August 7, 2019 (updated)
When Chef Akil Courtney and wife, Paris, both left their more traditional, high-level roles in the restaurant business, they did it out of love. The couple have been married nine years and wanted to not only be closer to their family, which includes five children and a large extended family, but they wanted to share their health-forward vegan meals with intention. Chef Akil, who moved to Charlotte in 2009 to attend Johnson C. Smith University, is the brother of local vegan favorite Chef Joya (a vegan chef known for her pop-up dining experiences), so it should be no surprise that exceptional plant-based culinary skills run in the family. Courtney’s mother was vegan, choosing to pivot the family’s diet to a healthier realm after his father was diagnosed with diabetes. Paris, who was not raised vegan and hails from Fayetteville, came to adopt the lifestyle after suffering health concerns during the pregnancy of their youngest child. Now, she focuses on turning her pastry prowess to the decadent side of Ve-Go’s menu. We were treated to five of their unique creations, including Chef Akil’s signature fish tacos.
Veganism has only in recent years been accepted as a commonplace style of life, so growing up in the ‘80s in Milwaukee meant Akil experienced childhood taunting with his nutritional lunchbox in tow. Perhaps these challengers prompted a competitive streak in Chef Akil, who now prides himself in creating vegan food that is nearly indistinguishable in texture and taste from its meat counterpart. “Our market is meat eaters,” Akil beams.
Paris adds, “Your [Akil’s] mom asked me when I first went vegan, ‘Name one meat that you’d eat right now raw, unseasoned, nothing on it-– just cooked, plain meat.’ I couldn’t think of any meat that I’d want to eat or enjoy that way.”
This was the first step in the Courtneys’ understanding of how to make vegan food plans and a vegan business that feels familiar to carnivores; it isn’t about the meat at all.
Flavor, warm memories, nourishment, come first and foremost from proper seasoning. Akil says, “We blend most of our own spices and mixes, but if we buy blended seasons, we make sure it’s all vegan, all good base ingredients. There are sauces that come premade and maybe that’s what other people use, but I’d rather make my own remoulade.”
Chef Akil treats us to menu items like dense, buttery Buffalo Bites complete with homemade ranch and Vegan Beef Tips with Pineapple and a side of Cuban black beans. Paris jokes about Akil’s beans, remarking how he lets them cook and simmer for hours to perfection. The texture of the beef tips is peppery like meat and the pineapple adds a succulent, light taste of fat, balancing out the hearty protein. A small bowl of watermelon gazpacho acts as a palate cleanser with the refreshing watermelon swimming in its own mint- and lime-infused juices.
The main course is Jackfruit Garbanzo Bean Chick’n Curry, an ideal heavy hitter after the delicate gazpacho. The jackfruit is tender which prompts Paris and Akil to share their seasoning and conscious-cooking insights, “You don’t get curry for the chicken, you get a curry for the curry flavor. We know how to make meat already (alluding to their restaurant backgrounds)… I’ve given the jackfruit the same texture as chicken. Substitute jackfruit, season appropriately, and everything else is in the love and seasoning.”
The curry dish is warm, filling, and just a tad spicy and indulgent with chunks of potatoes and chickpeas. Chef Akil warms up his fryer and pulls sliced portions of tofu out of the refrigerator, lightly coating them in flour and seasoning while he discusses how much his children champion the fish tacos. In moments, freshly fried tofu is plated on a tortilla with a homemade creamy sauce, a bit like tartar, and pickled onions. The texture of the “fish” is fluffy and rich with flavors seeping in from the sauce. To finish up, Paris presents us with Chocolate Fudge Cake Shooter, meant to fully taste like the pan-side of brownies, everyone’s favorite part.
Ve-Go stands for Vegan on the Go, and Chef Akil and Paris are rapidly approaching dreams to run their own food truck soon. A food truck’s mobility will allow the Courtneys to spread the vegan gospel to areas outside of Charlotte that are still reluctant to trust the healthier aspects of adding plant-based dishes to their diet.
“You do have options. There are alternatives to meat, there are cleaner ways of eating. We offer great tasting foods so people know they can have their mac-n-cheese, but healthier,” Akil says.
Reaching different markets means more people will ask questions and can learn how to nourish themselves through the benefits of incorporating more vegetables into their diet. This includes breakfast options which, outside of the fish tacos, Chef Akil boasts as his specialty.
For now, the couple utilizes their industry knowledge by catering and creating curated pop-up dining experiences, which flexes Paris’ extensive service-based background. Ve-Go has shown up around town recently, offering private tastings at Apostrophe Lounge and breweries, as well as selling out at Charlotte’s Peruvian Festival. Ve-Go is currently on Foodsby, the corporate-friendly food delivery service, and will continue to offer seasonal dishes to provide fresh, local meals around the Charlotte region.
Update: The Ve-Go food truck is now officially up and running. Check out more from the official Facebook page.