Everyday Heroes: Chicago Vegan Chef Laviyah Ayanna’s Creative Cuisine Has Universal Appeal

Laviyah Ayanna, a Chicago vegan chef with universal appeal (photo credit: Robert Grillo)

Laviyah Ayanna, a Chicago vegan chef with universal appeal (photo credit: Robert Grillo)

I had the pleasure of meeting Laviyah Ayanna during Gene Baur’s recent stop in Chicago on the Just Eats Tour of America. Gene’s tour was intended to celebrate the 25-year anniversary of Farm Sanctuary, the leading farm animal protection organization in the US. He invited us to what we understood was a potluck, but found that it was nothing of the kind. In fact it was an impromptu dinner party and the wide range of dishes were all prepared by Laviyah, set out buffet style to a group of about 15 of us.

Laviyah’s vegan smorgasbord will go down in my memory as a feast that expanded my creative culinary horizons and had truly universal appeal—to vegan, vegetarian and meat-eaters alike. In fact, most non-vegetarians who taste Laviyah’s cooking at catered events, dinner parties or served off her food truck have the same emphatic reaction: “If I could eat like this all the time, I could be vegan too!”

Some of her signature dishes are the baked macaroni and cheese casserole made from her own handmade, artisanal, cashew-milk based cheeses. Other stand outs were here braised greens in a coconut sauce, barbecued tofu steaks, cinnamon rolls and pecan pie.

Laviyah is a Brooklyn native who later moved to Chicago to go into business with her husband, Nahum St Martin.  She is co-owner and operator of Ste Martaen, a vegan cheese brand launched in 2009 with products made locally in Chicago and sold through Whole Foods and numerous other independent groceries.  Ste Martaen also operates a mobile vegan foodtruck in collaboration with Soul Vegetarian, a vegan restaurant on the south side of Chicago.  The foodtruck venture was launched in November of 2010 and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.  In addition to running a business fulltime, Laviyah is also the mother of four vegan children.

We sat down to talk with Laviyah last week to find out more about this remarkable and visionary chef.

How did you get interested in cooking?

I was raised vegetarian.  There was a lot of cooking from scratch and not a whole lot of eating out.  I don’t think we got a microwave until I was well into my teens.  So, it’s not that cooking was an interest.  It was a life skill that I was taught early on and I like to eat, so things progressed from there.

Why vegan cuisine?

I became vegan when I was pregnant with my first son.  Cheese just seemed so unnecessary and too heavy.  I was already vegetarian, so the transition was easy.  Although I am vegan, that really isn’t the focus.  I tell people, that I make good food for everyone.  Vegans and non-vegans alike have enjoyed my brand of vegan cuisine.

How did you and your husband get started in the catering / food truck business?

To be honest, in the beginning.  I was just an observer because my husband is so passionate about cooking, I just let him take the reigns.  He may defer to me about technique and flavor combinations because I’ve been cooking longer than he has.  However, he is really skilled.  The foodtruck came about from his last job as a manager at Soul Vegetarian.  The foodtruck was sitting in the back and wasn’t really used often.  He decided to change that, so a foodtruck partnership was born.

What are your favorite type of events to cater / cook for?

Lately, I have been doing the food for Vegan Gallery.  I also have an upcoming festival.  I like the laid back and quietude of serving food at an artists showing, however a festival is always great because people come from all over and I get to meet other vendors who have the same interests that I do.

How did you develop St. Maertens, the awesome vegan cheese brand?

Ste Martaen comes from my husband’s french last name, which is St. Martin. We just played with it a little and Ste Martaen was born.

Laviyah Ayanna (photo credit: Robert Grillo)

Laviyah Ayanna (photo credit: Robert Grillo)

What do you think is the best way to turn non vegans on to vegan cuisine?

Make it fresh. make it tasty!  I have four vegan children who eat pizza, mac and cheese, lasagna, quiche.  I make all of these popular food items vegan.  They’re not missing anything at all.  I’ve made meals for non-vegans and they have exclaimed, “If I could eat like this everyday, I can be vegan.”

What are some of the most requested dishes you make?

My husband always requests from me my linguine and basil pesto. That is one of his favorites that I make.  My customers on the other hand, always ask for the mac and cheese and  since it’s inception “The Chicago Cheese-steak.” The Buffalo Chik’n sandwich is a close second.

Do you have any special advice for raising children in a vegan home?

If at all possible, please breastfeed. Formula here in the states is comprised of mostly sweetener and questionable ingredients.  As vegans we tend to eat a large variety of foods, this is all beneficial to infants who are breastfed and toddlers all the way to teenagers. Much of the food that my children eat is made from scratch.  I buy lots of dry beans, raw oatmeal, nuts and raisins. There are certain food items that you can put forth as treats for the children. That can be granola bars, a carton of strawberries or even prunes (my children love prunes).  Anyway, if you promote healthy eating habits and allow certain foods as treats (that are still healthy), you will have children who won’t ask for candy.

What is the biggest goal you hope to achieve in the next 5 years?

We would love to expand our brand and do a bed and breakfast. My husband is not all the way sold on doing a full blown restaurant, however he still would love to cook for people and I love to host.

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