Chef Rene Johnson's vegan soul food is perfect for the stars, and your Thanksgiving table

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Chef Rene Johnson has made a name for herself with healthier versions of soul food.

California Governor Gavin Newsom loved chef Rene Johnson's quinoa "meatloaf." Actor Danny Glover preferred her red beans and rice. Vice President Kamala Harris particularly enjoyed Johnson's vegan desserts.

Since leaving a career in finance to launch Blackberry Soul Fine Catering, Johnson has become known among prominent clients for her heart-healthy Southern soul food.

"That's because I kept the soul in it and took the bad fats out," Johnson said. "I think my red beans and rice is a classic example of how you can still eat soul food, keep the flavor and still have it be vegan."

That recipe is in Johnson's new book, From My Heart to Your Table: Vegan and Traditional Soul Food Cookbook. It includes classic mac and cheese, which her kids used to love, and the vegan cashew cream sauce they eat now. 

Johnson's three children, Branden, Danielle and Jacquie, used to dine on homemade Alfredo sauce made with an abundance of cream and butter.

Over the years, she began to tweak her recipes, cooking with olive and coconut oil instead of butter and bacon grease. Her children were among the first to notice.

"They can always tell when I alter a recipe," said the chef. "I told them 'I needed to do something healthier.'" 

It rubbed off on her now-grown daughters, who continue to eat healthy meals. Her daughter, Danielle, contributed the vegan cashew sauce recipe to Johnson's book. "But I do have a son who says, 'Give me the french fries and a double burger,'" Johnson said. 

This quinoa 'meatloaf' can make a great vegan centerpiece.

The chef's healthier take on Southern soul food has also impressed catering clients like Nancy Pelosi, multi-platinum selling music group, Tony! Toni! Toné, and top executives at YouTube. 

According to Rochelle Levine, who handles communications for Johnson, the chef's services caught on strictly by word of mouth after she catered a few weddings. 

"It was all referrals that then led to entertainment industry events, Silicon Valley events and political events," Levine said. "It was a woman named Malia Cohen, a local socialite and politician, who initially introduced Rene to people who ultimately hired her for Nancy Pelosi’s event."

It was during a 2,500-person party for Google that Johnson realized healthy food could appeal to a wide range of eaters.

"There were all kinds of special dietary needs that people requested, and I wanted them all to have the same experience," she said. "And that's when I realized I can make collards taste so good without meat and all that bad stuff. I said, 'I'm going to ride this until the wheels fall off."

Rene Johnson's vegan dirty rice.

For her recipes, Johnson draws inspiration from her Louisiana-born grandmother who made soul food from scratch, kept chickens and grew vegetable gardens even after she moved to Oakland, California.

And though Johnson is perhaps best known for dishes like vegan dirty rice, her grandmother's fried chicken still has a place at the table and in her book.

For her grandmother, who had nine children, the kitchen was a place of celebration where food brought everyone together. Johnson herself was not a big eater, but was warmed by a kitchen full of love and delicious smells.

The comfort of homestyle food is a powerful thing, which is why she does not recommend an austere diet. "I do believe that, if you want a piece of fried chicken or fried fish, you should have it," she said.

Here are Johnson's tips to incorporate more vegetables into your diet while keeping the soul in your food.

Start small : Johnson recommends devoting $30 of your regular grocery bill to fresh fruits, vegetables and grains while first learning how to cook them. That way it's not a huge loss if it doesn't work out. "Just start small," she said. "Know it's OK to mess up, and know you can start over."

Fat equals flavor : Fat adds richness to dishes. If you're removing the dairy or meat from a recipe, don't forget to add another kind of fat such as olive oil. Many grocery stores now carry a wide array of butter alternatives, including cashew and avocado butter. 

Make vegetables the star : Instead of sauces, focus on produce like garlic, fresh onion, lemon and herbs to add flavor. Make salads out of sliced raw vegetables. Try potatoes and chickpeas in your tacos rather than ground beef. Saute chopped zucchini with garlic, tomatoes and fresh corn for a healthy side that pops with a sprinkle of parmesan. 

"I also always say to make your vegetables the star of the plate," Johnson said. "That's a tip my daughter gave me. And remember that you don't have to do plant-based every night. Just try to keep things simple."

Try Rene Johnson's recipes on your holiday table

Looking to add some vegetable-forward dishes to your holiday table? Try these recipes.

“The beautiful part is that you can mix and match traditional and vegan dishes for the holidays. It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” Johnson said.

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Mackensy Lunsford covers food policy, restaurants, agriculture and other food-related topics for the USA TODAY Network's South Region. She's the editor of Southern Kitchen and correspondent for The American South. Sign up for my newsletter here.

Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com