from her. I loved how she talked about food and made it look pretty. She taught me the beauty of the color of foods. “Look how beautiful and orange this cantaloupe is…” that she just pulled out of her garden. She would point out how red the tomatoes look or how juicy a peach smells. She gave me that because believe it or not, I didn’t like food, but I loved spending time with her. Word on the street is that now she’s gone, I am the walking ‘her’ when we need a recipe.”
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“Everyone in my family was overweight but me.” To make heart-healthy dishes out of ones noted for their heavy fat content—the very richness that puts some ‘soul’ in food; she still used her grandmother’s recipes, she simply removed much of the harmful fat. She began whipping up healthy versions of old-style soul food favorites in her spare time.
“I taught myself to make my grandmother’s red beans and rice without the pork shank, and you would never know that my collard greens don’t have pork or turkey.”
Rene doesn’t negate meat altogether but chooses to use it sparingly.
“Unless I am specifically making a piece of protein, I recreate vegan and vegetarian versions of all the classic soul favorites, maintaining their style, flavor, and essence,” she stated as she talked with EURweb.
What are the challenges of taking traditional food soul food into the vegan category while maintaining its ‘soul’?
It was an experience for me because you don’t think that you can still have vegan soul food or vegan food period and it still tastes delicious. With traditional soul food, we’re used to having a piece of pork fat in there, smoked Turkey wings, or oxtails—all those things that my grandmother called “the star of the plate”. So to take the star off of the plate and still have food that is delicious, and that you can taste the soul in and feel like your grandmother just left the stove—it’s an experience. It’s easy as long as you’re willing to experiment, have an open mind, and not be afraid. Then you get to enjoy a whole other burst of flavor.
Have you transitioned into vegan fully?
Sometimes I cheat because it’s not a religion for me, but I think of it like, that’s just extra calories, I don’t have to have that meat. And I’m always being very health conscious in what I do, so I think that it’s just about being able to know that you can do it and know that it can be enjoyable.
How does one start, even with pandemic limited budgets/resources, to turn their kitchens and cooking habits into healthier, if not vegan, ones?
Many things already in your household are vegan… The only thing you have to remember is no dairy, no meat, no cheese, a simple way to do that is: nothing yellow, orange, or brown. Now there are so many different varieties of alternatives, like kinds of butter, that are healthy. We have avocado, cashew and Macadamia nut butter, and even almond cheese. I spent a couple of days trying different things like that to perfect the recipes. I take my time and do different options. What I love as my favorite butter right now is the macadamia butter. Next, I love avocado butter, because when you think about it, a real avocado is creamy and buttery already. Cashew is my third favorite. Macadamia butter is my #1 favorite because I like how it spreads, as cashew butter can be a little watery and the Macadamia butter doesn’t have as much water in it.
How important are those oils and butters to the style of vegan soul food cooking?
That’s the other thing about cooking vegan, is you have to put the oil back in it. So sometimes even when I use a vegan cashew or avocado butter, I’ll add a tablespoon of olive oil because it’s buttery. Even when you get a dry Turkey burger, it’s because they haven’t put any fat back into it. When frying, using coconut oil or I like grapeseed oil because gets really hot and it doesn’t burn, yet gives you a great crispy, outer lining. It doesn’t matter what you use, you just need to bring it back. Each fat has a different element so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Now to those tasty meals… for those asking what do we cook first and how much is it going to cost us?
Think about doing a DIY of food, so cook for yourself. Read your packages when you go to the store, and see what’s in the ingredients. And if you’re going to go vegan, think about fresh.
As for budget?
Allow at least $20 for those kinds of oils, for your butter, and your meals. I wouldn’t even worry about doing a vegan cheese to start—but absolutely your butter and your milk. It’s not as expensive as you think it is. Go heavy on your rice, beans, and your fresh vegetables. I would say even $15 when you’re first starting. That’s all I want you to do is make sure you have some olive oil, vegan butter, milk, and that is it. Rice, beans, potatoes, fresh lettuce, tomatoes, fresh zucchini… all of those things as your meals.
I want you to think about forgetting the meat but if you feel like you have to have something that’s got a bite to it, you can use chickpeas, potatoes, or carrots. That’s how you start substituting those meats out for other things. I’m a texture person, so when I cook, I like to have that bite so when I have a vegan taco that I feel like having some meat with, I’ll use rice instead of ground beef.
Are you sharing actual recipes with us as well?
I do have a cookbook. I’m in the middle of making a gigantic one full of them, but I have a cookbook out now just on my website that I made when we first started COVID. It was my way of allowing my customers to still get Chef Johnson’s food while we’re in shut down. It’s on my website right now. The one that’s coming up will be on Amazon worldwide. The quarantine one was just a fun one because, before COVID, we were doing up to 20 events a month. Once the pandemic hit, I got to relax, work on myself, and do more creative things. I’m a grandmother of 10 people (her “Royal Tasters”) so now I have more time for them too.
Is your upcoming cookbook vegan recipe-based?
It has vegan recipes in there as well as traditional because I don’t only cook vegan food. I just specialize in it and the majority of my food is vegan or vegetarian. I am flexible because I’ll get a customer and they’ll say, I don’t want a vegan Mac and cheese or I want everything vegan but we want fried chicken with it. I believe that you should have what you want to have. But the majority of everything I cook is either vegan, mostly vegan, or vegetarian. And then if I have to cook some protein—which I do eat—I will.
Besides soul food what other cuisines have captured your palate?
Right now, I’m cooking all around the world. I’m cooking a lot of African foods—West African, Sierra Leon and getting ready to do some Egyptian food. What I’m finding also is that people are elevating our soul food. People are making macaroni and cheese in all different kinds of ways… cornbread muffins with bacon sticking out of it… There are so many other cuisines out there that just amaze me and I like to experience them.
More than the taste behind food, Rene likes to talk about the business of food as well, stating, “It’s not always about the recipe but just knowing how to do food. It’s about the science of it and how to marry spices together. How you shouldn’t be afraid of your measuring spoons, especially those new cooks. Knowing that you don’t need to stir everything, how fat melts, how certain oils blend with certain things.”
This instructional approach to cooking led to her vegan soul food cooking series on her YouTube channel—whether making red beans and rice, a conversation around a no-fail peach cobbler, or the secret to making vegan grits and a homemade sausage vegan sausage—all can be found there or on her website. Chef Rene Johnson continues to make the rounds in media with upcoming TV appearances from the Bay Area to Good Morning Memphis. She is launching a waffle mix that is highly anticipated as well. Meanwhile learn, engage and enjoy more at Blackberrysoul.net or her Chef Rene Johnson Youtube channel