'P' is for plant-based, not pretentious
Chef Zu of Kings Apron designs a new dinner series to make veganism accessible for all
In a world filled with problematic vegans and outright climate change deniers, it's sometimes hard to see how not eating animal products can actually relate to a bigger picture. Some are turned off by the exclusive, privileged, "better than" attitude often associated with veganism, while others seem personally offended by the very idea of not eating meat. Amid all the controversy is one chef determined to dispel the notion that all "vegan" or "plant-based" lifestyles fit into a single monolith. Meet Elijah Lee, or Chef Zu, as many know him.
Wearing a black, fitted hat and crisply ironed button-down, Zu sat down with Creative Loafing to discuss his latest endeavors and thoughts around all things plant-based. Being a father of three, a newly certified holistic nutritionist, a social justice advocate, a startup owner and a chef keeps Zu's plate full, both literally and figuratively.
His journey began a few years ago when he lost his job as a warehouse manager. "I basically got laid off and was an at-home dad getting unemployment and trying to figure out what was the next step," says Zu. "The company actually laid off the top seven paid employees ... Unluckily, I was one of those people."
In response, Zu decided to turn his attention outward, with a focus on community and food sovereignty. He founded his startup, Kings Apron, in 2014 by providing plant-based feedings for people at local Atlanta shelters. Eventually, he developed classes and workshops meant to "better inform the community on the 'how' instead of only 'why.'" He notes that the word "apron" in his company's name is actually an acronym, standing for "agriculture, produce, resources, on-site and nutrition," the startup's five key concepts. Today, Kings Apron offers a variety of services including catering, counseling and demonstrations. Zu is especially excited for its latest venture: a new dinner series called Mtume' Green. Pronounced em-tu-may, the Swahili word translates to "bringer" or "messenger."
"When you put it together, it's just like a guy bringing the vegan food," says Zu with a shrug.
Mtume' Green will celebrate Zu's recent certification as a holistic nutritionist by American Fitness Professionals & Associates. Instead of letting his friends and family surprise him, Zu prefers to cook for others as a form of celebration while simultaneously showing off the possibilities of plant-based cuisine.
His debut for the series will take place at Studio No. 7 on Sun., Oct. 15. There, Zu will be serving up five plant-based courses, including an almond butter bisque, walnut-stuffed avocados, Caribbean kale salad with mango, quinoa sushi with oyster mushrooms and a raw apple pie with pecan crust and date caramel to finish off the meal. As for the future of the series, Zu said that it all depends on the success of the first one.
Zu hopes to impress even meat eaters with his cooking. He waxes poetic about a "fish" fry he does with a zucchini base and kelp crust, frying it up like he would a fish and finishing it off with a dill and lemon tartar sauce. While it has the essence of seafood from the sea vegetables and sauce, it is completely vegan. "It's about these memories that we had of the first time we had that fish," he says. "You don't want to let go of a good memory. I'm kind of here ... to give a person a chance to relive the memory, but through a healthier way."
When asked about why he prefers the term "plant-based" as opposed to "vegan," Zu replies that "plant-based" just feels better. The word "vegan" reminds him of a group of angry people, mad at others for eating animal products. "That's not me at all," he says. He's also worried about the capitalistic aspect of the lifestyle. "I think recently its became a fad," says Zu. "It's just like this money machine."
With Kings Apron and Mtume' Green, Zu seeks to offer a seat at the table for those often excluded from the discourse around plant-based lifestyles and environmentalism, without seeming "preachy." He hopes that providing a space for open dialogue around an array of social justice issues will bring about the intersectionality he so wishes to see. To do this, he is inviting guests from all walks of life to attend his dinner, bringing together farmers, chefs, writers, food bloggers and even vegan skeptics to talk about things like accessibility to healthy foods while sharing a meal. Then, he'll host an afterparty for guests to "let their hair down" to the sweet sounds of reggae from local DJ Jah Prince.
"What's more sincere than having a meal together?" asked Zu. "There's a whole new spectrum of things that could be done through finding this intersectionality."