If you ask Chef Shawn Harrison for advice on becoming a vegan, you probably won't get much of a response. With some nudging he might share his story. He made the lifestyle change more than five years ago for reasons that go beyond health. In regards to spirituality, he puts an emphasis on the negative energy that surrounds the suffering of slaughtered animals. For Harrison, who is laid-back and seems to be without condemnation of carnivores, it's a matter of the heart.
But in an effort to share the love, he's collaborated with chef and raw foodist Brian "Cat" Williams, for pop-up events that are dubbed "As You Do." The third dining installment goes down on Nov. 22 at Birdsong Brewery, where craft beer is being paired with vegan courses.
While Harrison also hosts his own vegan pop-ups under the crafty name of Tephra, he's also working in the kitchen at the new Foxcroft Wine Co. in Dilworth. Starting his culinary journey at the age of 15, he's now 26 and has worked at more than 25 restaurants in Charlotte. In that time period, part of his mantra has leaned towards enlightening chefs think about veganism and plant-based cooking. His secret to making no-meat, dairy-free dishes taste delicious? "My secret is seasoning. Balancing salt and flavor is one of my greatest strengths as a cook. This is applicable to all food, but is especially delicate with strictly plants," says Harrison.
For the latest "As You Do" dinner experience, Harrison and Williams have concocted a menu that's suitable for everyone. Carnivores can substitute their meaty desires with a homemade seitan substitute and the menu has multiple creamy textures that function as alternatives to dairy.
"For some people, it just takes a little culinary push to see that another way of life exists," says Harrison. "Veganism isn't some intangible concept for a select few. It is a very attainable way of life."
Creative Loafing: What's been your culinary vision for the Charlotte food scene and what would you like to see more of?
Shawn Harrison: Years ago we [Harrison and Williams] talked about how we want Charlotte to be like a vegan Mecca. People think Asheville is, but it's really not. They've got a couple vegan restaurants, but so do we. We want this to be a more plant-forward city.
I'd definitely like to see more high quality vegetarian/vegan options with actual thought into it instead of a menu filler for a fringe group. I had an idea for a vegan brunch concept that would be nice.
You've worked at a variety of restaurants and at Whole Foods, where you've had to cook meat and be around it. Is that challenging as a vegan?
I'm either desensitized to it or maybe I've sacrificed my own comfort to be implanted inside [the restaurant industry]. If I'm there and I'm making good food, then to me I'm planting a seed that vegan food can be good, so I've purposely stayed in there. I'm always surprising people with vegan dishes and how good they can be.
The holidays are coming up and I'm sure you'll be cooking for your family. Are they surprised by how good vegan food can be?
My parents are definitely done with being surprised now. For Thanksgiving and Christmas, I do the dinner and they have no problem with that. They don't miss the turkey anymore. I have replaced the turkey with an intimate three-course dinner that's made up of whatever I can find in season at the market. I love using my cooking as a gift of gratitude to my family who have always been there for me.