For local restaurateur Louis Hunter, cooking is more than a job or a passion. It’s how he gives back to his community.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I’m 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. His ambitions extend far beyond serving delicious food. Hunter and other local plant-based Black chefs use food to uplift their communities.
But Hunter’s road 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 the demonstrations that followed condemning police violence, and was arrested and charged with two counts of riot.
Hunter then met Sarah and Dan Woodcock, a couple that 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 awed by the outpouring of support. “White, Black–no matter what race–stepped up and was there for me,” he said.
‘there has to be seasoning’
Hunter, a 43-year-old St. Paulite, co-founded the restaurant in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood with Sarah and Dan Woodcock in 2018. When the Woodcocks left the business in 2019, Hunter became the restaurant’s sole owner. His job at Trio now is beyond description. Hunter said he does “everything that needs to be done”: cooking, prep, serving, and paperwork, among other tasks.
Hunter wasn’t familiar with plant-based food until he met the Woodcocks, but spending time with them and visiting vegan restaurants led him to broaden his dietary horizons. When the Woodcocks asked him if he’d be willing to collaborate on a plant-based eatery of their own, he obliged.
“Yes,” he recalled saying. “But there has to be seasoning.”
He’s since managed to make eating plant-based something of his own, with inspiration from his family. “My cornbread comes from my brother,” he said. “He taught me that. My potato pie comes from my uncle.”
Today, Hunter’s diet is predominantly plant-based–partly because he spends so much time at Trio. “I’m there from Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 in the morning to eight at night,” he said. “Do I step out and eat a piece of cheese or something like that sometimes? Yeah, but otherwise, no–I don’t like meat.”
While plant-based cooking and eating are typically associated with whiteness, Hunter and other Black chefs are aiming to break that barrier.
Mykela “Keiko” Jackson, a 24-year-old from South Minneapolis, is the former head chef of Trio Plant-Based. She’s also the owner of the 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. Her mission, she said, is greater: 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 inexpensive and nutritious food to her community so “people can actually afford to eat healthy.”
“Mainstream media makes it seem like that’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 eating and cooking.
“I was able to bring plant-based to a neighborhood that never experienced it, which was my own black community,” Hunter said.
While many of Trio’s first patrons were white, Hunter said that, after a while, their customer base diversified.
“When you say ‘vegan,’ people think white,” Jackson said. “When they see somebody Black, it gives them representation.”
Both Hunter and Jackson said that they sometimes get flak from members of their community that don’t really “get” eating plant-based.
“I still get that, ‘Man, I would never eat that,’ ‘Man, I’m a carnivore; I eat meat.’ I get all that,” Hunter said. “But they saying that because they are so conditioned and used to one thing.”
“A lot of people, at first they’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t eat grass,’ ” Jackson said.
But, with a little prodding and experimenting, minds can be changed.
Hunter recalled coming up with his lemon pepper cauliflower recipe–a twist on lemon pepper chicken wings, a dish he used to eat frequently before his transition to primarily plant-based eating. After some experimenting (and the addition of a side of fries), he was able to perfect it for his kids. “Oh my gosh, dinner was amazing that night!” Hunter said.
Like Hunter, Jackson also gets culinary inspiration from her family. Both of her parents are from Georgia, and their cooking was Southern-style with an emphasis on meat–“good-tasting, soulful foods that aren’t necessarily healthy for you,” Jackson said.
At Keiko’s, she adds a healthy, plant-based twist to the flavors and dishes from her childhood.
Hunter’s mission to give back doesn’t end with his plant-based soul food. He hopes to start a community gardening project to give young adults employment. 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.
“This is just the bare minimum of what I want to do in my community,” he said.
Jackson hopes to expand to the world of brick and mortar and open plant-based bodegas in underserved communities–“in every neighborhood I possibly could,” she said.
But, even as they looked toward the future, the two expressed excitement about the present.
“I was homeless five years ago. Look where I’m at now,” Hunter said. “I’m happy to do what I’m doing every day.”