Chef. Educator. Taco Lover.
Naliaka Wakhisi is the Brooklyn-based founder of NYC Vegans of Color. She works as a chef assistant at the Natural Gourmet Institute, and her own plant-based cuisine is available through Homemade. When she isn't cooking, she works with youth at the nonprofit PRY SAFE, teaches entrepreneurship to middle schoolers, and runs a group fitness class at her local gym. She describes herself as a dancer, educator, chef, artist, and organizer. Naliaka sat down with me to talk cuisine, culture, and health.
Why did you start the Meetup group NYC Vegans of Color?
I think being vegan is a form of resistance: you’re making a choice, and you’re paying attention to what is in your food. I think that it’s a very positive kind of resistance that can uplift a community and get us back to eating food from the earth. I started NYC Vegans of Color, because I wanted to be around other people like me, who are vegan, and not have to deal with the cultural barriers of black people saying, “Black people don’t do that.” And I wanted to meet other people of color, like Latinos and Asian people who are going through the same thing in their lives.
Are most of the events food-centric?
They’re all different! We’ll go out to eat a lot. We’ll probably do at least one potluck a month. But we’ve done game nights. We’ve done karaoke. I do things that I would normally do by myself, but I just invite these other vegan people. We just hang out.
Since you founded it in 2014, how have you seen the group grow?
When I started the group, I thought it was only gonna be sixteen of us, and we were just going to have to be real cool with each other. But within the first month, we had 380 members. And it kept growing: 400, 500, 600. A thousand. People who aren’t even vegan join, because we look like we’re having a good time. It’s year two, and there are 1,700 in the Meetup group now. Maybe more. I need to check.
Yeah, I don’t even know. It’s too many people.
I think that it’s a very positive kind of resistance that can uplift a community and get us back to eating food from the earth.
As a vegan chef and as the founder of NYC vegans of color, you spend a lot of time focused on vegan activities. However, when you were describing yourself earlier, “vegan” did not make your list. Do you prefer to avoid that label when in conversation with the wider community?
It’s very rare that I choose to announce that I’m vegan. I’m used to being shut down or marginalized automatically: “Oh you’re one of those.” People automatically think, “Oops, can’t do anything with her, because she’s vegan.” And I get the stigma. I used to feel that way too.
And veganism is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle change, but because I’m a new vegan, I’m still learning about all of those things. For instance, I own things that are leather--and when you say you’re vegan you do open up that larger conversation. So maybe I’m more “plant-based” than “vegan.” I just don’t want to have to explain myself all the time, and I don’t want people to feel any type of way around me.
Food culture is so steeped in tradition and in the economic realities of which foods are subsidized in this country that it can extremely be difficult to talk about nutrition with friends and family who haven’t decided to make it a priority for themselves. Do you ever engage in those conversations?
I’m an action person, so I use social media a lot to try to show people how I live my life: I’m a regular girl, just like you; who goes to the bodega, just like you; who has high-ass rent, just like you. And I’m still able to buy vegan, organic food. I’ll post a picture of a sweet potato, quinoa, and beans. And I’ll point out that the full recipe cost me $7.00. Funds are low. I went to the store and bought sweet potatoes. I got a can of organic beans for $0.89. I got some quinoa for $4.00. And this will last three or four meals! If I had a family, I could feed the entire family. I don't shove it in people's faces. I just show people.
I got so much resistance, especially from like the black community. I think they see it as a luxury to be vegan and to eat organic. They see it as an elitist diet. I hear people say, “I don’t have time,” but nobody can look me in the face and say that they don’t have time. If you’re sitting in front of me, then you best believe I’ve canceled something just to see you. I have zero time. There is no time in my day. I have four jobs. I work seven days a week. No one can sit here and tell me, “I don’t have time to be healthy.” I don’t have time to be sick!
Why do you prioritize healthy food?
I want to have this energy and this mind when I’m older. I don’t want to be have arthritis, and osteoporosis, and cancer. Learning about what a trap processed food is has made me start to pay attention and realize that I need to start now, because it’s my generation that’s feeling this.
In my grandparents’ generation and my mom’s generation, there wasn’t highly processed food on the scale that there is now. We are the generation that is suffering. So many of my friends--young friends--are pre-diabetic, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol...but I think it’s better to share recipes and to show people constantly so that they can have resources instead of having an argument.
No one can sit here and tell me, "I don't have time to be healthy." I don't have time to be sick!
As an educator, you have a unique opportunity to address this with the next generation too--do you ever share recipes with your students?
I’ll do cooking days with my students, which has nothing to do with the curriculum--this is just how I want to make change in the world, because my students are coming in everyday with hot chips and a beef patty wrapped in bread. They’ll say, “You don’t get it. This is cultural.” No. I do get it, but I think it needs to change. Like chitlins--do you know what chitlins are?
It’s the pig’s intestines. It’s literally the crap of the pig. People say, “It’s cultural!” But it’s cultural because we were slaves, and we weren’t allowed to eat the food from the land. I think if people start to understand the history behind their food, they’d realize why the culture has evolved to this. We either need to find a healthier way to eat these foods or we need to start learning about foods outside our culture. To me, it’s not insulting. It’s uplifting.
Were you a chef first or a vegan first?
I’ve been cooking since I was seven or eight--probably before that even. My mom would give me cookbooks and teach me how to make stuff. I was so picky that I always had to make my own version of what she was cooking. So I had always wanted to go to culinary school, but when I became vegan, I thought , “Oh no, now that I’m vegan, it’s going to be extra hard to go to culinary school.” But someone gave me a Bryant Terry book, and I thought, “Well, he’s vegan. And he’s black. And he’s a chef. So where did he go to culinary school?” And that's how I found the Natural Gourmet Institute.
When I realized NGI was in New York, I immediately went to an open house. I knew I couldn’t afford it, but I remembered being in that space saying these words: I said, “I have to be here. I have to be here.” I walked out, and I emailed somebody and asked if they had any type of work-study program. They didn’t. It turned out that they had just canceled one, so I went on living my life.
About a month later, though, they emailed me, saying that they were starting a new program, where I could get trained and then work for NGI as a chef assistant. They just needed 25 hours of my life a week.
I thought, “Crap, I don’t have 25 hours,” and then I turned down a high-paying, full-time teaching job because that opened up that door for me to work a NGI. My culinary skills have gone from 0 to 100 so fast. As a chef assistant, I get to do so much: I do private events. I do charity events. I do bachelorette parties. I’ve cooked for book signings. It pays very little, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. NGI is the best place on earth. It changed my life.
I remembered being in that space saying these words: I said, “I have to be here. I have to be here.”
What is the origin story of your veganism?
It’s really not a huge story. My brother asked me if I wanted to do raw foods for like a month, and I told him, “Uhhhhhhh nobody wants to do that.” But then I agreed. I guess I thought it would make me healthier. But I didn’t want to start a raw food diet and have my body still be processing dairy and meat--I wanted to get it all the way out. So I did three months vegan to prepare for this month of raw foods, and then I did a month of raw foods, and I felt great.
After those four months, it was time for me to go back to my regular diet--I had been pescatarian for 10 years. I had some salmon and rice. It hurt. I tried to eat a slice of pizza. It hurt. My body just didn’t feel good. So I remember wondering, “Why am I trying to go back to unhealthy ways? I guess I’ll just stay vegan.” And that was it.
What resources did you find helpful when you first started eating plant-based?
There’s a documentary called Vegucated, where a woman in New York teaches three people to eat vegan over six weeks. They were from different cultural backgrounds, so the things they were going through were the things I was going through. I related to it. Some documentaries really guilt you--you have to be vegan or else you’re dumb and evil. This one didn’t guilt you. It just talked about what it’s like to become vegan and be around your friends and family.
How has your perception of the meaning and value of food shifted?
I don’t like to create anything or share anything that doesn’t benefit the body. It’s very rare that--unless I’m really desperate or having a really broke week--I will eat something that’s not going to benefit me somehow. I used to just be interested in making food that makes people feel good. Now I’m interested in making food that makes people feel good and that is also good for their body.
What is your favorite food?
I feel like people don’t believe me when I say I eat tacos every day...but I do. It’s really hard for me not to make some kind of taco every day. I bought chili ingredients the other day, and I can’t imagine going through the week without that chili becoming a chili taco. I can tell it’s just going to come.
I used to just be interested in making food that makes people feel good. Now I'm interested in making food that makes people feel good and that is also good for their body.
What can you tell us about the taco recipe you’ve prepared for Chroma Kitchen today?
I feel like because I grew up grew up in Miami, I’m really connected to Latin flavors--the spiciness and the depth of flavor is just so good to me. And then through college and after college, I worked as a server at a lot of small, family-owned Jamaican restaurants, where I was able to be in the kitchen and to learn from the chefs. That’s where I learned how to make the curry that I use in these tacos: I’ve taken my love of the Caribbean flavors that I learned to make while I working at all these restaurants and combined it with my love of Latin and Mexican food. That is how this taco was born.
Check out Naliaka's Caribbean Curry Taco recipe!