When Liti Zabad reminisces about her aunt Liz, who passed away from cancer and diabetes in June 2017, she speaks with passion. She describes a feminine, sweet and funny woman; a gifted drawer and a lover of makeup who worked for Mary Kay.
“I miss her. It hit me around the holidays that she’s gone. I wait to see her come and squeeze my cheeks — she do the auntie thing,” Zabad says. “What made me want to cook for the community was (her) passing away, and me realizing that her food choices really took her life so early.”
Zabad was a vegan for some time before she opened Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen in July 2017. Often, she would post pictures of her vibrant meals and receive comments from people asking where she got them. Once it was revealed that she was behind the creations, they would then ask if she could cook for them.
Zabad answered the call and Cincinnati was first introduced to her vegan fare at the Nubian Yoga Festival in Clifton’s Burnet Woods, where she sold out of food within the first hour.
“When I decided to actually start cooking, it was easy; it was like the universe aligned,” she says.
As the owner and sole employee of Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen, she offers two meal options a day. While both are vegan, one is extremely plant-based. She refers to them as “advanced” and “transition vegan” meals. Customers can expect everything from cauliflower “chix’n” to black bean burgers and Cincinnati-style cheese coneys. All meals are $15 and come with a choice of hibiscus tea or strawberry lemonade.
“I definitely made a lot of believers out of people who were like ‘yuck cauliflower chicken’ — to be honest, I was one of them. I’m like, ‘oh that doesn’t even sound good to me’ — until I made it. And me knowing how I cook, it was phenomenal,” says Zabad, who estimates that about 60 percent of her clientele are not vegan.
She says that many people who have tried her meals now have meatless meal days or are transitioning to a vegan diet.
These transition meals aren’t the only way she’s made veganism approachable. Zabad cooks out of and offers pick up from Gabriel’s Place in Avondale, an urban agriculture education program that takes a garden-to-table approach to food education. Both Gabriel’s Place and Zabad seek to address the challenge of eating healthy in a neighborhood that lacks easy access to nutritious food.
Avondale is a predominately black neighborhood so Zabad focuses her recipes on soul food, incorporating ingredients like yams and black-eyed peas. “I went with something that I knew the community embraced,” she says. “I had to meet people with what I knew they would eat.”
The last grocery store in Avondale, an Aldi’s, closed in 2008. While construction of the Avondale Town Center, which has a grocery space, was half-complete as of September, they currently do not have a tenant to occupy the space.
Further complicating this issue are transportation and poverty. Of Avondale’s population, 36 percent do not have a vehicle and 45 percent are below the poverty level, according to the American Community Survey 5-Year Population Estimate from 2014. And while public transportation to nearby neighborhoods with better grocery options is available, it makes shopping an inconvenience and adds rideshare fares and bus payments to the mix.
Race also plays a factor in food insecurity in Cincinnati. Black adults were almost twice as likely as white adults to have experienced food insecurity in the last year, according to a September 2017 report published by Interact for Health, a Cincinnati-based health and wellness foundation.
“I’ve been in that situation where we didn’t have anywhere to go to get fresh food, so we just got junk food and that’s what we ate,” says Zabad, who grew up in Avondale. “And people wonder why we have diabetes and stuff so prevalent in those communities.”
Poor diet and physical inactivity can open the door to a wealth of chronic diseases; among them cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and Type 2 diabetes. That’s why the World Health Organization suggests eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting back on calorie-dense food. A variety of diets can help you accomplish this, including veganism.
Along with impacting the health of the community, Mike Vinegar, the chef at Gabriel’s Place, believes Zabad’s success will inspire hope. He notes the obstacles she faced both as a woman and as a former resident of Avondale when starting Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen.
“It’s kind of a motivational outlook added to the existence out here,” says Vinegar, who has known Zabad since she started attending yoga classes at Gabriel’s Place about two years ago. “A little girl can look up to someone who started their own business.”
When she’s not prepping for Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen out of Gabriel’s Place, she’s volunteering. On Tuesdays, she cooks alongside Vinegar for Share a Meal, a program where residents of Avondale and beyond can come and enjoy a healthy meal for free.
“I felt honored to be able to help others,” says Zabad, who hopes to dedicate a day through Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen when she can do the same.
Both Zabad and her business will see immense change in the new year. She was accepted into the Findlay Culinary Training Program and started classes Jan. 7. The program consists of four weeks of culinary training followed by a three-month internship at Social OTR, a nonprofit restaurant operated by Findlay Market in collaboration with CityLink. There, Zabad will work alongside professionals in the industry to hone her skills.
During this time, Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen will cease normal operation but will still offer meal prep and catering services. And come February, she’ll be back to cooking for the public.
For those who’d like to sample her vegan fare, she’ll have 10 products featured at Black Coffee, a coffee shop opened beside and operated by Black Owned at 824 Elm St., when it opens — hopefully in February. There, you’ll find pre-packaged, nutritious goodies like waffles, chix’n salad, kale salad and garden sandwiches.
For more info, follow Imani’s Vegan Soul Kitchen on instagram @ imanis_vegan_soul_kitchen.