Chef Kriss Koﬁ’s plant-based Caribbean cuisine explores tropical flavors without boundaries. A Miami native born to Jamaican parents, Kofi developed a love for food and floodways at a tender age. After working in his father’s restaurant, he chose to pursue a culinary career, joining the U.S. Army as a food service specialist. Over the course of his six-year Army tenure, he prepared multi-course meals for large groups of military personnel all around the world.
Since becoming vegan in 2014, Koﬁ, who splits his time between Miami and New York City, is making his stamp in the food world as a sustainable, ital (a lifestyle tenet of Rastafari, short for vital, referring to a natural way of eating and living) vegan chef, putting a vegan twist on classic favorites. His inﬂuences include Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsey and Lauren Vanderpool. After graduating from the Natural Gourmet Institute later this year, he plans to build his reputation as a world-renowned traveling vegan chef working for high-end clients.
Oldways is about heritage so let’s start with yours. What is your relationship to the African Diaspora? You mentioned you are Jamaican.
I was born in Miami, Florida, but raised in a Jamaican household and grew up going back and forth to Jamaica every year.
When did your relationship with food start and how? What’s your culinary background?
At the age of thirteen, I started cooking things like bully beef (corn beef) and rice when my mom had my little sister. Then I started working at my dad’s Jamaican restaurant from the age of 13 to 19. In my latter years, I was a dishwasher, worked the register, tables. From there joined the Army in 2010 to 2016 and I was honorably discharged in August . My culinary background is still pretty young. I have only been cooking professionally since 2010. My professional cooking in the military is in a class of its own. I specialize in boat cooking and very hectic situations. I was requested to do the cooking for special missions. For example, I cooked for 1,000 people with a team on a ship in Afghanistan. I was in charge of developing recipes, clean up, etc. I was the head chef living with 20 guys or so and was in charge of making sure everyone had highly nutritionally dense meals.
How does African heritage foods ﬁt into your lifestyle and culinary style?
When I ﬁrst started eating a plant-based diet, it wasn’t necessarily based oﬀ of African Diaspora food. It was mostly vegan junk food, fake meats, etc. I was still transitioning. March 2015 is when I went to Africa and while I was there, I was vegan. I just started to be creative and see the natural vegetation they had available which was the same as in Jamaica. I was eating a dish called Red (a Ghanaian dish of black-eyed peas made with red palm oil and tomato paste), soursop, mango, banana chips — these are popular in Jamaica and in Ghana too. It all just came together for me. They do eat a lot of starch and carbs, so it was hard to eat traditional foods but it inspired me and I hope to be a chef that “veganizes,” or make traditionally non-vegan meals vegan.
What other black chefs have you worked with and how were those experiences?
The ﬁrst chef I’ve worked with so far was Bryant Terry. He is the poster boy of my culinary school (Natural Gourmet Institute). He was the inspiration for me going to the school. I reached out to him and told him, “I admire what you do, I have your cookbook. If you’re ever in New York I’m happy to help out.” A couple weeks after that he reached back out about an event he was doing in New York and asked me to help. I didn’t know it was for Erykah Badu until the last minute. This was a vegan dinner to wrap up the Soul Train Awards she was hosting. I hung out the whole day, helped cook, met Erykah. It was cool.
Can you share any recommendations for how folks can incorporate more plant-based foods into their life?
An economical way to increase the percentage of plants on your plate is to have half of the plate plant-based since right now most of it for people is meat, the other 25% protein, 25% starch.
- Create a small herb garden in your kitchen or in your yard.
- Build a relationship with local farmers and farmers’ markets.
- Eat less processed foods, eat whole foods. We are so addicted to sugar, salt, and starch on a cellular level.
- Having a juicer and a blender helps. You can mask the taste of healthy foods because if you blend things like kale with things like agave and some nuts you wouldn’t even know the kale is in there.
- Mind control is the number one way to change. You have to fully agree to yourself that you are going to incorporate more plant-based foods into your lifestyle.
Be sure to connect with Kofi via his website at http://chefkofi.com.
This article was written by Sade Anderson for Oldways.