An Interview with Chef Jason (‘Jay Mac’) McNamara of The Kind Kitchen
January 17, 2024
Jason McNamara (Jay Mac) is the creator of The Kind Kitchen, a vegan comfort food café formerly in Woodstock, Cape Town and on the Constantia Uitsig wine estate. When Covid-19 resulted in both restaurants being shuttered, Jay switched his focus to producing a range of vegan products and ready made meals for sale online and through selected delis, but he is looking forward to the day he can return to the kitchen and continue to share his passion for plant-based foods. He published a book codifying some of his best culinary inventions.
There aren’t many plant-based cooking schools in the world, though you were able to study at the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts in Austin Texas, under Inge Botma. What was that experience like?
You’re right, in 2013, when I took the plunge to study as a plant-based chef, there weren’t many options available. There weren’t any in SA at that time so I reviewed the options of three locations in the USA, those being NYC, Portland, and Austin. I settled on Austin Texas because I liked the idea of a smaller town where the motto firmly states “Keep Austin Weird”! I mean, who doesn’t wanna visit a place like that?
The experience was incredible and I met so many amazing people who have gone on to advocate for animal rights, start amazing plant-based businesses, and in general helped to lay the foundation for veganism as we know it today. Chef Inge, was an amazing mentor and our South African roots have bound us together for life. Her skills along with Chef Marco, who was this magician of a chef from Vegas, have gifted me with the skills and the flavour profiles I was fortunate enough to have to create my dishes at The Kind Kitchen.
When you returned home you planned to establish Africa’s first vegan butchery, but instead opened a restaurant for which your book is also named. Is the idea of a vegan butchery still on the table and what would that operation look like?
Yes that’s true, I had the idea to create a version of what the Herbivorous Butcher has done so well. I even had some initial discussions with them about potential partnerships and licensing rights for the name in SA, but instead they encouraged me to create my own version. That was the catalyst to create The Kind Kitchen.
The initial plan was to create a vegan butchery/deli with a small eatery attached. The deli would stock our plant-based products such as our ‘Kinda Meat’ products, but as with most businesses you adapt and change according to what the market wants and needs. Hence TKK became more of a restaurant than the intended deli/butchery scenario.
Plus, our good friends at Romeo and Vero’s Butcherie were already doing what we intended, so it made sense to pivot and support those who had a similar vision to ours in order to grow the community in Cape Town. So a vegan butchery wouldn’t be on the cards at this point as I believe there are so many great local brands and products doing a version of that already. My interest at this time is to create a sustainable business model for a fungi deli. I believe this is something the market needs and will respond well to. That’s my next direction as I love cooking with all kinds of exotic mushrooms as people will notice in the cookbook. It would be great to have a flagship location to showcase the gastronomical and healing properties of fungi.
Startup funds for your first restaurant in Woodstock were raised through crowdfunding and eventually you were able to open another location. What do you think of the scope for public financing for businesses in the plant-based space?
Yeah, I was fortunate to raise a little under R50k through crowdfunding back in 2018. That kind of money doesn’t go far, especially in today’s post covid economy. The one thing that stands out time and time again with any business I have started, is that without a solid community backing you, it’ll be very difficult to do well.
I was fortunate enough to have been offered the opportunity to open at Constantia Uitsig, pre covid, due to the solid track record I had garnered through our community.
I know for a fact that it is extremely difficult these days to harness public financing, especially for a plant-based business. A good case other than my own is my good friend and animal rights advocate, Brett Thompson. Brett is the co-founder and CEO of Newform foods. They have a revolutionary product in the form of cultivated meat. A product that will undoubtedly prevent the mass slaughter of billions of animals and one that will create amazing new job opportunities in South Africa. Yet they are struggling to raise the funds they require in order to upscale. To me, their business model is a no-brainer. If I were a millionaire, I’d be all in.
As with so many other restaurants our severe Covid-19 lockdowns forced you to close down permanently – and thereby you adapted to home deliveries, ready-made meals and artisanal plant-based products. How has this transition shaped up in the longer term?
For a time we were doing pretty well at pivoting and adapting to the changing market needs that covid threw at us. In late 2021 we brought in a new business partner and we created an ‘Uber style’ model where we created our own products in a shared kitchen space with the likes of Amma’s Creamery, at Makers Landing.
We began focusing on getting our flagship products into retail spaces such as Spar, Wellness Warehouse and were in talks with Checkers. Sadly these things require so much food science, marketing, sales focus, funding, time and resources to get to the next level. The next level being kilograms to tons and eventually mega-tons. All of these standard business requirements meant a 2-3 year runway of funding was required. Post covid, it was so difficult to get any large funding as all businesses locally and abroad were licking their own wounds from the pandemic. And so in late 2022 I was forced to close our retail section of TKK. At least, through all this heartache, I was able to set my focus on publishing a world-class recipe book thanks to my partners at Peguin Random House.
“Vegan. Now what?” This is the subtitle of your book and a very apt one considering that newcomers to plant-based eating may struggle to make a start. What are some of the best tips and resources you would share with someone who is beginning their plant-based journey?
Correct. That was always the first question any newcomer would ask me. My answer to them was always the same: “May the fork be with you! LOL!”
Jokes aside, my best advice has always been the same. Start with the things you know and love eating and then slowly adapt those into vegan versions. This way it’s an easier transition than trying to eat/cook something that you’re not overly sure of. Also don’t get caught up on trying to substitute plant-based meats with animal meats. Rather take it slow and transition with whole-foods and find what does and doesn’t work for you.
Do your own research, there are so many great plant-based chefs out there. Recipes aren’t hard to come by. Follow the likes of Gaz Oakly and The Sarno brothers at Wicked Kitchen. Jump onto Netlflix and watch the amazing documentaries available such as Cowspiracy, What the Health and Game Changers.
Connect to the plant-based community and find info from fellow plant based medical consultants such as The Green Dietitian.
Cancel out the carnists naysayers! They will try everything in their power to drag you to the dark side. Don’t let them. Constantly remind yourself about why you made this conscious decision to live a kinder, more sustainable life.
Your book is focussed on casual and comfort food recipes. Which of these have you found are the most resonant with South Africans and what were some of the top sellers at your restaurants?
I’d say alot of the popular dishes were the most wholesome ones. Or ones that took a whole food ingredient and turned it into a marvel. For instance the pulled king oyster sando aka ‘Fungi the Vampire Slayer ‘or the ‘Darkside burger’ which was our spin on a crispy chicken style burger. But then there were cleaner healthier favourites like the beetroot falafel salad or wrap which we placed into our handmade spinach/butternut/cauliflower gluten free wraps. Those were and still are a firm favourite. Wildsprout still use our gluten free cauliflower wraps. And you know what, anybody reading this can make their own too: the recipe is in the book.
How would you describe the link between diet and sustainability and convince people that it matters?
This is a great question and one that is so simple yet so complicated. It’s simple because I’m sure there isn’t one person in this world that doesnt’ want to live a long and healthy lifestyle. It’s a complicated connection for many to make because food is a personal choice, the environment and it’s animals, to most, aren’t met with the same emotional connection. They tend to be things that are ours for the taking or something that ‘someone else’ will solve.
So when trying to describe the link between diet and sustainability to those who ask, most people don’t realise that there even is a connection between dietary choice and planetary destruction.
I mainly try to win them over with a well thought-out and factual conversation, such as; “I’m leading by example as a father and raising my son vegan. When he is old enough to understand, then he can make his own choices but until then, I’d like him and my future grandchildren to inherit a healthy planet and it’s for these reasons I choose to be vegan.”
Also a kick-ass mushroom kebab generally wins any conversation around a braai too! Because let’s face it: it’s generally these times around a fire or barbecue when you’re going to be asked “But why are you Vegan?”
The point is, you’re never going to win an argument with a headstrong carnist. But if you arm yourself with the facts and personal reasons that make sense to them, then you have a chance of engaging in an intelligent conversation, which may lead them to making their own personal connection to diet and sustainability.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
The reason, I created the book, was to illustrate just how easy it can be to substitute meat for plant-based options. The book showcases all the foods I grew up eating and loving. Just because you decide to go vegan doesn’t mean you can’t continue to enjoy those same meals with your friends and family.
You describe yourself as a yogi and have studied at the Jivamukti Yoga School, which emphasises a compassionate lifestyle and recommends veganism. Do you view your cooking as a form of activism and an expression of personal values?
Absolutely yes. 14 years ago when I decided to go vegan, I was that ‘angry vegan’. The one that damned others for their ignorant choices and the one that would’ve been busting down doors at slaughterhouses. But the more I spoke with non-vegans about my own lifestyle choices, the more I realised that it’s all a journey and everyone’s just trying their best.
This made me realise that food and how I present it to others will always be the best form of activism. You’re more likely to win someone over with a good meal than any form of violent activism.
A yoga sutra that comes to mind is: “To preserve the innate serenity of the mind, you should, be happy for those who are happy, be compassionate toward those who are unhappy, be delighted for the those who are virtuous and indifferent toward the wicked!”
If you were to make another cookbook how would you theme it and what kind of recipes would you like to incorporate?
I’d make it a community challenge where willing participants could submit their favourite family or childhood recipes in order for us to adapt. That would be an amazing way to collaborate with an array of people from across South Africa and the world in order to create a truly global vegan recipe book.
It would be amazing to have them in studio with me as we cook, discuss, share and create something quite unique.
Are there any complex or ambitious plant-based recipes or alternatives you have yet to engage with or perfect?
For me I’ve always been a fan of what chef Heston Blumenthal is able to achieve with his multi-sensory creations. That would be something I’d love to tackle at some point.
What kind of new vegan products would you like to see on the local market?
I guess I’d like to see more restaurants offering more creative plant-based options. It seems we took a few steps back, post covid. It’s time for chefs to get creative with their stock sheets and create menu options that will entice anyone coming for a meal. Chefs should be jumping at the opportunity to embrace plant-based options rather than seeing them as a hindrance.
In Cape Town we’ve had a revolving door of vegan restaurants opening and closing, even outside of Covid. The industry seems to have its peaks and troughs. Why do you think some of these succeed while others fail?
To new investors, a full vegan restaurant is seen as a risk. To most, ‘vegan’ is seen to be very expensive or ‘boring’ especially if they’ve never tried it or if they’ve had a bad personal experience. These are the current limits or barriers to entry for most.
I think the best solution will come from finding a way to overcome these points… Cost! Taste! And enticing for all!
I feel that my own brand, was close to offering these points but we failed on cost perhaps. It’s difficult in this economic climate to offer all these points while delivering high quality meals at affordable prices.
As a body-art aficionado, are there any vegan-themed tattoos of yours that you are particularly proud of?
Absolutely. Ahimsa which means Be Kind!
May the fork be with you!