Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

The Decadence of the New Veganism

Sure, it’s healthy, and yes, it’s ethical, but as some of the country’s most exciting young chefs are showing, vegan dining is suddenly becoming something way more surprising: delicious.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.


Vegan Wit A Twist's Philly "cheesesteak". Photography by blvxmth.

Before he was a vegan chef, Roy Joseph III was a barber. For a while, he'd found himself with a creeping unease with eating meat—just the thought of it sitting in his stomach, with all the antibiotics that animals are fed, everything he knew about how meat was made. “All the killing…,” he said. “They're putting all that stuff in the animals, and I'm putting it in me.

Alex Davis and Jas Rogers were restaurant servers when they were laid off during the pandemic. Days later, somebody stole Davis's moped and Rogers's bike. They found themselves relying, each week, on a box of produce handed out by a local food-aid organization. “That really got our gears turning,” said Rogers. “We just cooked all day.” Eventually, Davis started playing around with making faux meat and a plan began to take shape.

Myisha “Maya” Mastersson competed on the Food Network and ran underground supper clubs. Bernie Jolet sold spiced beef tamales—like the ones his Mexican grandfather had developed while working the railroad in Mississippi and then popularized in New Orleans. Ben Tabor worked at a vegan co-op in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Ogban Okpo owned a TV station in northern Nigeria.

Coalesce Goods St. Roch
Chefs Jas Rogers and Alex Davis 

Most of these chefs, all of whom are now working in New Orleans, do not cook exclusively vegan food; nor are most of them vegan themselves. They came to veganism for a constellation of reasons: health, animal welfare, environmental and climate concerns, racial consciousness, entrepreneurial ambitions. They have embraced the constraints of cooking without animal products as a kind of mad science project, utilizing ingredients that are raw, organically manufactured, or lab-generated, harnessing techniques from Indigenous tradition, from molecular gastronomy, or from the DIY workbench. They get ideas on YouTube and spread them on Instagram. They are cooking with creativity, exuberance, intellect, and soul. All of this in service of a quality that might have seemed an improbable vegan priority just a short generation ago: deliciousness.

Coalesce Goods' “brisket plate” with a “boudin” ball.

That has hardly been the dominant mode in the history of veganism, which has long been thought of as the diet of the self-righteous and joylessly pious. Say vegan, close your eyes, and you're likely to see a tableau overwhelmingly brown of plate (filled with nut loaves and macrobiotic rice) and white of skin. What is most notable about the new veganism is how far it sits outside of any abstemious health food tradition. The brownness of the food remains, but it's now more likely to be that of a vegan barbecue sauce slathered across a fake-meat cheeseburger, the glaze on a plate of buffalo cauliflower “wings,” or the rich cashew-based topping on a glistening bowl of mac 'n' cheese. You find Philly cheesesteaks and Reubens, nuggets and fingers and sandwiches made from Chick'n and Chik'n and Kick'n, every other manner of plant-based junk food bristling with quotation marks and mysterious apostrophization. In a coup of culinary jujitsu, these innovations draw their strength directly from the enemy's playbook, using all the hyper-palatable tricks—sweet, salty, crispy, fatty—that the fast-food industry has for lighting up your pleasure cortex like a Roman candle. So pervasive is the profile that when the McRib came back around last winter, my very first thought was that it was the perfect fake fake-meat sandwich.

This new veganism is not angry and forbidding, but fun! Fluid! Inclusive! It's a spirit that feels particularly relevant to this moment of national post-traumatic stress.

There is, to be sure, another veganism—or should I say #veganism—out there, one of yoga pants and spirulina smoothies and overhead Instagram shots of perfectly composed fruit bowls. The Vegan Discourse is fraught terrain to say the least, filled with pointed fingers and conflicting orthodoxies and priorities: animal rights, Indigenous rights, climate change, labor equity. You could tie yourself up in knots simply following the debate between tofu-heads and anti-soy warriors. “There's no way to make everybody happy,” says the writer Alicia Kennedy, whose popular newsletter often wades into the thorniest thickets of the conversation. As she recently wrote: “Nobody likes vegans, except other vegans, though sometimes even that is debatable.”

That's not to mention veganism's recent enlistment in the culture wars, for which conservatives have attempted to conjure an apocalyptic vision of jackbooted Democratic thugs enforcing a plant-based diet on a prone and burger-less nation.

I can only say that, beneath those raging storms, the scene on the ground couldn't feel more different: not angry and forbidding, but fun! Fluid! Inclusive! It's a spirit that feels particularly relevant to this moment of national post-traumatic stress—after a year that not only provided ample reason for any thinking eater to harbor reservations about their participation in America's industrial food systems but also turned most of us into some degree of scrappy survivalist, standing on the edge of whatever's next and hoping to do and be better. The paradox is that a diet that once represented the pinnacle of ideological radicalism and asceticism has, at least for omnivores, come to offer, of all things, a wonderful tool of moderation.

Sneaky Pickle Bywater
Chef Ben Tabor 

One could see this new veganism emerging across the country for at least several years now—from the lines that form at 4 p.m. on the dot for sloppily overstuffed cheeseburgers at Atlanta's Slutty Vegan to the array of vegan tacos at Brooklyn's Xilonen, and a dozen points beyond, from Kansas City to downtown L.A. Still, it's hard to overstate how unlikely it has been to discover this new world while spending the past year tethered to my home in New Orleans. When I moved here, a mere 10 years ago, it was still frequently said, more or less accurately, that the only vegetables you were bound to encounter while visiting this city were the garnish in your Bloody Mary. I remember taking a sublet off Bourbon Street and the owner asking if there was anything I needed in the kitchen. When I asked if she had a salad spinner, she looked at me seriously and asked, “Are you gay?”

New Orleans has, like the rest of the South, spent much of the past decade casting off deep-fried stereotypes and re-embracing its region's agricultural bounty. Still, the place that brands itself the “City of Yes” is an unlikely home for any diet predicated on “No.” This is where people come to cheat on their diets (among other things), not develop new ones. If veganism can not only find a foothold here but actually thrive, one feels, it can do so anywhere.

Nadia Ogbor, a self-trained New Orleans chef, takes cooking vegan as a challenge. “It's easy to fall back on animal fat for flavor,” she says.

But as soon as I tuned in to the vegan frequency in New Orleans, it seemed to be everywhere. In Treme, I ate a fried-“skrimp” (actually cremini mushroom) po'boy and crabless hearts of palm crab cake at I-tal Garden, named for the mostly vegetarian Rastafarian diet whose name is derived from the word vital. On Broad Street, at Sweet Soulfood, vegan jambalaya and okra gumbo, the vegetable taking center stage instead of its usual slime-imparting side role. In the Warehouse District, at the elegantly tropical café Carmo, Burmese fermented-tea-leaf salad and Caribbean-inflected beans with seitan sausage. When the L.A. food truck Vuture Food stopped at a Bywater microbrewery last December, I was stunned by the diverse lines that formed for its approximation of a Popeyes chicken sandwich.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, I met Ogban Okpo, the onetime Nigerian television-station owner. From his Tanjariné Kitchen food truck, parked outside his house, Okpo served me vegan variations on moi moi (a steamed bean cake) and egusi soup, along with a Mandela Burger, an orange-hued bean-based patty he hopes to soon introduce to local supermarkets. Okpo, who came to New Orleans in 2017 to marry his wife and partner, April, became a vegan in the early 2010s. He was already an acolyte of the spiritual leader Sant Rajinder Singh Ji Maharaj, who advocates vegetarianism. When Okpo's TV station failed, he said, all his human friends abandoned him, but his eight Boerboels, a South African mastiff-type breed, never left his side, giving him a new perspective on the human-animal bond.

Sneaky Pickle's Mac ‘n’ “cheese.”

I visited Bernie Jolet in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where he had stationed his Mamita's Hot Tamales cart in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut for the day. When it comes to healthy eating, St. Bernard is a place that generally makes New Orleans proper look like a Hare Krishna temple. But when Jolet and his sister resurrected their grandfather's tamale business, they sensed enough demand to invent a vegan corn version, using an ample amount of coconut oil. “It has the look and feel of lard,” he says, a description that may not make the Coconut Oil Council's marketing materials but does impart a satisfying lushness to the sweet corn filling. Jolet is known to sneak a few into every order of beef or chicken tamales, a way to slowly win over skeptical customers.

And in Bywater I finally made it to Ben Tabor's Sneaky Pickle, a restaurant I had foolishly avoided since it opened for no reason other than its name—a situation I think of as the Neutral Milk Hotel problem. (I feel the same way about pickleball, which, I realize, is perhaps a topic for my analyst.) It turned out that Tabor has one of the more idiosyncratic and creative culinary brains in town. Originally from Seekonk, Massachusetts, he opened Sneaky Pickle in 2012, in a ramshackle building on St. Claude Avenue because it was cheaper than starting a food truck, and the place still retains the DIY feel of a pop-up. Tabor's menu intentionally flips the usual restaurant ratio: It is predominantly vegan, with one or two meat dishes as a sop to pesky carnivores. He makes a more-than-credible Reuben featuring smoked tempeh on homemade rye, slicks brussels sprouts toast with a rich tofu-cashew “cheese,” and creates fanciful specials, like a smoked carrot “corn dog” served over grits. But the vegan star at Sneaky Pickle is Tabor's version of mac 'n' cheese, for which he purées whole butternut squash—seeds, skin, and all—with onions, cashews, vinegar, nutritional yeast, hot chiles, and miso. On top goes a crumble of “chorizo” made from spiced cashews. Rich and rounded, with a thrumming bass line of spice, it's a pasta dish that moves beyond mere mimicry and sacrifices nothing in the name of virtue.

As it has elsewhere, this vegan moment has been propelled in New Orleans by young chefs of color, in particular African American women. This builds on a long tradition of Black veganism that identifies America's dietary and food systems as part and parcel of the country's structural race problem and sees opting out of them as a powerful form of physical and spiritual self-determination. Black Americans make up the nation's fastest-growing group of vegans and vegetarians, with some 8 percent of African Americans identifying as such, versus 3 percent of the general population.

“Historically, African Americans eat shitty food,” says Maya Mastersson bluntly. “That's derived from slavery, and it's been passed down from generation to generation, to the point where people have been brainwashed into thinking that's what African American food is: heavy, greasy, unhealthy.” The results, she points out, are disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other food-related diseases. Mastersson had already competed on the Food Network's Guy's Grocery Games and started a company named Fancy Ass Olives when she moved to New Orleans in late 2019 and gained a following for her Black Roux Collective pop-up cooking classes. When the pandemic hit, she was forced to take a more steady job, landing at a vegan restaurant, Max Well, which had been located in a predominantly white uptown neighborhood for several years. Though an omnivore herself, she jumped at the challenge of reinventing the menu, which had tended more toward the seeds-and-smoothies end of the vegan spectrum. She creates dishes like birria tacos made with jackfruit, a common meat substitute, and dripping with a broth of porcini mushrooms and ancho chiles, but also more beautifully straightforward vegetable dishes like carrots glazed umber in miso, with maple syrup and preserved lemon, and delicate tortellini stuffed with lion's mane mushroom.

Lab meat, the skeptics say, is what the moon landing was to the serious exploration of space—big, splashy, and great P.R., but ultimately a dead end.

There are also several dishes at Max Well that fall under the rubric of “vegan soul food.” In a recent Eater story on the long history of Black veganism, Amirah Mercer wrote movingly about her own worry that giving up meat would cut her off from her family and community: “My veganism initially seemed like a rebuke of the rituals I had always known. I felt like I was revoking my own Black card.” Mastersson sees some of her job as addressing that. “I tell people, ‘You're still going to get your plate of collard greens,’ ” she says, referring to the side dish for which she smokes the leaves of the collards themselves, to approximate the traditional addition of pork. “It might be a smaller portion, but it's still going to taste like you're at your grandma's house. Having my face on a place like this, I've started to see more people of color make their way up here. I feel like I'm helping.”

Vegan Wit A Twist Central Business District
Chef Roy Joseph III 

You can sense a lingering anxiety about veganism's reputation in the way so many of these chefs and restaurants insist on being a “different kind of vegan.” (Impossible Foods, no longer content with avoiding the word vegan in favor of plant-based, actually began referring to its product straightforwardly as “meat” in a recent ad.) The notion is baked right into the name of Vegan Wit A Twist, the restaurant Roy Joseph III started after he quit cutting hair, opening first in an old sno-ball stand on St. Bernard Avenue and then, mid-pandemic, in a swanker spot in the Central Business District. Joseph leans hard into the fast-food palate, using Beyond meat for his Da Pressure cheeseburger and faux Philly cheesesteak and wheat gluten for a formidably spicy version of a New Orleans hot-sausage patty. But his cooking skills are nowhere more evident than in two fried dishes—one, pieces of cauliflower encased in a batter as crisp as tempura; the other, oyster mushrooms with a crust that immediately made me think of the legendary calamari I grew up eating at Randazzo's Clam Bar in Brooklyn. Both are reminders that simple fried vegetables are a beautiful thing—and not necessarily the better for being labeled wings or oysters or shrimp.

Vegan Wit A Twist's Da Pressure “cheeseburger.”

Still, the future of the movement seems to be in the hands of a generation for whom those preconceptions are falling away. This is the post-carob generation, raised on Annie's mac 'n' cheese and trips to Whole Foods, soy milk and tofu in the fridge, gluten-free cupcakes at the birthday party, a cohort to which individual dietary preferences and restrictions are as much a given as gender fluidity, whose goal seems to be less about changing minds than it is about making everybody feel welcome.

“I like to feed people. I want everybody to be able to eat my food,” says 30-year-old Nadia Ogbor, who operates a one-woman pop-up, which she calls Little Kitchen, out of a rotating roster of New Orleans bars, breweries, and shared kitchens. “When I don't have a vegan option, it's like I can imagine their poor little faces: ‘What if they come out tonight and have nothing to eat!’ ”

Ogbor, who is self-trained, takes cooking vegan as a challenge. “It's easy to fall back on animal fat for flavor,” she says. For the soups that are her specialty—a fiery red pozole, a Nigerian okra stew—she uses coconut oil to reproduce some of that richness. In search of all-important funk, she turns to white miso, fermented locust beans, tomato paste, and caramelized vegetables. It's a reminder of how much creativity vegan cooking demands but also of the vast advantage today's vegan cooks have over their predecessors. Twenty years into an era when American cooking has been fixated on umami—the elusive “fifth flavor” associated with meat—a young cook now has, at their fingertips, an astonishing arsenal of global ingredients and techniques to achieve it. They draw from both ancient tradition and molecular gastronomy. They smoke and they caramelize and they emulsify. They reach for nuts and seeds and oils from every continent, fermentations from an encyclopedia of cultures, miso and mushrooms and chile crisp, the moment's most ubiquitous flavor booster. Science has given them a larder filled with engineered milk and butter and meat substitutes while YouTube puts the most esoteric technique within reach. The truth is that vegans can eat better today because just about all of us eat better today.

The splashiest, most consequential, and most controversial tool in the vegan cooking toolbox is, of course, fake meat—by which I mean the stuff engineered in a lab by companies like Impossible and Beyond. These products use an array of isolated plant proteins, from sources like soy and peas, to unsettlingly mimic meat, right down to how it can be cooked, passing through the recognizable stages of raw to well-done. The stuff is uncanny. It smells funny raw. It could not be more a more diametric move away from traditional health food's rejection of plastic factory food.

I love it.

I say that not entirely unabashedly but with complete sincerity. I love fake meat. And while this might be a strange thing for a sometime food critic to say, I love fake meat specifically because it's not that great. What Impossible and Beyond simulate so perfectly isn't ground beef so much as cheap ground beef—which is to say, precisely the industrially produced meat that I most want to remove from my diet because of its cost to animal, human, and planetary welfare. To eat an Impossible burger is to realize how relatively small a factor the flavor of beef is in the experience of eating most real burgers, compared with toppings, texture, and temperature (an aspect of eating that is rarely talked about enough). The laboratory meats provide just enough beefy characteristics to bring those other elements to the fore, and the job it does is…well, just enough. The first time I made an Impossible smashburger at home, I knew with absolute conviction that I would thenceforth eat maybe two or three beef burgers a year. And I mean max!

Rarely have I experienced more palate fatigue than I did in the weeks I explored the vegan world. By the end, I didn't crave a steak so much as I needed a salad.

If that strikes you as something less than a profile in ethical courage, well, it does put a fine point on whom all this wonderful animal-free bounty may be serving best. Many vegans are rightly skeptical of the tech-start-up culture surrounding fake meat. (Impossible Foods is said to be preparing for a multibillion-dollar IPO; in 2020 alone, “alt-protein” companies, which also include such ventures as 3D-printed steak and cultured seafood, raised some $3.1 billion in global investment.) They point out fake meat's shortcomings as a long-term agent of sustainable eating—an Impossible or Beyond burger, while environmentally superior to beef, is said to have five times the carbon footprint of a classic bean burger—and lament the space that alternative proteins take up both in the food conversation and on menus. “If I'm going into a restaurant and I see an Impossible or Beyond burger, I'm going to be a little sad,” says Alicia Kennedy, who gave up eating meat 10 years ago. “I want to see creativity, even in that restaurant's approach to a veggie burger. A veggie burger can be anything!”

As a Twitter user named Jazzy Pizzle, M.D., put it: “Can y'all stop eating plant based things that ‘look and taste like meat!!!!’ and just learn how to cook a vegetable damn.”

Lab meat, these skeptics say, is what the moon landing was to the serious exploration of space—big, splashy, and great P.R., but ultimately a dead end.

This is all more or less fair. Fake meat will probably make some people very rich before it saves the world. And of course even the expanded options of the new veganism don't replicate some people's ideal of a meatless world. But it's possible to like a product without being on board with its investor deck. For most of us, living in late-stage capitalism means a constant search for at least small ways to extricate ourselves from society's most hideous systems. In this battle, fake meat is that rarest and most wondrous of things: an easy, if only partial, win.

As to the matter of pleasure, I can understand if the thought of Impossible's and Beyond's engineered origins turns people off. Already other companies are using it to differentiate themselves, echoing old hippie salvos: “Made with Love, Not in Lab” is a favorite catchphrase at Akua, a start-up that produces burger patties from farmed kelp. (They are very good, but I wish the company's otter mascot didn't make me think of them as otter burgers.) Learning recently of a British start-up called Peafu, which simulates tofu using peas rather than soy beans, did make me wonder if the future will just be a pile of alt- upon alt-, until it's imitations all the way down.

The lab meats work for me, no matter how weird they may be to think about. On the other hand, I'm mildly revolted by jackfruit, with its trace scent of decay. Meanwhile, I find myself hungering for seitan specifically because its sponginess reminds me of trashy processed meat products like bologna and fish balls. Taste rarely follows orderly lines.

If there's a problem with the new vegan bounty, it's the overwhelming tendency—perhaps based on the old apprehension that vegan food is necessarily bland—for chefs to throw the entire abundance at their disposal at every dish, piling sweet on salt on umami, and repeat and repeat and repeat. Were I to offer any advice to these cooks, it would be to follow some version of Coco Chanel's famous admonition to always take one thing off before going out to meet your public. I often found I could only discern exactly what was going on in a dish when I returned to it as leftovers, at room temperature. Rarely have I experienced more palate fatigue than I did in the weeks I explored the vegan world. By the end, I didn't crave a steak so much as I needed a salad.

But I also, after a year of often intense ambivalence about the restaurant world, felt strangely invigorated. I met Alex Davis and Jas Rogers, the onetime servers who had gone on a vegetable-cooking jag after being laid off last year during the pandemic, at Coalesce Goods, their newly opened stall in the St. Roch Market food hall. Rogers, who is 28, had been a food-service specialist in the Army; Davis, 23, had been exposed to vegan cuisine while studying yoga in Bali. Like so many of the other vegan chefs I met in New Orleans, the couple, who are originally from Houston, are themselves omnivorous. “We believe in a plant-based diet,” says Davis. “But everything in moderation.”

Coalesce Goods' “tuna bowl.” 

Last April, they spent $47, Rogers's last paycheck, on chickpeas and vital wheat gluten—the sticky flour used to make seitan—and started experimenting. It turned out that Davis is something of a faux-meat savant. She adds beans to seitan to mold “brisket” that is surprisingly meaty and fibrous in all the right briskety ways. She and Rogers (the pair have yet to hire an employee) smoke the “meat” for eight hours, then braise it in wine and tomatoes before finally grilling it with a beet-based sauce that imparts a pretty credible barbecue bark. They use the same seitan blend mixed with Cajun spices to create spicy faux-boudin balls and fashion strikingly realistic-looking slices of tuna sashimi by slicing skinned tomatoes and marinating them in kombu, tamari, and other Japanese seasonings. On each take-out order, Rogers or Davis writes an affirmation in marker: “FOOD IS LOVE” or “YOU ARE LIGHT.”

I'm not usually susceptible to such platitudes, but right now I am. Much as I worried and mourned, this past year, for all those I admire and care about who work in dining, it was hard at times not to think of restaurants as a kind of grotesque undead manifestation of American capitalism, a creature—like Disney World or college football—that we simply accepted must lurch dumbly forward, though we knew that the sanest and safest thing was for it to lie down and stay buried for a while. (And to get the support it needed to do so.) Talking to Rogers and Davis, and Tabor and Mastersson, and all the other vegan chefs of New Orleans, I found myself picturing, for the first time in a long while, not a zombie but delicate, hopeful—even tasty—tendrils of green, pushing their way out of the soil and up toward the sky.

Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for GQ

This post originally appeared on GQ and was published June 10, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

Subscribe to GQ Now for Just $15 and Get Free Swag.