When the Crosstown Concourse opened in 2017, Crosstown Arts Co-Director Christopher Miner challenged Chef Raymond Jackson to create a plant-based menu for the organization’s new cafe in a city where barbecue reigns supreme. Although a Memphis native, Chef Raymond has decades of experience with famous chefs across the world. In September 2018, the cafe opened on the second level of Crosstown Arts, offering a comprehensive selection of vegetarian and vegan options with ‘80s-names like “Every Breath You Steak” and “Sweet Dreams Are Made of Greens.”
Chef Raymond, 48, chats about his kitchen essentials, travel inspirations, and the future of Southern cooking.
How did you find your way back to Memphis?
This is home. I grew up here and went to Bellevue Junior High. Although I watched Julia Child and Justin Wilson on TV as a kid, I ended up going to school for Accounting. I was miserable, so I packed up and left Memphis for culinary school in New York. I started in New Orleans with Chef Emeril Lagasse and then went to Miami and traveled around the world.
It’s really good being back home and trying to get people engaged in a dialogue about plant-based foods. So many people say, “No, I need some meat. I want a sausage sandwich, some pulled pork, or a hamburger.” Then I offer them a cheesesteak and they don’t even know it’s not meat. It’s been fun seeing that revelation and getting past the stigma of plant-based cuisine. You can have all the flavor of the South without some of the fat, calories, and cholesterol.
If you had to distill your food philosophy into one sentence, what would it be?
Keep it simple. If you’re working with good quality ingredients, you don’t need to throw 35 different things in a dish. Keep it simple.
How have you maintained your energy and passion for cooking?
This whole plant-based journey was reinvigorating. After you’ve cooked 1,215 steaks and 1,038 pieces of fish…you’re ready for something new. You realize, “Okay, I can’t do it that way. I can’t use that ingredient.” I had to think about food in a new way. How could I coax the flavor out of tofu? How could I make it interesting? How could I get people to sit with this white box of sponge and enjoy it?
What’s your favorite kitchen gadget?
My hands because I’m very tactile. And I love my Global knife because it’s light, unlike German knives that tend to be a little heavier. Japanese knives like those from Global have a thinner, lighter blade.
How do you integrate health and wellness into your daily life?
I hit the gym when I can. If a cook calls in, and I’ve been at the cafe for 12 hours, I might not make it to the gym that night. But in general, I love spin class, riding my bike, and jogging. I’m working on doing a 10K right now.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I have cut back on animal products significantly. When I first started the job, I tried a strictly plant-based diet, and after about five days I got sick with a headache, fever, nausea. My girlfriend fed me some bacon and eggs, and I snapped right back. I do plant-based two to three days a week, but then I’ll have to get a piece of chicken or fish to keep it going.
What’s next for the Memphis food scene?
Memphis is one of those places where we value our tried and true. Alternatives have popped up, but they’re kind of a hard sell in this market. I think once we start more of an open dialogue about plant-based foods, people will be more receptive to them. Long term, I think there will need to be a big rallying cry. There have been a lot of celebrities recently who have advocated plant-based diets, like Beyonce and Jay-Z. Once we get some more people engaged and trying it, I think the broader market will catch on.
Interview by India Nikotich