Chefs Louis Hunter and Keiko Jackson combine vegan food and community

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For local restaurateur Louis Hunter, cooking is more than a job or a passion. This is how he gives back to his community.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I am here to serve my community, as they did for me.”

Hunter owns and operates the Twin Cities’ first black-owned plant-based restaurant – Trio Plant-Based, which is all-vegan. Its ambitions go far beyond serving delicious food. Hunter and other local plant-based black chefs use the food to uplift their communities.

But Hunter’s route here was far from straightforward.

Hunter’s cousin, Philando Castile, was killed by former St. Anthony police officer Jeremy Yanez in 2016. Hunter participated in subsequent protests condemning police brutality and was arrested and charged with two riot leaders.

Hunter then met Sarah and Dan Woodcock, a couple who helped him fight the charges. They organized protests and circulated petitions, and with their help the charges against Hunter were dropped in 2017.

Hunter said he was impressed with the outpouring of support. “White people, black people, regardless of race, stepped up and were there for me,” he said.

‘you have to season’

Hunter, a 43-year-old St. Paulite, co-founded the restaurant in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis with Sarah and Dan Woodcock in 2018. When the Woodcocks left the business in 2019, Hunter became the restaurant’s sole owner. His work at Trio is now indescribable. Hunter said he does “everything that needs to be done”: cooking, prepping, serving, and doing paperwork, among other chores.

Hunter was unfamiliar with plant-based foods until he met the Woodcocks, but spending time with them and visiting vegan restaurants led him to broaden his food horizons. When the Woodcocks asked him if he would be willing to collaborate on their own plant-based restaurant, he agreed.

“Yes,” he remembers saying. “But you have to season.”

Since then, he has managed to make plant-based eating something of his own, drawing inspiration from his family. “My cornbread is from my brother,” he said. “He taught me that. My potato pie is from my uncle.

Today, Hunter’s diet is mostly plant-based, in part because he spends a lot of time at Trio. “I’m here Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” he said. “Do I go out and eat a piece of cheese or something sometimes? Yeah, but otherwise, no, I don’t like meat.

While plant-based cooking and eating is commonly associated with whiteness, Hunter and other black chefs aim to break down that barrier.

Keiko’s kitchen

Mykela “Keiko” Jackson, 24, of South Minneapolis, is the former leader of Trio Plant-Based. She’s also the owner of plant-based pop-up, Keiko’s Kitchen, which specializes in Southern-inspired vegan comfort food.

Like Hunter, Jackson isn’t just in it for the food. Its mission, she said, is bigger: “to inform, empower and educate.”

Many black communities, Jackson said, are food deserts, with plenty of fast food available but few grocery stores. “I’m just trying to bring more options into our communities,” she said.

Her goal is to bring cheap, nutritious food to her community so “people can actually afford to eat healthy.”

“The mainstream media gives the impression that it’s a luxury, when in reality it’s a basic human right,” said Jackson, who is vegan.

Jackson and Hunter also hope to expand and diversify the world of plant-based food and cooking.

Chef Louis Hunter owns the Twin Cities’ first black-owned plant-based restaurant, Trio Plant-Based in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Gray Eagle | Sahan Diary

“I was able to bring plants to a neighborhood that had never experienced them, which was my own black community,” Hunter said.

While many of Trio’s first customers were white, Hunter said after a while their customer base diversified.

“When you say ‘vegan,’ people mean white,” Jackson said. “When they see someone black, it gives them representation.”

Both Hunter and Jackson said they sometimes get criticized by members of their community who don’t really “understand” about eating plant-based.

“I always get this, ‘Man, I would never eat that’, ‘Man, I’m a carnivore; I eat meat.’ I understand all of that,” Hunter said. “But they say that because they’re so conditioned and used to one thing.”

“A lot of people, at first they’re like, ‘No, I don’t eat grass,'” Jackson said.

But, with a little persistence and experimentation, minds can change.

Hunter remembers inventing his recipe for Lemon Pepper Cauliflower – a twist on Lemon Pepper Chicken Wings, a dish he used to eat frequently before he transitioned to eating mainly herbal. After a few experiments (and adding a side of fries), he was able to perfect it for his kids. “Oh my God, dinner was amazing that night!” said Hunter.

Sriracha Lemon Pepper Cauliflower Wings from Chef Louis Hunter. Credit: Jaida Gray Eagle | Sahan Diary

Like Hunter, Jackson also draws culinary inspiration from his family. Both of her parents are from Georgia, and their cooking was Southern-style with an emphasis on meat — “tasty, soulful foods that aren’t necessarily healthy for you,” Jackson said.

At Keiko, she adds a healthy, plant-based twist to the flavors and dishes of her childhood.

Hunter’s mission to give back doesn’t stop with his plant-based soul food. He hopes to start a community gardening project to provide employment for young adults. He also dreams of owning the multi-story building that Trio is in and using it to house young people and teach them life skills.

“It’s just the bare minimum of what I want to do in my community,” he said.

Jackson hopes to expand into the brick-and-mortar world and open plant-based bodegas in underserved communities — “in every neighborhood possible,” she said.

But, even as they looked to the future, the two expressed excitement for the present.

“I was homeless five years ago. Look where I am now,” Hunter said. “I’m happy to do what I do every day.”