Sisters dish up some soul food
Three Bermudian sisters living in Britain are finalists in a food competition.
Jameelah Brinson, Karima Gardner and Ahyaana Tiana Young will find out at the end of this month if they have won the Boxpark Croydon Food Business Competition.
The top prize is a pop-up restaurant in South London, for three months.
Their catering business, Soul Vegan UK, is up against two others. The winner will be decided based on feedback from diners – each restaurant was given a week to showcase its talent at Boxpark Croydon, the world’s first pop-up mall and entertainment venue.
“Our signature dish was what we called the No Cheatin’ Combo,” Ms Brinson said. “This was battered mushrooms, cauliflower wings, seitan (a vegan protein made from wheat gluten) nuggets, crispy plantain fries, seasoned with our secret Carib spice blend and served with our homemade chipotle mayo.”
About five years ago the sisters began making Caribbean-style vegan food for large events such as the City Splash Festival in Brixton. Dishes include mac and cheese, peas and rice, curried no-goat and a vegan version of codfish and potatoes.
“We make all our sauces and everything from scratch,” Ms Brinson said.
The contest was sponsored by StartUp Croydon, a business accelerator similar to Bermuda’s Ignite Programme, and aimed at entrepreneurs who had started their companies during the pandemic.
At Boxpark Croydon they served at least 50 people a day.
“But we cater to a lot more than that at festivals, sometimes up to 400 people,” Ms Brinson said.
Having a proper kitchen to work out of seemed like a luxury. At festivals they often cooked in the middle of a field.
Ms Brinson said: “There was no wind blowing, or rain and there wasn't a queue where half of the people were under the influence. We were actually able to talk to everyone that came in.”
They were amazed at the number of Bermudians who came out to support them.
“We had about four to five Bermudian families a day come out for the pop-up,” she said. “We had no idea that there were so many Bermudians living in the UK. We got so much support from them. It was great. It made us all very emotional.”
They think it is the support from the Bermudian community in England and also on social media, that put them in the finals.
Ms Brinson, 37, works in sports development. Ms Young, 34, is a full-time procurement officer, and Ms Gardner, 40, owns a hair salon in Atlanta, Georgia.
Their parents, Mel and Cynthia Saltus, ran Soul Vegetarian Restaurant, a restaurant on Reid Street in the early 1990s.
The couple followed a vegan diet and raised their daughters the same way.
Although the sisters never longed for meat, they were a little envious of the non-vegan treats their friends ate.
“In primary school, the teachers sometimes gave out candy if you did something correct,” Ms Brinson said. “My dad came to school and gave the teacher candy that we could have.”
They started cooking at a young age because there just were not many healthy, vegan options around at that time. “Our family was very health-conscious,” Ms Brinson said.
Their friends also loved their food.
“We were the first to start making and selling yeast popcorn in Bermuda,” she said. “We would sell it at football games. Friends would beg us to bring it when we met up with them.”
The Saltus family left Bermuda in 1995 when the sisters were in their early teens. They first moved to Chicago, then to Ghana, then to Israel and then to London, England in 2009.
Today there are a lot more vegan options on grocery store shelves and restaurant menus but Ms Brinson almost wishes there were not.
“Now I can’t keep my two kids away from sweets the way my parents did, because there are unhealthy vegan things they could eat,” she said.
Meanwhile Ms Young worries that all the new vegan and vegetarian items on grocery store shelves are not necessarily healthy.
“Some of this food uses flavour-enhancers that have been linked to brain damage,” she said. “A lot of things they use to create these artificial meat textures and to increase shelf-life are not what you want to see in plant-based foods.”
The sisters believe food is supposed to spoil, not sit around on a shelf for months on end.
Although a plant-based diet is now more accessible they are unimpressed with the quality of what is on offer. The sisters’ dream is to start their own restaurant and maybe help to fill that gap, in some small way. If they win the pop-up residency however, the plan is to have other family members in England help run it while they do their regular work.
In 2019 they were running a weekend pop-up stall in Croydon. Their healthy food options were mainly enjoyed by university students. The trio were considering opening a physical restaurant when the pandemic hit.
If they don’t win, they plan to carry on building Soul Vegan UK as a catering business.
“This business was something to bring us together to do something we are passionate about,” Ms Young said.
For more information on Soul Vegan UK visit www.soulveganrestaurant.co.uk/