December 17, 2018
Since its invention, soul food’s purpose has been to sustain a community, supporting it through struggle and honoring it through celebration. Veltree Vegan Soul continues that legacy, bringing people together to rediscover soul food’s incredibly flavorful, healthy roots.
“I think when we think of traditional soul food in the South there are two sides, especially in the city. There’s pig feet and fried chicken and pork in the greens, and then there’s the peas, the beans, the okra,” Chef Velvet Jacobs said. Jacobs was born in Hanover County, about 20 miles outside of Wilmington, and grew up on her grandparents’ farm.
“My grandmother raised and sold all of her own produce, so I’ve always loved lima beans, watermelon, boiled peanuts, okra, and greens. I didn’t grow up vegan, but I definitely grew up eating soul food,” Jacobs said. “But I never liked meat. As a kid I would slip it in my pocket and excuse myself from the table.”
Her grandmother and great grandmother were both home chefs with reputations for throwing down, and Jacobs could always be found next to one or the other in the kitchen, learning family recipes and how to put flavors together. “I’ve been cooking since I was nine. I was the one always at Grandma’s hip, tasting and eating everything,” she said. “I didn’t know it was actually transmitting her culture to me, just watching her.”
Jacobs and her wife and co-proprietor, Treona Kelty-Jacobs, opened Veltree Vegan Soul on September 22, 2018. The North Tryon Street location supplants Zizi’s, a popular vegan spot that shut down last year. The menu reads like that of any ambitious soul food restaurant: salmon patties, chicken and waffles, crab cakes and cheeseburgers. Most entrée items sell out daily, and many are gluten free. For patrons (like this writer) who aren’t even vegetarians, let alone vegan, understand that your taste buds will NOT know the difference.
The chicken drumsticks are 100 percent tofu, but its tofu that has been worked over with some kind of Hoodoo magic to reflect the texture and flavor of the moistest, best-seasoned yardbird ever. There’s even a little skewer embedded within to mimic the chicken bone. The yams are giving your mama’s the hard side-eye. And the surprisingly authentic peanut stew almost caused this West African to tear up. Don’t bother with a cup of the kale-ginger lemonade. You’ll only want a gallon to take home.
“I like to think I’m bringing back that other side of soul food, because when I think of it I think of smiles, people getting the warm fuzzies, and comfort,” Jacobs said. “So when my clients and customers say ‘Your food makes me happy,’ in my mind I say OK, I’m on the right track then. Because that’s what soul food is, it’s the thing that warms the spirit when everything else is just whatever.”
The couple came to the Queen City from Washington, D.C., where Jacobs got culinary training, working her way from sous chef to head chef with Marriott hotels. She also started a nonprofit, Vegan in the Hood, and opened a vegan restaurant with family members. There she met Treona as a customer and the two hit it off.
“When we met, she had Beautiful You, Yes You– a nonprofit organization that did a lot of community work. And my heart is for change for the community, it’s for helping,” Jacobs said. “So I was like, ‘If there’s anything I can do, let me know.’ I did a cooking demonstration, donated cupcakes for events, things like that but I didn’t speak directly with her again for almost two years… Then I came across an article on her by a local paper in D.C. I felt the need to get involved in the community again, so I called her and invited her to a sit-down to see how I could help. From that one meeting, we’ve been together ever since.”
The two merged their organizations, which worked with underserved youth and their parents, as well as the deputy mayor and the police department. They were fixtures in wards Seven and Eight, and a high-risk community nicknamed Little Iraq, hosting youth programs whom they attracted through fun activities like a popular belly dance class.
“Once they came in, they didn’t want to leave,” she said, eyes lighting up. “We had five people in their twenties who hadn’t graduated high school who started hanging out. So we got them back in school. … If it’s based around helping or bettering the community, that’s where we are. We had three graduations in one day.”
They believed they were protected because they did good work, even when a stray bullet cut through Treona’s office to lodge in the wall behind her desk. They started an anti-bullying campaign to combat the gun and gang violence, and helped organize safe passages with parents.
“Parents would be waiting on various corners to escort kids through the blocks after school,” Jacobs said. “It was a whole journey for them to get home but it was a whole village too. We were involved, we loved what we do.”
The couple moved to Charlotte last December. Besides establishing the kitchen, they put considerable thought into creating a lounge area that doubles as an art gallery for local painters. Veltree has brought back the belly dance class, a game night, and yoga wellness workshops. They also took part in Charlotte’s Black Restaurant Week 2018 in October. The swift growth of their following is no surprise to anyone who has tried their food, including the inimitable Erykah Badu, who is such a fan that she has raved about their plates on Twitter. Numerous pictures of her with the Jacobs grace the walls of the eatery. Their first event even brought singer Ayanna Gregory, daughter of iconic civil rights comedian Dick Gregory, to Charlotte for a one-night-only performance. It was magical.
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“She has this thing that wherever she goes, she illuminates the atmosphere and you just feel so good and so loved,” Jacobs said. “…We had to christen the place with that, because what’s needed, whenever you do anything, is that love piece. And love is a verb, it’s an action. We can say it all day but what are we doing to bring it into the space?”