When Bryant Terry first switched over to a plant-based diet at age 16, he was a bit of a pill.
"Have you ever met a vegan who is self-righteous, sanctimonious, standing on a soapbox and screaming? I was that guy," he says. "You cannot imagine how obnoxious I was."
So obnoxious, in fact, that when his mom returned home one day with a chicken to cook for supper, he took it to the backyard and buried it.
These days, Terry, 36, takes a gentler approach as an Oakland-based chef and author of the superb cookbook "Vegan Soul Kitchen," which he was in town to promote earlier this spring during the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual convention. His book strives to return African American cooking to its healthy roots, moving it away from the idea that soul cooking has to be laden with pork and fat.
"The litmus test for 80 percent of the recipes in this book wasn't if my hip, hippie Berkeley friends like them," he said, "but whether my family likes them."
We caught up with Terry to talk about updating African American cuisine, bringing back home gardens, the importance of teaching young people how to cook and about the importance of making music part of the cooking experience.
Q: You're not a big fan of the label "vegan." How do you characterize your style of cooking and eating?
A: Ingredient-driven local, seasonal, soulful food. I don't eat animal products, but I intentionally don't label my diet. I want to encourage people to really consider their values -- what type of food system do they want to see; how do they want animals to be treated; how do they want the local economy to develop. As well, I want them to check in on what their bodily needs are. People are always searching for the panacea. Whether it's a raw food diet, a vegan diet or an omnivorous diet, it can be a tricky situation because I don't think there's one diet that's perfect for everyone. I want people to think about these things first, rather than choosing a label and then eating accordingly.
Q: The trouble with labels is they can come with a lot of baggage. With the "vegan" label, part of the problem is many people associate it with elitism. And yet none of your recipes feel elite. They just seem real.
A: One of the things people associate with vegan cuisine are all those processed "meat" products, like textured vegetable proteins, which I avoid entirely. I just like cooking with real food. I want people to really understand that when they're eating plant-based, real foods it's flavorful, delicious and healthy. That's why I originally didn't want my book labeled "vegan." It's a good way to encapsulate what I'm doing, but it's also limiting because it's bigger than veganism. It's about this rich history and tradition of African Americans, and people in the South eating good, local, seasonal food. I think people need to understand that since the perceptions of African American and Southern cooking are so negative.