Dharma Southern Kitchen founder Shaun Noonan on the plant-based food (r)evolution
Shaun Noonan discusses the growth of vegan food in mainstream culture and why vegetable-forward options have always had a place at the Southern dinner table.
Chef and Entrepreneur Shaun Noonan, is founder of Dharma Southern Kitchen, a quickly-expanding series of Florida-grown restaurants serving plant-based Southern cooking. Yes, you read that correctly, and he will put his delicious Southern comfort food up against any other. Shaun was raised as a self-proclaimed “Army brat,” and those travels contributed to an early expansion of his worldview that led him to view food, and the food and restaurant industries, very differently.
From growing up in an Italian household that spent most of the time in the family kitchen, early culinary roots in Orlando, to professional chef training at Le Cordon Bleu in Chicago, Shaun initially began with Michelin stars in his eyes. Immediately upon graduation, he doggedly pursued and procured a coveted position working under the wing of famed chef Graham Elliot. Shaun went on to also work in the prestigious kitchens of chefs Michael Carlson, and Grant Achatz among others, but even then he felt that something was incomplete.
It was while working in various high-end fine-dining establishments that he began to notice the lack of attention paid to vegetarian diners, and a reluctance from chefs to highlight vegetables as a viable primary ingredient. “Some of the places I was working…we’d get a vegan [customer] at table four, and the whole kitchen would groan and roll their eyes, and I would think ‘What’s the problem?’”
However, it was his journeys and experiences driving an 18-wheel Big Rig though the American South, and his desire to curate a unique culinary niche, that led him to the creation of first a wildly popular Vegan Hot Dog cart in Orlando, and eventually Dharma Southern Kitchen . “My biggest goal is to mainstream veganism into the national dialogue,” he says. In some ways, he feels that it was a byproduct of his experiences encountering molecular gastronomy in fine dining that allowed him to re-frame vegetable-based cooking in a more holistic way, while honoring the rich traditions of southern cuisine.
Most importantly, he has a fierce desire to resist labels, to disrupt conventional ways of thinking about food and where it originates from, and to just simply make fresh and delicious “fine vittles,” as he refers to his culinary offerings. He feels that even labeling or pre-conceiving food as “vegan” is not the most effective approach to attracting new fans, or to satisfying current ones. “If you just do things correctly, and treat food…with the level of respect that not only it deserves, but that the customer deserves, you’re 80% across the goal line.” With a brick-and mortar location in addition to the original vegan hot dog cart, and four current locations of Dharma Southern Kitchen, with even more expansion plans happening throughout the state, he might just be on to something with his delicious plant-based “fine vittles”.
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