Hip and Healthy
Abstaining from consuming products with animal origins is nothing new — people have been doing it for years. But veganism has recently gained a small foothold in Charleston, a city that still only boasts a handful of all-vegan eateries. What some describe as a trend is much more than that for several local restaurateurs and advocates who consider vegan eating as a healthier option that benefits animals and the environment.
“It’s the right time to be in Charleston and work with the whole vegan, plant-based situation,” said Nordic Cooking owner Louise Rakers. “I definitely think that as awareness starts happening, people are going to open up so much more to trying that cuisine.”
Rakers’ Daniel Island-based company delivers vegan meal kits and hosts cooking classes, a format that allows her to simplify a type of eating that is intimidating to some.
“One of the most important things, and I teach this in almost every cooking class we have, is teaching people to add umami to the actual dish,” Rakers said, describing the word that means “essence of deliciousness” in Japanese. “Umami is that flavor you’re most likely missing whenever you are not eating meat.”
All-vegan King Street destination Neon Tiger has made a name for itself by recreating meaty dishes minus, well, the meat. Charleston seems to be on board with vegan reubens, “chicken” sandwiches and pizzas, as evidenced by Neon Tiger’s “Best New Restaurant” nod from City Paper readers. And according to owner John Adamson, who’s known for previous ventures like Rarebit and The Americano, Charleston was in desperate need of a vegan eatery that was “enticing enough to get non-vegans to come in and hopefully blow them away,” he said.
“My first thought [when I went vegan] was that I need to move somewhere else,” recalled Adamson, who says he’s become a vegan “activist” since ditching meat and animal-derived products in 2017.
“But then, really, what I realized is that I’m in the exact place that I need to be. I wanted to make it super approachable, super hip, and luckily I have it in me to design spaces that people want to enjoy,” he said. “I needed something that was bigger, and Neon Tiger provided that.”
Basic Kitchen executive chef Charlie Layton has been an on-and-off vegan for 10 years, he told the City Paper, but shortly after joining the breezy Wentworth Street restaurant in 2020, he made the commitment to veganism.
“I made the switch about six months ago. I found cooking professionally, it was really hard for me to not try everything,” said Layton, adding that he still tastes the handful of non-vegan dishes Basic Kitchen serves on any given day. “Basic Kitchen has been that place where there’s something for everyone, so I want to cater to that.”
When Basic Kitchen does serve seafood, it’s sustainably sourced — Layton orders from Abundant Seafood owner Mark Marhefka — and the restaurant’s beef comes from a small East Tennessee ranch with pasture-raised cows.
“I’m really against the factory farming idea for both meat and vegetables — something that’s very clearly damaging our environment,” Layton said. “We’re really the first generation that’s seeing the effects of mass-produced dairy and crops, and now we’re seeing the full effect of that on people’s health.”
Factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations, maximize profits by raising animals in confined, primarily indoor environments. This treatment is coupled with factory farming’s toll on the environment — manure buildup can cause hazardous emissions, and runoff can pollute nearby waterways.
But meat can be raised and consumed responsibly, local farmers and experts say, something that’s particularly important in the Lowcountry, where many people reside in food deserts.
GrowFood Carolina general manager Anthony Mirisciotta, who has been a vegetarian for 20 years, said, “It goes back to this relationship with local producers,” he said. “You can really understand how they’re operating on their land, and ultimately, it’s much better than buying a nameless cut of meat or cheese at the store that may have come from a massive spot.”
Chucktown Acres head farmer Alex Russell says good land stewardship is what sets his 70-acre McClellanville farm and other “regenerative” farms like it apart from mass meat producers.
“That basically means that every day and every year, we’re making this land more healthy,” said Russell, who manages 12 cows, 25 hogs, 500 laying hens and 2,000 meat chickens.
At Chucktown Acres, the animals move throughout the farm, and manure they leave behind serves as fertilizer for the soil.
“The main centerpiece of everything we do is grass-fed and finished beef, so they don’t get any grain. When you come to the farm, probably the first thing you’ll notice is the air smells really good,” Russell said. “The main reason that is is [because] we practice aggressive rotation with our animals, so they move to a different spot everyday.”
Local farms like Chucktown Acres are constantly in danger of being swallowed up by the growing factory farm industry, but Russell says they’re always trying to adapt.
“The farms that are doing things right, we’re always trying to come up with different phrases to separate ourselves from grocery store meats,” said Russell, describing the dilution of the word “sustainable” in the last five years. “That’s why we’re so aggressive about farm tours and having people come to the farm.”
A vegan diet can seem daunting at first, but Adamson, Rakers and Layton have some suggestions for those looking to dip their toes into plant-based eating.
“I tend to go with a celebration of vegetables, rather than a meat replacement idea,” Layton said. “Especially in Charleston, there’s so many local farms, and it’s the best produce I’ve ever been lucky enough to have access to.”
Adamson said he started out “eating two or three Beyond Burgers a week,” but he quickly learned lentils, cashews, chickpeas and sunflower seeds provided him with the protein he needed.
“All these things are so readily available these days,” he said. “You’re literally going into the grocery store and just shopping in a different section.”
Rakers agrees, saying that it’s important for home cooks experimenting with vegan cuisine to make a few pantry swaps so they have plant-based substitutes on hand.
“I think that’s why it can be overwhelming when they look at a recipe that’s plant-based because there’s so many ingredients that they might not have,” she said. “It’s all about building that pantry staple and changing things out. Once you are used to operating within that cuisine, then you already have it.”
Vegan eating is on the rise in major cities like New York, where Eleven Madison Park — a restaurant boasting three Michelin stars — started serving a meatless menu when it reopened June 10.
Rakers — who estimates 80% of her clients are not fully plant-based — said she’s confident that a food-focused city like Charleston will continue to welcome new vegan chefs and restaurants.
“I feel like people here in the Lowcountry— they love food, and they do not discriminate. I have been met with so much positivity and just an open mind to trying it,” she said. “I think the most important thing in the whole sense of talking about plant-based food is don’t judge anybody. It’s easier to just listen and accept that we’re different, and then, people explore that it’s not so bad by trying it. I would always encourage people to just be mindful.”
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