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Chef Babette Davis & Angela Means Kaaya On Restaurants As Labors Of Love

Two veteran vegan restaurateurs in conversation on the tough but necessary work of feeding people with good food.

Zagat Stories makes coverage of Black subjects a priority year round, along with people and subjects underrepresented in media generally. In recognition of Black History Month 2021, all Zagat Stories in February will focus exclusively on interviews with Black chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, brewers, bakers, and others in and around hospitality.

“Chef Babette” Davis is head chef and co-owner of Stuff I Eat, a vegan restaurant in Inglewood, California. She is a fitness enthusiast, health coach, and author of Cash In On Cashews: 50 Plus Desserts Using One Nut. Angela Means Kaaya is the founder of Jackfruit Café in Los Angeles, known for its plant-based soul food. Kayaa is a serial entrepreneur and actress whose most famous role was in the cult classic Friday (she played Felisha, as in “Bye, Felisha!”).

ANGELA MEANS KAAYA: I was a standup comedian, and there was a club in Leimert Park called Comedy Act Theatre. It was my home club. The support I got from that community was exceptional. Once I went vegan, I experienced something so profound. I wanted to share it, and I wanted to share it with that particular community. My whole agenda was literally to help aged Black and Brown people have a better quality of life towards the latter part of their lives.

So the location just kind of found me. One day I was in a donut shop with a friend who was buying lottery tickets, and I saw a huge empty kitchen. I made an inquiry about the kitchen, and the owner asked me what I wanted to do with it. I said vegan food. He laughed at me and said, “Don’t nobody want that food here.” I just kept knocking on this guy’s door. Finally he said, “Okay, come on,” and he placed a bet with his partner that I wouldn’t last more than two months.

CHEF BABETTE DAVIS: How evil.

ANGELA: After six months he said, “End of the month, you’re out. You grow too fast.” I tried to talk to him, to his humanity. I had so many aged Black people who were coming to see me, and when he put us out, it was devastating.

CHEF BABETTE: No!

ANGELA: It was a food desert. Chef Babette and I, we put in the time, trial and error. We know the results. We’re not in this to just sell some food and have some status. It really is mission-based.

CHEF BABETTE: And baby, it’s work!

ANGELA: So much work. Babette will tell you, we had no idea going in that it would be the definition of labor of love. After we were put out of the donut shop, I sat around for about six months trying to figure it out. And I jumped into a food truck—another labor of love that almost snapped me in half. And right now I’m inside of a ghost kitchen facility. There’s 25 commercial kitchens inside of it. And we’re one of them. You can come in and order. We’re there now while on the Westside, but I’m determined to come back to South LA and the right setting. I’m looking for a small takeout where people just come to get food and feed their bodies and spirits.

CHEF BABETTE: Honey let me tell you—I was never a cook! People in my past, if you ask them, will say, “She owns a restaurant? She can’t even cook!”

My husband and I had gone to Japan to do some singing. And I knew when I got back home, I wasn’t going to be a singer. I was going to have a catering business. When I got back, I went over to City of Angels Church and started feeding people on Sunday, and I named my business Stuff I Eat. And then Reverend Dr. Michael Beckwith invited us over to Agape Spiritual Center. We were there in the parking lot for six years, and we accumulated block-long lines. We had no plans to open a restaurant.

One day my husband and I took a walk down Market Street in Inglewood, and the doors to a building were open. We saw that it had been at a restaurant, and there was a nice Korean man inside. The tiles were the same color as my business cards, and that was just automatic home, as far as I was concerned. I said, “We want to open a restaurant.”

We had no money, and so the owner said “no.” He had a Nike shoe store next door to the restaurant, and he said, “I think I’m going to turn it into a Nike kids store,” because he had the only Nike shoe store in the hood. But then he said, “Come back over, let’s talk.”

He gave us the keys and let us do whatever we wanted. It took us four years to gut and do everything that we did in the restaurant. My husband made sure that every single appliance was paid for. We owed nobody except our investors.

Photo: Courtesy Chef Babette Davis.

ANGELA: When the pandemic first hit, everything just was still, and it was kinda like, “Oh, what am I gonna do?” It was one of those moments where you truly say, “I’m going to put this in God’s hands.” I said, “Let me be a source. Just help me figure it out.” And prior to Black Lives Matter, I figured out meal prep. I did it at a reduced rate—$5 a meal—and boy did that kick my butt!

Everybody and their grandmama ordered. And then the cavalry marched in—Black Lives Matter kicked it off and said, “We’re not going to take this, and y’all gonna help us.” I mean, I’d never seen anything like it. In a matter of days, it was 20 tickets shooting out of the printer at once. It was so hard to keep up. And when it hit, it hit so fast and so hard that my crew—I think they’re still spinning. BLM came in and just literally saved the day.

CHEF BABETTE: We never dreamed there would be anything that would hinder the business. And then when COVID hit us, like, “Oh, my gosh, we could lose this business that we worked so hard for.” We have two buildings that we pay for, and we didn’t get any financial help from anything. No money. You know how they did us small black businesses! It was like you go to your bank, and they act like they don’t know you anymore.

We just decided to make sure we keep our staff, and that we would adjust the hours. When it first happened, we were really just breaking even, but my husband—he’s so good with holding onto finances for rainy days—that we have been able to get through.

ANGELA: COVID actually elevated our desire to help. With more and more people getting sick, you need more and more medicine, which is the food that Chef Babette and I put out into the world. Food is medicine and medicine is food.

CHEF BABETTE: I remember you coming into the restaurant, eating, with your dream of opening your business …

ANGELA: And I remember the first thing you said to me. I can hear it. I hear your voice every single day. You put your head down a little bit, you looked over your eyebrow, and you said, “I can give you all the advice in the world, but the one thing I will let you know—it’s a lot of work.” Those were your exact words. You said it in this tone, this big sister tone. You said it like a comrade.

CHEF BABETTE: Cause we can’t have enough!

ANGELA: We don’t have enough.

CHEF BABETTE: Angela, what about people like Queen Afua? There’s some sisters out here that’s early in the game, that’s just healing people with some live food nutrients—the whole nine yards. You don’t always hear about these sisters but thankfully it’s not about the fame and the fortune. It’s about the mission.

ANGELA: You influenced me to jump in.

CHEF BABETTE: That’s what we do in this. We influence one another. So I influence somebody, and Queen Afua influenced me. That’s what our community is about.

ANGELA: Do you know Nina Curtis?

CHEF BABETTE: Yeah I love Nina. Nina off the chain. Nina been in the game a long time. She’s cooking real food. I’m not talking about somebody grabbing box stuff and some packaged stuff that somebody paid you to sell for them, and you dolling up all the fake meats and all this kind of stuff. I’m not into that. My people are sick! My people don’t need fake meat. My people don’t need wheat gluten meat. My people need real food! They need something with some nutrients in it. We got the highest rates of COVID. I don’t mean to preach …

It’s hard work. I’ve had carpal tunnel surgery on my right hand, on my thumb. I had carpal tunnel surgery on my thumb on my left hand. I’ve had trigger finger, chile! And I’m still going numb at night when I go to sleep. So it’s exactly what Angela said. It’s about the love and the need to feed a community better food. We have been misled and lied to due to systemic racism. We are the mamas and papas of civilization. We brought knowledge to the planet, and then we can go and get our minds so twisted up. I got people that’ll say “I ain’t taking that vaccine,” but they’ll eat some dirty chicken.

ANGELA: They’ll eat a dead, tortured baby pig.

CHEF BABETTE: A dead dirty chicken, a funky dead pig, a messed-up cow! So I’m just saying, stop talking about how you don’t want the vaccine, because you gutting some of the worst stuff on the planet! But I don’t want to get off into that…

Photo: Courtesy Angela Means Kaaya.

ANGELA: We’re trying to get a more soulful, flavorful Jackfruit to market. I want to get it down there in Louisiana, so grandma can make a little wrap and have a snack and start cleaning out her system and have a better quality of life.

CHEF BABETTE: I’m about to launch my online retreat. Since the swimsuit pictures went out, a lot of people have been asking me: “You’re in your 70s, can you just share with us—what is your lifestyle like?’” So in this retreat we’re going to do recipes. We’re going to talk about everything that is plaguing our community and how I’ve been able to manage and take care of my human machine.

Also, I have my Love Ur Age Project that my daughter and I are working on. It’s a platform with different things that encompass health. For instance, we created a laughing circle. So twice a day, we want to get as many people online to laugh, for at least a minute. The energy on the planet is in a very dark space. We need to be in the moment and find some laughter. I’m going to call you, Angela, because you silly.

ANGELA: It’s funny you said laughter because when I was a kid, someone told me that laughter was the best medicine. So I went into comedy, and that’s how I became famous, as this funny person. And then I heard food was the best medicine. So now I’m a food entrepreneur.

CHEF BABETTE: You’re on point. You’re a doctor!

ANGELA: I’m working to do better, to be better. We’re designing the Jackfruit Cafe prepaid debit card, a partnership with Visa. If we can help you with your money and your food, that’s what we need.

When you’re in a lane of service, you continuously think about how you can get more to more people. So we just keep going. We continue to rise. We continue to be in this space, and we continue to be enough.