Whether you’re a staunch vegan or a hardcore carnivore, it’s easy to see that the vegan food space is more exciting than it’s ever been. Store shelves, fast food menus, restaurant concepts — they’re all beefing up (pun very much intended, sorry) efforts to cater to the palates of vegans and vegetarians across the nation. Why? Speaking broadly, meat consumption is on the decline. Bloomberg reports that the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and the whole of Europe are buying less meat than ever before. Now granted, a lot of that has to do with the rising price of meat and environmental concerns, but those reasons are more than enough to drive many of us to eat less meat when cooking at home.
Thankfully, people like Pinky Cole — CEO, and co-founder of the massively popular Slutty Vegan — are making it easier for us meat-eaters to expand and rethink the ways we think about the food we stuff in our maws. It’s less about ditching flavor and the “fun” of food and more about experiencing new flavors. That’s exciting. The success of Slutty Vegan in Atlanta, a city known for its love of big burgers, fried chicken, and barbecued meats, is a testament to Cole’s mastery of turning veggies into the sorts of umami bombs diners love.
Now Cole wants to give us the tools to make delicious plant-based food on our own as she prepares to drop her first cookbook, Eat Plants Bitch, which features 91 recipes of “vegan comfort food,” that expand upon and capture the magic of her flagship restaurant. Unfortunately, Eat Plants Bitch doesn’t drop until June 21st (the book is available for pre-order now) but anticipating Super Bowl Sunday, we hit up Cole for some quick snack recipes to liven up our Sunday spread and picked her brain for her thoughts on the current food space.
What can you tell us about Eat Plants Bitch, What makes it different than other cookbooks out there?
Eat Plants Bitch is basically a combination of recipes that the meat-eater would typically eat, but it’s all made plant-based. I wanted to create a book that speaks to the audience of the people who come to Slutty Vegan. 90 percent of the people who eat at Slutty Vegan are meat eaters, so our audience is the person that has no desire to be vegan but are trying vegan options, so when I came up with Eats Plant Bitch, I wanted that to be an extension of that concept.
I wanted people who eat meat to say “you know what, maybe I don’t want to go vegan but as long as I have this cookbook I can create different menu items with the recipes in this book without feeling like I have to give up the things that I love, like burgers and fries, Philly cheesesteaks, all of that good stuff” and that’s what makes it different. I’m not specifically talking to the vegan audience, vegans already get it, but we’re really tapping into the minds of the person who really likes to eat meat and doesn’t necessarily want to compromise.
What would you say to meat-eaters regarding why is it important to adopt vegan food into their lifestyle? Why should we all be lowering our meat consumption?
We save the planet when people eat less meat, that’s a given. People don’t realize, even I had to learn this, the emissions and the gas that animals give off affect our economy, our world and our ecosystem. The less meat people eat, the healthier we are in the end. But to tell people to eat less meat is not really my message, my message is to just have options. I want people to feel comfortable in the options that they have. So I’ll tell you, the first thing I want you to do is come to Slutty Vegan, if you don’t live in Atlanta or Georgia, take it one step at a time.
I think the goal in life is if we can get more people to be vegan it’s a win, but everybody is not going to make that lifestyle switch, so what we can do is make people think about food differently, which is why I love to help people reimagine food.
I think there is a misconception in the vegan space that vegans are throwing their agenda on people or forcing people to eat vegan, and I think that it pushes people away, well, for the past few years anyway. I’m just taking a different approach, it’s just necessary for people to understand food differently than they’ve known it before. Most people, up until recently, weren’t really interested in vegan food because they had this misconception that it was nasty and didn’t taste good. “This won’t do anything for me I’m going to stick to my meat.” Now we can educate people in the funnest way, I think that people are starting to adapt and allowing themselves to make their own decisions.
Could you explain to us the Slutty Vegan ethos? What do those words mean to you?
We create a cultural experience that helps people to reimagine food. The keyword here is “experience” and that’s the internal and external experience. When I came up with Slutty Vegan I knew that customer service was the key to keeping me in business and keeping the consumer coming back. We’ve never paid for paid advertisements, people come to Slutty Vegan because they love the energy, they love the vibe, they love the frequency of what we offer. What we do here is create an ultimate experience for you that is memorable, like an amusement park or a family reunion, by the time you leave you don’t even realize that you just had a vegan burger and you just started the first step in changing your lifestyle, but it’s a cultural experience.
And when I say “cultural” I don’t mean a black or white thing, culture can be many things, right? We bring people together in the name of food from around the world and we do that through a fun ultimate safe space where people can just be themselves, and that’s internal and external.
Slutty Vegan is literally a place where you can be all of the things you can imagine. How we build and grow this company is a universe of Black excellence, and excellence and general, and it feels good to know that we’re part of an empire that is teaching people about love and community and family and showing up in a way that is tasteful but we still get the job done in the funnest way.
What’s the easiest dish from the book you’d recommend for beginners? Can you walk us through that process?
Street Corn, anyone can make street corn. Start with four ears of yellow or white corn, remove the husk, then you just need some salt, some mayonnaise, hot sauce, vegan parmesan cheese, some Chinese chives, vegan butter, and minced garlic. You can choose to add paprika and cayenne pepper, to each their own, but all you’ve got to do is boil your corn, put all of those ingredients together, top them, and voila, that’s about the easiest recipe you can make and you don’t have to be a cook to do that.
On the flip side, for the more advanced vegan what recipe from your book is really going to blow minds?
I have a paella and vegan shrimp recipe. Not everyone can make paella, I barely could make it before I learned how. But I love it. I wanted to put this recipe inside as a curveball because you usually get paella from a restaurant unless you really know how to cook but I wanted the everyday person to be able to make this with a vegan shrimp.
For this recipe I use Chorizo, vegan bacon strips, slutty vegan bacon strips actually, I use garlic, tomato, tomato paste, paprika, some crushed tomatoes, some Spanish Paella rice, I use a vegan broth, you can get that easily from Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, some saffron threads, and then the jumbo vegan shrimp.
Cook up the rice sauté the ingredients, add them all together sautéed the shrimp, voila that’s your paella. Yes that’s a little more complex than the corn, but if you really know how to follow directions, it’ll taste like your favorite Spanish restaurant. This is why I created these recipes, I wanted the everyday person whether vegan or not to be able to say “I can do this, this is easy and its fun and it tastes good, and it’s vegan” so there are wins across the board!
I know you have a lot of famous fans has anyone left you most starstruck? I know Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Queen Latifah, and Tiffany Haddish have all shown up.
My most memorable experience was with Snoop Dogg — that experience was so dope, he was so laid back and so cool. Most celebrities are high-energy, he was just chill, you can tell he has been doing this for a long time. He said “I’m so proud of you, these fries taste so good” I don’t know if it was the weed or what but his energy was magnetic.
Justin Timberlake just recently came, not so much starstruck but it was a full-circle moment. I grew up watching Justin Timberlake. For him to have my food and he gave us a post, celebrities don’t do that, he put that on his page to support us and we didn’t even ask for it, he just did it on his own and that made me feel good.
Oh you know what my most memorable was actually? Alicia Silverstone, She came to my restaurant but she was incognito, no one knew it was her she was so low key. I ended up doing a podcast with her and she said “I went to your restaurant.” Her energy was so dope. I’m sure the world already knows this but more need to know how amazing she is. And she sent me some gifts in the mail, she was just so special it went beyond the restaurant.
And that’s what I love about Slutty Vegan, it’s not just a one transaction exchange — we’re building relationships with people and that for me makes it feel more familiar. This is not a brand where we just collect money and provide a service, we’re building an empire based around family and that feels good.
I wanted to ask about your burger with Shake Shack, the Slutty Shack. Are there ever any plans to bring that nationwide?
We did it in Atlanta and New York and the response was so crazy that people kept reaching out. I can’t say that there is going to be anything in the near future, but what I can say is that we created such a demand that I’m sure that people will be happy if we put that on their menu permanently.
The burger has Slut Dust… what is Slut Dust?
Let me tell you something funny. Slut Dust is Slutty Vegan’s fry seasoning that we put on every single fry that you taste… but first of all, I don’t know the first thing about adding seasonings together, I just use my tongue and taste it. When I started Slutty Vegan I knew that I needed a fry seasoning so I started playing with some seasonings and it actually tasted good. It was so good that people are like ’we gotta buy this seasoning’ so it’s my own proprietary recipe, and now we sell our retail Slut Dust and people love it. We sell it off the shelves almost every single week. You can put it on everything, you can put it on vegetables, hey you could put it on meat, it’s become a staple in people’s kitchens.
What do you think of the fast food space, what restaurant is catering best to vegans and vegetarians? Do you have a go-to pick?
The easiest is fries and a side salad, you can’t go wrong with that and you can get it at virtually any restaurant as long as they don’t make the fries in a beef juice. But the good thing about what’s happening in the vegan space, and I like to think Slutty Vegan anchored that — we were the guinea pigs in jumpstarting the fast food vegan movement on a mainstream level that now all the big mainstream restaurants are starting to add vegan options to their menu. You can go to other big-name restaurants and get chicken nuggets and burgers and fries and meat substitutes that are vegan.
It’s so much easier now to go vegan because now we have options. I can remember back in the day being a vegan and being isolated, there used to be one item on the menu that used to be vegan, and I was still happy about it, now I can go to any restaurant for the most part and there are at least two or three options that are vegan and that makes me feel good.
I think that the vegan fast food space is emerging I think it’s really opening up. I like to say that Pinky Cole and Slutty Vegan really had a hand in making that movement as popular as it is today.
From your perspective, what is the fast food space doing right or doing wrong?
For a long time, they got this wrong but now they see an opportunity — They didn’t cater to everybody. Not everyone eats meat. The basics on the regular fast food menu are not for everyone and I think it crippled business a bit because I don’t think they realized how big of an audience the vegan and plant-based lifestyle movement was. Now I think they are utilizing this opportunity to be able to add to their menus.
I think one thing that can be fixed in a typical space is really separating what is vegan and what is not. Everyone wants to add vegan options to their menu but you have to know what oils to cook the food in, what oils not to cook the food in, making sure that you’re not cross-contaminating. I think that fast food restaurants still don’t have that tip top but I’m hopeful they’ll get it right because I too, as a consumer, want to be able to go to a fast food restaurant and get some food without wondering if it was made in the same oil as chicken or beef.
But it’s definitely showing how much progress we’ve made in the last four years. I can guarantee you before I started Slutty Vegan it did not look like this. The only place where there were so many vegan options was LA and now you see a lot of options in other places. They just have to identify the difference between straight vegan, or this is a vegan sandwich, but this is not vegan bread.
KFC just dropped a plant-based chicken, but it is fried in the same oil as their regular oil, so not technically vegan.
Exactly, they’re still trying to figure it out. I want more fast food restaurants to be more intentional about adding these items to the menu versus just adding them to make money just because the trend is hot right now.
To close out, what is the perfect vegan snack to make for Super Bowl Weekend?
I have a Vegan Hot’lanta chicken dip that’s coming out and a spinach dip. You will see that recipe very soon. Super Bowl is a very fun event and a time where people come together as a family. My dip will be number one, but aside from that, you can’t go wrong with vegan beef egg rolls.
Everybody loves an egg roll you can make at home. They taste so delicious. Now I can have a vegan egg roll and eat that around the Super Bowl and dip that in a sweet sauce!