Vegetarian and vegan eating is more popular than ever.
That’s definitely evident in Columbia, with the recent debut of Let’s Meat Less’s Meatless Mondays and the continued success of popular vegan-focused restaurants like Peace of Soul Vegan Kitchen and Rosewood Market.
Folami Geter, owner and chef at Peace of Soul, and Rosewood Market’s former longtime chef Benoit St. Jacques stand as stalwarts of the local plant-based food movement. They both acknowledged the huge growth, from something seen as foreign to a cuisine that is now regularly eaten by many.
St. Jacques’ history in Columbia restaurants dates to the late-’90s, where he worked at Basil Pot, a precursor to Rosewood Market. While his stops didn’t exclusively serve plant-based foods, they were among those pushing such options. Today he makes and sells hot sauce through the Meet Your Cremator brand.
Geter staked her own claim on the heels of her father’s restaurant Lamb’s Bread Vegan Soul Kitchen. She credited her life growing up as a vegetarian and helping at that space as key to her comfort toward starting her own restaurant and food truck.
Free Times asked Geter and St. Jacques about the expansion of plant-based eating in Columbia, its political nature and the emulation of meat-based dishes. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Free Times: What was your impression of where vegetarian, vegan and plant-based eating was in Columbia when you first were active in town?
Benoit St. Jacques: Oh it was from Mars. That’s where it was. It was so far from the norm. People didn’t exactly know how to relate to it.
The same dialogue that we had then that is still valid today, now that it’s mainstream. But in those days, (it) was like, “How can you not eat meat? How can you not have dairy products? “Yeah, you know, milk is good for you. The propaganda of the ’80s and all that. I mean, so if you went a little bit against that grain, it was like, they thought you were crazy.
Folami Geter: And they were vocal about it. It wasn’t like they say it behind your back, they’d say it to your face.
In 2005, when your father opened his first restaurant, did it feel like it was a bold move to open up a strictly plant-based restaurant?
FG: Oh, it definitely was. Anything that’s outside of barbecue, pork chops here in Columbia is a bold move, to be honest. Because it’s a gamble. Like, are they gonna come? Are they gonna eat it?
BSJ: (It was) like saying, “I’m going to start a business and I’m going to cut out 75 percent of the population.” It’s definitely not true anymore.
(Those days), you would see that people would bring a friend and they would be like, ‘Alright, I’m going to give this weird stuff a try.’
FG: It’s pulling teeth for me. I am far more sensitive than I should be, in regard to food. I’m here all the time. It’s like my house. So if you come in and you’re frowning at the menu, I don’t love that. So we aren’t big on recruiting people to come here and I don’t like it when people trick someone, like, ‘This tastes just like (meat).”
But thankfully, there are the things that we serve on our menu you’re accustomed to.
Did you notice a shift over time of people being interested in vegetarian food at Rosewood?
BSJ: Already, even in 1989, when we opened the store, we already had a pretty good clientele with the Basil Pot. Maybe we were preaching to the choir a little bit, at first with our own clientele, but it was still growing a little bit and people were opening their minds to it.
At that time we worked in connection with the original Richland Memorial Hospital because this is the highest state for heart disease. It was starting to become a known fact that eating plant foods were actually good for lowering your risk with heart disease. It was bringing people into the consciousness of of those changes and what it could bring.
What do you think is causing this shift in Columbia?
FG: I can speak to it nationally more than I can locally. There is a trend really. First of all, you know, there’s been 800 documentaries about how horrible meat is for you. It really is a little bit shocking, if you aren’t aware yet. A lot of our customers, like (Benoit) was saying, the doctor tells you, “Hey, you keep this up, you know, I don’t know what to do, you know, you’re gonna have to make a change.” And so I think people slowly but surely are realizing that they’re going to have to change their diets to be a little healthier.
BSJ: And the planet is becoming, you know we’re …
FG: We’re killing it.
BSJ: (There’s) more and more people (and) less food. That’s one of the aspects ecologically — it’s not just us in the kitchen, saying that kind of thing, it’s a known fact that we have no choice (but) to raise food that is actually a lot more responsible, whether that be all the food waste or the way we treat the planet in general. So that’s a big part of it.
Folami, you said you don’t really try to enlist or recruit people when they aren’t interested in your type of food. Why?
FG: So I’m not very preachy, to begin with, just as a part of my personality. I prefer to walk the walk. If you have questions about plant based eating, I’m always, you know, more than happy to talk to you about it. But I think vegans have gotten a reputation of being pushy and, you know, a little over the top.
That’s not what I want people to think of when they think of Peace of Soul. We’re a great place if you’re transitioning to (plant-based eating), we’re a great place if you’ve been eating vegan for a while. So we’re here if you need us.
Plant based eating can be seen as a political thing in other ways, with some thinking it comes at the detriment of the meat and dairy industry. Do you ever experience any of that?
FG: For me, this has been the way I’ve lived for so long. I understand that it’s an issue, but it doesn’t affect me.
BSJ: I understand the question of, you know, threatening the livelihood of generations of farmers and whatever. In the short, short term. Yeah, I think that’s like everything else. It’s a delicate subject when it becomes a subject with food as politics.
Folami, you do a fried “chicken” sandwich and things like that. Do you feel like that’s a necessity in terms of running a vegan business? Or is that just kind of where your interests lie?
FG: I don’t think you have to. I have visited restaurants that are pretty purist. Where it’s raw vegan and nothing is emulating anything other than the vegetable that it is. I appreciate those, too. My mission is to be here for transitioning people as well. For people who are going to eat a steak tomorrow, but today, they want to have not a steak.
BSJ: That’s why you might have a little vegan mac and cheese, and you’re down South, and you just kind of in that culture. If you make it good, the people will try different things. You might try things that are a little bit more daring after that.