“Our goal is to provide traditional southern Q, without the guilt,” is the motto of Grass VBQ Joint in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where chef Terry Sargent’s vegan take on barbeque is attracting lines out the door and acclaim from national media.
“Sargent is part of a movement of chefs making waves in such traditional barbecue hubs as Texas and North Carolina and upcoming hot spots such as Georgia,” The Washington Post recently reported. “For many of them, it isn’t enough to serve a plate with homemade mock meats and sides. They want it to be mouthwatering. Then they want you to come back for seconds. When you sit down for their barbecue, they want you to taste local history and fresh ingredients in one of the newest contributions to America’s oldest food traditions.”
Sargent, 37, has spent his career in the kitchen, first making omelets at a Georgia Marriott, then flipping high-end burgers near downtown Atlanta, before working as a chef at a senior-living facility. Seven years ago he switched to veganism for health reasons but wasn’t satisfied with meatless options for barbeque. So he studied, researched and experimented until he had a set of plant-based mains and sides that passed his own Q taste test.
On July 4, 2019, Sargent opened a pop up, serving vegan burnt ends, smoked jackfruit and chopped “chic’n” sandwiches at a friend’s restaurant in Decatur, and sold out within minutes. That immediate success allowed him to set up shop at a food-stall market in East Atlanta Village, then at a brewery near Piedmont Park.
By late 2020, he was putting the finishing touches on his own place, a 1,200 sq. ft. eatery with a full list of menu options painted on a mural wall. In addition to his signature smoked “veef” brisket, there’s Nashville hot chic’n and smoked lobstah roll, made with vital wheat gluten and pea protein; a VicRiib sandwich and oyster mushroom po’boy, as well as sides like red curry greens, smoked mac n’ cheeze and fried garlicky pickles. Sauces? Take your pick, from Alabama White BBQ to Creole Remoulade to Vidalia BBQ.
So how’s it going for Chef Terry? Hardly two years after popping up on the scene with his plant-based VBQ, Southern Living magazine named Sargent its 2021 Cook of the Year, for “redefining southern barbeque.”
Friends of Animals caught up with Sargent in the midst of Atlanta’s Black Restaurant Week for a brief phone call to find out more about his inventive vegan barbeque. Enjoy learning more about the South’s hottest cook, vegan or not, in the Q&A that follows, then get inspired to plan your own vegan tailgate-party menu, featuring some of FoA’s favorite plant-based recipes for fall get-togethers. You’ll definitely want to try Terry Sargent’s Vegan Boneless Ribs!
Friends of Animals: What percentage of your diners come to you as vegans versus meat eaters looking to sample vegan barbeque?
Terry Sargent: If I had to break it down, I’d say it’s an 80-20 split, with 80 percent being vegan, 20 percent not. The ones I’m generally trying to gear this toward are the 20 percent who aren’t vegan. Because, vegans, well, they already know, so I kinda push toward getting the non-vegans in here. I guess that fuels my recipe making and how I came up with these ideas.
FoA: You travel all over the country, from LA to New York to explore the vegan scene. Can you talk about how you develop new recipes?
TS: Most of my ideas pretty much come from me; I’ve been cooking for over 20 years now so the creative side, well, it’s a passion. But generally, when I’m traveling to go to different vegan restaurants, it’s more to scout out the competition. So I went to every single vegan barbeque spot in this country to see what they’re doing, and to see what their process is. Still, I think our process is a lot better. 99 percent don’t make their own meat substitutions, and we do. That’s the biggest difference between what they’re doing and what we’re doing.
FoA: Do you ever get tired of hearing from people who taste your food and then say, ‘I can’t believe it’s not meat’? Do you sort of resent it, or do you laugh about it?
TS: No, no. Actually, I take that the ultimate compliment when people say I can’t believe it’s vegan. That’s the ultimate compliment for me.
FoA: Speaking of creativity, is there any vegan recipe or type of barbeque that you just haven’t been able to get to your liking? Is there a holy grail for you, a vegan taste or dish that has eluded you?
TS: Hmm. You know what? That was true, until I found this vegan sausage casing, which I’ve been looking for for years. It was outside my realm. The casing is from The Sausage Maker Inc., based in New York. It’s fully plant based, made out of water, vegetable glycerin, and vegetable-based starches/sugars. I’ve started the process of making plant-based sausage – smoking sausages and making different varieties. We’re looking to get that going sometime this holiday season. Otherwise, we’ve done the rib thing – the recipe was in Southern Living magazine – so I think I’ve pretty much covered all of them, unless there’s some outrageous thing I haven’t thought of. But I’m always testing the waters, seeing how I can continue to push that envelope.
FoA: Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting? I mean, being named Cook of the Year by Southern Living magazine is a pretty big deal for a ‘vegan chef.’
TS: I was a little surprised, yes, but not overly so because it was just a matter of time before this was gonna happen. We didn’t want to grow too fast or things to go too slow. So it’s really coming exactly the way it’s supposed to.
FoA: Friends of Animals recently reviewed a trio of new vegan restaurants in New York City for our upcoming issue of Action Line magazine. All three feature chefs who are women of color, and all are under 30. One is restaurant getting high praise is Cadence, where Shenarri Freeman is creating vegan versions of American Southern/Soul Food cooking. Is there something about vegan cooking that helps create more opportunities for people who didn’t have them in the past?
TS: Well, to be honest with you and straightforward, veganism has been in the Black community for quite a while. A plant-based diet has been in the Black community for a long time. So, believe it or not, a majority of vegan restaurants out here in Atlanta, I want to say 80, 85 percent, are Black owned. It’s just something we’ve been doing, primarily for health reasons, but within that aspect there’s always been opportunity there. Recently, yeah, the vegan scene has definitely grown. Back in the day it was just kinda tofu and tempeh, but now with new items that have been presented, the Impossible burgers and Beyond and all these other things that are coming out, it’s created more opportunities for more places to open up.
FoA: You’ve talked about health being the reason you became vegan seven years ago, but there’s also the concern among vegans about the cruelty inflicted on animals used as food. You’ve said ‘I don’t dislike the taste of bacon, I just don’t like the processes used to make it.’ Could you speak to that? Are you talking about Big Ag and the farm animal industry?
TS: Absolutely. The slaughtering of pigs and things like that. The mass production and all those slaughterhouses also have a huge carbon footprint. So, yeah. Health started it, and the compassion kept it going. We are a big supporter of Central Texas Pig Rescue, a sanctuary near Austin. Grass VBQ Joint took part in their annual Pig Week last year. Look them up at centraltexaspigs.org; Hank is our sponsored pig, so if you go calling, say hello!
FoA: Friends of Animals has lots of vegan members around the country. Do you have mail-order capability at your restaurant?
TS: We do not, unfortunately. We’re extremely short-staffed, like everybody else in the country. We don’t have the time or the resources to do that now, but eventually, we hope to be able to do shipping.
FoA: You’ve had great success since opening your first brick-and-mortar restaurant less than a year ago. You’ve spoken of having plans to open more restaurants, perhaps even franchise VBQ. Are those plans also on hold because of covid and the staffing shortage?
TS: Yes. They are on definitely on hold, at least until this place can run on its own for a full year without me being here. Until then, I’m not going to make any kind of movement, though I have just done a cookbook deal, with 120 recipes. We just missed our window to bring it out next spring so look for it in the spring of 2023.
[Editor’s note: To read the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s review of Terry Sargent’s Grass VBQ Joint, please click on this link: Best Atlanta takeout: Grass VBQ in Stone Mountain (ajc.com).
For an up-to-date roundup of some of the vegan barbeque places around the country, see this USA Today article from May 2021: 10 of the best spots for vegan barbecue in the United States (10best.com)]