Contributed by Rhonda Price
If you’re in The Big Apple this week on June 10th to June 12th, you're in luck! Check out Chef Ayinde Howell’s vegan pop-up restaurant, Wildflower, happening at LTO (Limited Time Only) on East Broadway, which serves as the home to a rotating cast of pop-up restaurants. Howell will be serving three dinners and two brunches, including a six-course Southern supper featuring his dairy-free “Mac and Yease,” a Sunday waffle brunch and a street-food favorites dinner.
I caught up with Howell recently, and here's a bit about the man behind this vegan pop-up phenomenon.
As I’m perusing the menu at V-Note, a trendy vegan bistro in New York’s Upper East Side, Ayinde Howell briskly walks in and apologizes profusely that he’s late because of a train malfunction in Brooklyn. I assure him that I don’t mind because I’ve been studying the menu and trying to decide whether to start with a crispy Black-Eyed Pea Cake or a Seitan Schnitzel with blueberry reduction. I haven’t ordered a thing yet except organic ginger ale, as I was hoping Ayinde could demystify the menu for me since I’m on what I call a “vegan exploration.”
An accomplished vegan chef with a loyal following from numerous television appearances and a popular blog called I Eat Grass, Howell quickly scans the menu offerings and comments on dishes such as the Curried “Unchicken” Salad and something I’ve never heard of called Feijoadinha with Smokey Tempeh, which quickly propels me to stick with a Waldorf Salad. After a few minutes of chit chat, I realize that Howell is the only vegan I have ever met who doesn’t have a story about when he “became” vegan for health reasons, ethical reasons, environmental issues or anything else. By his own account, he was born vegan and never remembers eating any other way.
“I grew up in Seattle and my entire family was in the food business,” said Howell. “My parents were good cooks and loved experimenting with vegan dishes for our nightly family dinners. However, my Dad owned a store on the corner and didn’t sell any health food there, so I asked him about it. He told me that people weren’t ready for ‘that kind of food’ yet.”
Howell feels that more people are ready now, as veganism is going mainstream. In January there were three vegan cookbooks on the New York Times best-seller list and more restaurants responding by catering to vegans around the country. Vegan movements such as “Meatless Mondays” as well as the government’s recommendation to prepare at least one vegan meal per week are attracting non-vegans who are interested in being healthier or reducing their carbon footprint by not eating as much meat, poultry and fish.
“Food is really an emotionally charged issue,” said Howell. It amazes me when people act like tofu will kill them. I let them know that a vegetable is definitely not going to kill them!”
Another roadblock is that many people don’t know how to cook vegan food, according to Howell. This is one of the main reasons he started his own web site and blog I Eat Grass, which includes accessible recipes and video content to help aspiring vegans learn how to cook healthy meals. Howell maintains that it’s just about cooking with different textures and proteins and that anyone with a basic understanding of cooking will be able to prepare vegan dishes. He also understands the challenges of cooking for a spouse or for friends who are not vegan, but says he has no problem fixing several favorites for his girlfriend. “She’s not vegan, but she still loves my Vegan Mac and Yease, Quinoa Hash and Tempeh,” Howell said.
In addition to television appearances, a weekly column called Food Republic and teaching classes at Whole Foods at their Bowery location, Howell is currently raising funds for Wildflower. Scheduled to open later this year in Manhattan, the restaurant will capitalize on the trend of mobile food, which has expanded from food trucks to pop-up concepts and allows chefs to showcase their talents without the enormous financial burden and risk of opening a new restaurant.
“I tell people that supporting this project is a nod to green entrepreneurs like myself who are serious about good, nourishing plant-based food,” said Howell. “Vegan food doesn’t have taste like cardboard or put a big dent in your budget. It can actually be super good and affordable.”
For more information or to make a pledge to support Wildflower, visit www.ieatgrass.com