Vegan soul food? Isn’t that concept a little odd, like baseball without a seventh-inning stretch, or a backyard barbecue without beer? Not to Lonni Byrd, chef and co-owner of Love, Peace & Sol Cafe, a vegan soul-food restaurant that opened in Park Hill this winter. “We knew the anomaly of vegan soul food,” she says, “but believed wholeheartedly in our product and took the chance.” Turns out, that anomaly just might be the future of soul food. Find out what led Byrd to the cutting edge — and how she coaxes the cuisine’s signature deep flavors out of plant-based ingredients — in our conversation below.
Westword: Tell us a little about the restaurant and what you’re trying to do there.
Lonni Byrd: Love, Peace & Sol is a vegan soul-food eatery. We specialize in not only American soul food, but in foods from the entire African diaspora. We source our ingredients first from our on-site organic garden, when available, then from other local farms, when available, and always use non-GMO ingredients.
Some people might say it’s impossible to make vegan soul food. What would you say to that?
Soul food isn’t about the meat. Soul food is about taking simple and sometimes undesired ingredients and preparing them with love and gratitude, resulting in food that tastes like hugs. Soul food is about fellowshipping and breaking bread together, not the meat.
How do you build flavors without meat? What are some ingredients that you’ve come to rely on, since animal products aren’t an option?
I like bold flavorings. However, it’s less about what is used to create the flavor and more about the technique. I treat veggies/beans/grains just as I would treat any animal product, using the same seasonings, marinades and whatever else is necessary to build my desired flavor profile. I flavor, aka season, every step in my preparation process. Anytime something gets added to the pot, it’s seasoned. Layered flavoring is the key to life. Oh, and smoked paprika for everything.
Where do you get your inspiration for the menu?
Our menu changes weekly. I would get bored very easily making the same things all the time. Inspiration for the menu comes from many things: what I desire to cook, what ingredients we have readily accessible, social-media posts, childhood memories and customer requests, to name a few.
Quick bio: How old are you, where did you work prior to Love, Peace & Sol, and where are you from?
I’m 36. I’m originally from Denver, but I have spent most of my adult life in Atlanta. I worked a lot of places before Love, Peace & Sol. Most recently I worked for a couple of local catering companies.
How long have you been in the food industry?
I’ve been in the food industry for twelve years. Most of my experience has been front of the house, serving or bartending. This is my first experience as a chef.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I started cooking out of necessity. I was a latchkey kid and spent a lot of evenings home alone. I remember having tons of cans and boxes from food commodities and food banks, and a few purchased staples in the fridge like milk, eggs, cheese, etc. I would look at what I had available and imagine a taste that I’d like to achieve. Then I would combine the ingredients in the way I thought would make them taste delicious. Most times I was able to achieve the taste I imagined; sometimes they were epic fails.
What’s your earliest food memory?
When I was six or seven, my godmother married an Ethiopian man. I remember going to their home one day and eating Ethiopian food for the first time. Everything about it was perfection. It would be at least fifteen years before I had another taste of Ethiopian food, but I never forgot how delicious and fragrant it was, and it’s still one of my favorite cuisines.
What’s a career highlight?
Opening Love, Peace & Sol has by far been my career highlight. This journey has been the ultimate walk of faith and caused me to be completely vulnerable. My business partner, Caronne Porter, and I opened this cafe using all our own money, with no paid advertising and no business plan.... The response to the cafe has been overwhelming. The love and support we’ve received have indeed affirmed this venture.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
When you do things with love, the result will always be perfection.
Do you have a signature dish, or something you’ve made throughout the years, even if you’re not publicly known for it?
My signature dish would definitely be the love patties, which are a lentil-based patty that can be topped with barbecue sauce, chutney, salsa, aioli, etc.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served, and why:
A few weeks ago I tried a new recipe for vegan quiche, because I thought my tried-and-true recipe wasn’t mass appealing. The new recipe was wack. No customers complained, but I knew it was terrible.
Hardest moment in your career and what it taught you:
I am probably in the most challenging time of my career thus far, mostly because of the time commitment. Most days I work crazy-long hours while being the solo parent to a beautiful five-year-old. I know the time commitment comes with the territory, especially when you are the chef and owner, but it definitely has taken a toll on my personal life.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
That’s hard. If you are asking about cuisine types, then it’s Ethiopian, hands down. If you are asking about a single food item, it’s avocado.
Where do you go for Ethiopian food?
My favorite restaurants are Abyssinia and Queen of Sheba.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
Everything coming out of the ground from our on-site garden. Yum.
One ingredient you wish would disappear:
Do you cook at home? If so, what’s your favorite thing to make?
Not much anymore, but when I do, I’m all about the one-pot meal.
Best tip for a home cook:
I still consider myself a home cook. So I’d say the best tip I’d give myself is to keep trying new things and trust your palate.
Love, Peace & Sol Cafe is located at 3435 Albion Street. Find out more at 303-304-8849 or lovepeaceandsol.com.