Chef Julia Simon is a gem of the Charlotte vegan scene. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, her model for compassion-led culinary work embodies true vegan culture. She described herself to me as “an organizer, a doer, a believer in community, and a sci-fi fan who for real thinks veganism will help humanity survive and travel the stars.” I think that just about captures her spirit.
I was convinced I’d first met her in person when she humbly attended an in-home Ethiopian cooking class I hosted a few years back, though she corrected me on where I had the privilege: during an old photo shoot for a newspaper featuring Nourish Charlotte, her vegan and organic food-delivery service.
In October, she and her partner Erik Berns announced their first brick-and-mortar concept, Plant Joy in Camp North End, filling the last of four new food stalls. It will also serve as a pick-up spot for the ever-popular pre-prepared Nourish meals that she built her business delivering.
I linked with Julia at the new space in the lead-up to the Nov. 24 grand opening to chat about her career thus far in Charlotte and the new vegan venture.
Julia Simon keeps Charlotte Nourished
If you’ve been vegan for any significant amount of time in this city, you know about Nourish Charlotte. Odds are it’s held you down and gotten you through in a city that’s been sparse for needs like ours.
Nourish boasts myriad awards from multiple publications, and deservedly so. The company was also recently recognized with Mecklenburg County’s Recycling Excellence award. Talking to Julia, I could tell that last experience ranked high for her.
At one point, Nourish was not just the only authentic vegan kitchen in the city, but the only vegan meal-delivery service. While much has changed in that scene since she launched in 2012, Julia Simon is her own competitor, not yours. In fact she’s elated over the city’s vegan growth. She shared with me that she is “always available for anyone that needs help, support or guidance in the vegan culinary world.”
Looking out for her people
Julia didn’t plan to open a restaurant; she told me it was never one of her goals, but the folks at Camp North End worked with her until all the numbers made sense and the details aligned.
Julia isn’t in business for the business, (read that again). At the core of everything she touches is principle and a deep passion for humanity. That humanity extends not just to us (her consumers) but to her staff. She told me company ethics and practices at Plant Joy start with the staff, which is the first time I’ve heard such a statement from a business owner. Happy worker, happy customer; this almost makes too much sense.
She’s overjoyed to have Nourish sous chef Sara Whittlesey to work as co-executive chef at Plant Joy, while Jaisen Putnam has done an amazing job taking over as sous chef back in the Nourish kitchen. According to Julia, “If it wasn’t for their fierceness and stability, along with the commitment of the rest of the team — it’s likely this (Plant Joy) wouldn’t be going down.”
As at Nourish, Whittlesey and Putnam will celebrate vegetables without leaning into meat substitutes or mirroring the standard American diet. The vegetable culture reigns supreme here.
What’s in a name?
When asked about the name Julia tells me that “to plant joy” was a mantra for her in the ridiculousness of 2020. I wanted to know what would make Plant Joy different compared to what we’ve seen in Charlotte. She replied, “Reveling in vegetables and vegetables alone. Playful weirdness.”
“Garnishes like this town has never seen,” she continued. “Weird and unusual deliciousness made organic and nutrient-dense … and pancakes and salad, one of my fav things to eat.”
A menu highlight for Plant Joy will be the Socca set, a hot, crispy chickpea crepe with a lovely salad on top, which she called “kind of a love letter to bánh xèo through the lens of the Mediterranean.”
So if that’s her favorite thing to eat, what’s her favorite thing to cook?
“I fucking love cooking a stir fry or curry,” she replied. “I love making casseroles and crudite sets and platters — composed things. I love those hummus paintings I’ve gotten to make over the years; playing with food in that way is lovely. Mushrooms and all they offer are my favorite proteins.”
The menu will include rainbow toast and a falafel sandwich, showcasing rich, bright flavors and colors that highlight regional fare. Patrons can also expect a variety of locally-sourced pastries and some fan-favorites from Nourish Charlotte.
Veganism as a gateway
Whenever I talk to Julia, we have a tendency to stray off topic. When we sat down to talk about Plant Joy, our conversation went from Star Trek to Dr. Sebi to anti-capitalism to Black excellence. We talk honestly about hard subjects and we always seem to come back to one central theme: compassion.
Julia’s work is rooted in a deep care for living things: “Veganism is a gateway to thinking about how you treat everyone and everything.”
We pause here and have a conversation about White Veganism and how this principle is not always the case. Julia gets that, which is part of the reason why she sets a high bar with her standards. To be clear, she’s not peace-and-lovey, as one may suspect; she’s no-nonsense and completely grounded when it comes to awareness and bettering humanity.
Julia say’s Plant Joy is a test. She knows restaurant work is demanding, and she doesn’t believe in a model of “work until you drop.” Much of Plant Joy’s success depends on us to be better consumers; to consider how we treat those that nurture us and put kindness and consideration first.
“Creating a space for people to not only think about treating food in a different way but also humans with respect,” Julia said. “There will be no bigotry or misogyny tolerated at our stall window.”
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