Brenda Beener is one happy chef, and she doesn’t hesitate to say so.
“I really love what I do,” she tells the Voice. “I love what I do. I’ve never been happier. I’m so happy — every day!”
The source of her joy is her Harlem restaurant, Seasoned Vegan (55 St. Nicholas Avenue, 212-222-0092), which she opened with her son in May of 2014: It’s a colorful, cozy space set on the corner of 113th Street. Still, a vegan restaurant in a meat-heavy community wasn’t an easy sell, and Beener’s unflagging optimism would play a crucial part in the equation for success.
“The establishment of this restaurant was really for this community,” she says. “People were saying that residents of Harlem were not interested in eating vegetables. We have a large amount of diseases here that people assume are hereditary. Obesity runs rampant. And it’s not only people of color; it’s poor people! We are all affected, and we’re affected in large numbers. So it came about from me wanting to give people an option. I was ready for the challenge.”
Nor was veganism inherited for Beener. She grew up in Louisiana — “born,” as she puts it today, “with fish in my mouth.” Her father was a professional cook, her mother an outstanding home chef. “My mom was an amazing salt-and-pepper cook — you would think she put 47 seasonings into something, and she didn’t. From her, I learned a passion for cooking. I grew up with a lot of spices from my father: garlic, rosemary, thyme. Seasoning I learned all from my dad.”
She dipped her toe into a non-meat lifestyle 45 years ago, giving up red meat after learning about veganism through a friend. Then she met the man who would one day become her husband — who hadn’t had meat since childhood and introduced her to a whole new world of alternative foods. When he went full vegan, around 22 years ago, she altered the foods she made for their entire family to match, preparing vegetables and vegetable protein alternatives the same way she would cook with dairy and meat: “The slogan came up then: It’s the food you love, veganized.”
But Beener still wasn’t quite all in: The stewed fish, gumbo, and Creole-based dishes of her childhood still called to her. She found herself sneaking out to fish fries, spraying her clothing with Febreze and popping breath mints and gum to hide the evidence from her family, much to her own dismay. At one point, her daughter looked her in the eye and quoted from Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” And suddenly Beener couldn’t shake not knowing why she was going so far to eat fish.
“One day I got a combination fish and shrimp and sat on the bench by St. Nicholas Park eating my food. And for the first time, the seafood was so fleshy in my mouth; I had never had that experience before, and the thought of it turns my stomach. I was eating something that had lived, that was killed for me to eat. And that moment, I gave up seafood. I became true to myself. The journey I took was a wonderful journey for me. I don’t kid myself anymore. I’m going to be true to whatever it is that I do.”
Veganism became spiritual for Beener, and that deep sense of love and respect for the strictures of the diet fueled her restaurant. She also began to grasp how what we eat directly affects how we feel, knowledge she wanted to share with her community.
After testing some dishes by selling from a folding table inside a local bakery for a few months, she opened Seasoned Vegan with very little money, gaining customers purely through word of mouth. She doesn’t foist veganism on her guests but doesn’t let them get away with bringing meat inside, either. Rather, she focuses on creating hearty, delicious plates flavored with the roots of her childhood, reimagining those “soul food dishes” in a more salubrious package.
While there are soy ingredients on her menu, most items are vegetable-based: “Crawfish” are made from burdock root, “shrimp” from yams, and “riblets” from lotus flower root. One of her most popular menu items, the Seasoned Mac and Cheese, uses a creative blend of cheeses made from flaxseed milk, soy-free vegan butter with peppermint and tapioca, and other soy-free cheeses.
More than anything, Beener set out to create a healthful environment in which to eat. “The most important thing [for] digesting your food is to be in a comfortable environment,” she claims. “I wanted people to come to my restaurant and to be able to enjoy and benefit from the nutritional value that the food has. When you’re in this environment and eating, your body is a sponge. It’s taking in all of it. I capture that calm environment for my customers: It’s in the music, the food, and the people who work here.”
She’s not shy about celebrating triumphs for her customers, either, no matter how intimate they may be. “I smile especially when seniors come in, because they’re the hardest group to convince to try something new. I’ve had tears in my eyes when they tell me how good they feel after eating here, how they want to not eat meat anymore, and how after eating my food they were able to go to the bathroom. That’s big! It makes me feel good when people feel good after they eat.”
To make sure she reaches as many people in the Harlem community as possible, Beener keeps her menu costs low: Entrées top out at $18, and sandwiches, burgers, and salads average around $9. She loves it when tables of strangers sit side by side, hanging around for hours and leaving as friends. She’s often seen hugging customers as they enter or exit, and no one leaves without a friendly goodbye from two or three employees. Beener doesn’t let those who work for her fake that friendliness, and their genuine love for what they do makes her happiness complete.
“I always wanted a Cheers kind of environment, where you walk in and people know you. My restaurant is a home for anyone who comes here, a home for everyone. I didn’t wish for your typical restaurant — I wished for a home. Seriously. And what I wished for is what I got. I have my Cheers.”