How often do you see cheesesteaks, chicken wings, hoagies, and shakes on a vegan restaurant menu? Choosing to eat vegan or vegetarian does not have to mean giving up your favorite comfort or cultural foods.
Laricia Chandler Baker, who goes by the moniker Chef Fab, owns Can't Believe It's Not Meat (CBINM) in Chicago, Illinois, where she creates vegan and vegetarian dishes based on her Chicago roots. The native is notorious for making the term flexitarian trendy with over 28,000 followers on Instagram. Since opening in 2019, the Hyde Park restaurant has received recognition from celebrities, including Beyoncé, and the Chicago community.
A Proud Chicagoan
Growing up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Baker knew she wanted to find a way to rise above hardships. “I was born in Englewood, a really tough part of Chicago. Living there, I always knew I needed to do something to make sure that when I got older, I would be successful,” she says.
While owning a restaurant was not her first aspiration, she grew up watching family members like her mother and aunt in the kitchen, which fueled her love for cooking. “My mother and aunt cooked every single day. Cooking was something I grew up around, but at a young age, it didn't fascinate me enough to want to be a chef,” she shares.
On the contrary, Baker is the founder of Epitome Boutique, operating since 2012 and serving as her first entrepreneurial endeavor. Looks from this fashion brand are on popular reality television shows such as “Black Ink Crew: Chicago.”
The support and inspiration from Chicago propelled Baker into being the entrepreneur that she is today. “I am a true, die-hard, Chicago girl.” Whether it's finding inspiration for fashion designs or menu items, Chicago is always at the forefront.
After learning about the health benefits of eating a meatless diet, such as reducing heart diseases and other chronic illnesses, Baker transitioned into being a vegetarian. She began cooking her vegetarian meals because of the lack of access to flavorful meatless food at the eateries around her.
Baker intentionally places popular Chicago foods on her menu at CBINM. Her menu includes meatless Chicago-style hot dogs and pizza poofs, a play on a classic Chicago dish involving a deep-fried dough pocket filled with cheese and other fillings.
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“When I became a vegetarian, I was like what? I can't buy Chicago-style hot dogs or Italian-beefs. Everything was mushrooms and quinoa, so I just got in the kitchen, and we started playing around with vegan Chicago-inspired recipes,” she says.
It Takes a Village
When deciding to open CBINM, many people rallied around the entrepreneur now known as Chef Fab to support launching and maintaining the restaurant.
What separates CBINM from other vegan eateries is her focus on flexitarianism and making meatless food accessible and less daunting. “We use the word flexitarian so that when people visit us, they feel welcomed. Sometimes you visit vegan restaurants, and they don't make you feel welcomed,” she says.
Baker gained recognition as a self-taught chef for the homemade vegan food she was creating. She started cooking vegan comfort food due to the lack of flexitarian dining options.
One day, her Godbrother Rico Nance, a well-known restaurateur in Chicago, contacted her about an available restaurant space. “Rico saw all of the people supporting the vegan food I was cooking. One day he called me saying he had a restaurant space for me to visit. I prayed about it, and then I said, ‘Okay, let's do it,’” she says.
The support did not end with Nance when deciding to open CBINM. When developing the menu, Baker’s friends who have culinary training got in the kitchen with her to help create the best recipes possible. Further, when COVID-19 hit in early 2020, family members like her mom and husband were continuously taking on various responsibilities in the restaurant through uncertain times.
Further, social media is providing many restaurants with exposure during this time. Baker is grateful to celebrities such as Beyoncé, Lil Durk, Ari Fletcher, Taylor Bennett, and more for showcasing her restaurant to reach more people.
For many restaurants, the beginning of the pandemic came with hardships. However, the Chicago community saw the value in CBINM and frequently forms socially distanced lines down the street to support it. “COVID-19 is so sad. I have been very fortunate during this time to have support from Chicago organizations supporting Black-owned restaurants, celebrities, and the Chicago community,” she says.
Fueling the Next Generation and Building an Empire
Baker values humility. These values show up in putting her community and customers first in everything that she does. “Customers give me feedback, and I use it, and that has hugely contributed to our success,” she says. For Chef Fab, it's vital for her encounters with her customers to be relational versus transactional.
These values translate into how she approaches her relationship with the youth she employs. “It's fun and stressful at the same time; the young people I work with will be very upfront about how they feel when they come into work,” she says. Baker takes into account the social-emotional development of young people who work for her, leading to more positive working relationships.
According to Javier Camacho, one of the youth workers at CBINM, “This is the second restaurant that I've worked for, and this is by far my favorite job. The team, the customers, and the environment are nice, and I feel like I am learning a lot.”
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Building an empire also means building up the community. CBINM has partnered with organizations like I-Grow Chicago to distribute meals, and Baker offers work projects for homeless people in the community.
With all of these happenings in and outside the restaurant, some may wonder how Baker avoids burnout, which unfortunately is very common for Black women. As a mom and entrepreneur, the chef says, “I don't know what I would do without great help I have. Do not be afraid to ask friends or family for help, and also, I am the massage queen; that is how I practice self-care and stay sane.”
Baker is in the process of launching a new restaurant in 2021 serving vegan Chicago-style pizza in Orland Park. She envisions franchising CBINM to get more vegan comfort food out to more people.