For the first 34 years of her life, Adjoa Courtney was just an artist who liked to cook. Over the last year and a half, she’s become one of Charlotte’s most sought-after vegan cooks thanks to her talent for turning traditional soul food favorites into vegan masterpieces, whetting the appetites of carnivores and omnivores alike.
As a young girl dancing in an African Dance Company in her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Courtney spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her grandmother while her mother was at work.
Courtney’s mother was vegan, and thanks to a traumatizing incident involving an allergic reaction to a bratwurst at a cookout when she was 7 years old, Courtney jumped on that boat without hesitation.
Twenty years later in 2011, Courtney moved to Charlotte to escape the cold Milwaukee winters and be with her brothers, who were attending Johnson C. Smith University. She worked full-time as a freelance makeup artist, hired on by production companies for commercials, corporate videos, short films and the like.
She had since become a flexitarian, sometimes incorporating meat into her mostly vegan diet. One thing about her culinary habits remained steady: she loved to cook.
“When I moved to Charlotte, I started meeting different people, and that’s always been my thing is just to cook for people,” she recalls. “Eventually my friends were like, ‘Why are you doing this for us?’”
They encouraged her to attend culinary school. Her mentor told her that might not be necessary, as she already harbored such natural talent. It wasn’t until her mentor tasted one of her vegan creations, picked up from her childhood, that Courtney’s future became clear.
“I gave her some vegan food one day and she was like, ‘What is this? This is your niche! This is what you need to be doing!’” Courtney remembers, laughing. “To me it was nothing. That’s the stuff I grew up with. I’m like, ‘Who wants this?’ Come to find out, everybody want it.”
So Courtney became Chef Joya and hopped around a bit as a culinary freelancer — beginning as a meal prepper, then working as a private chef. Since last summer, she’s been building a brand for herself outside of the private kitchens.
In July 2018, she won Vegan Outreach’s Mac Down Charlotte vegan mac and cheese competition, which led to numerous appearances at local festivals and pop-ups.
That same month, Joya launched a string of YouTube videos titled “Say What! It’s Vegan?,” inspired by the popularity of her Facebook Live cooking streams. Her popularity garnered the same ingenuous reaction she once gave to her mentor.
“I was just cooking at home and people were watching and I was like, ‘Y’all are really watching this?’ Y’all really want to see this?’”
It was two months after her Mac Down victory when she attended VegFest for the first time that Courtney could no longer deny it: Chef Joya was on the map.
“I did not know anybody knew who I was, I just knew I won the Mac Down,” Courtney remembers of her VegFest experience. “I had not done any public events here. I came to VegFest, it opened up at 11 o’clock. I was talking to my staff. I turned back around and I looked up, I had a line that was all the way dooowwwwnnn. I was like, ‘Who are these people? How do they even know who I am?’ It pretty much stayed like that until I was sold out. So now everyone knows, when I have an event it’s going to be a sellout.”
While last summer became a defining one for Chef Joya, this one promises to bring her career to another level.
On July 21, she’ll launch her first curated dining series, consisting of five-course meals for 24 attendees that will explore different branches of her family tree. The first iteration will focus on Gullah Geechee cuisine, with later installments serving up vegan adaptations of dishes enjoyed by her Cuban, Jamaican and Native-American ancestors.
“My family has always been big on history and teaching us our culture, and so those are things that have always been dear and near to my heart. So when I decided to do this first series, I wanted to do a whole culinary journey,” Courtney says. “Within this whole series, each dinner is going to be a different part of me; it’s going to be a different culture, and it’s going to be elevated because a lot of those food items from those different cultures aren’t necessarily considered fine cuisine. But with my twist and my spin and my creativity on it, I want to show people how your history, your roots, can be elevated.”
At a recent private event in north Charlotte, Chef Joya served up a number of plates that have put her food in high demand in the Charlotte market. Dishes included Cajun okra shooters with avocado mango aioli, apricot barbecue short rib sliders and — one of her most popular recipes — Monkey Joe Chick’n & Waffle Skewers.
Joya says most people are dumbfounded by how she’s able to recreate meaty dishes with a vegan spin. She believes growing up cooking vegan foods in her home at an early age — when next to no one was even experimenting with veganism — gave her the necessary experience.
“The benefit that I have with growing up vegan is I know about a lot of substitutes that a lot of people don’t even know about,” she says. “That’s because there wasn’t a lot back then, so we used a lot of things, and those products still exist but a lot of people don’t know about them. So I’ve already known things [that work] texture-wise.”
She gets requests in her DMs on a near-daily basis for recipes, and she’s not one to hold onto family secrets. This fall, she plans to release her first cookbook, a call-back to her meal-prepping days without all the meal prepping.
Between working on that and launching the dining series, Chef Joya may be sparse over the next few months, but she wouldn’t leave her fans drooling for that long without offering up a little fun for them. She’s also initiated a Where’s Joya pop-up series, for which she posts hints on social media about a location a few days prior to the pop-up, then sets up and sells a specific menu until the food is gone.
Her last Where’s Joya pop-up was on June 14, with another planned for the end of the month.
If you’re super lucky, you might catch a few Chef Joya favorites coming through the window at Veltree, a vegan soul food joint in University City run by her close friend Chef Velvet Jacobs. Joya hangs out at Veltree during her rare free time, to the point where some regulars are convinced she’s Jacobs’ culinary partner and call in to ask when she’s working next.
One thing is clear, Chef Joya doesn’t take many rests, and the Charlotte food scene is better for it.
“Sometimes I don’t even know how I have the energy, but I know there’s things that I want and there’s things that I want to do,” Courtney says. “And people are asking for it, so my followers and my fans keep me doing a lot of things … It’s always exciting to see that people want more from you, so that’s the driving force.”
As we move toward 2020, it’s hard to imagine that driving force will be letting up anytime soon.