This month, I was honored to be the Member Spotlight in our local vegan Facebook group, Richmond Vegan, where I’m also an admin. What I love most about this interview is how free-flowing and conversational it is. Nikki did a great job pulling together my endless rambling!
Each month we’ll be spotlighting one of our very own to share some of the awesome things our members are up to. Whether it’s baking awesome vegan pastries, running an animal sanctuary, or fighting for animal rights, we see you and we want to feature the fantastic things you’re doing. This month we’re excited to shine our Member Spotlight Series on Michelle Johnson, one of our very own admins, foodie, and vegan coach.
Where are you from originally Michelle?
Well I was born in Philly, but I moved to Chesterfield when I was 5. As far as I’m concerned I’m a Virginian. I moved to Richmond in 2014 but most of my jobs have been in Richmond prior to that.
You recently celebrated your 10 year Veganniversary. What got you into veganism? Was there someone or something that inspired you to go vegan?
I used to work in the Department of Health, and a year before I went vegan there was a girl that worked there who was vegan. She was the first vegan I had ever met. No one I knew was even vegetarian, I was in my own little bubble from school and work. I asked her to tell me more and I did an experiment.
I also stumbled upon Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s Food for Thought podcast. At the time she was doing a series on each animal and how it was treated. Each one I listened to had me saying “Oh no! Oh no!” I told myself I couldn’t contribute to this any more. So I went vegetarian for a month. I’m not sure why I didn’t just go straight to vegan, but after thinking about it and realizing that dairy and eggs weren’t any better I couldn’t go back. I met her, Colleen, one time at VegFest and told her she turned me vegan, she corrected me and told me I came to that decision on my own. I have and still consider myself an ethical vegan, that’s what keeps me vegan to this day.
That’s awesome you got to meet her! So, I see you’re an author, how long have you been publishing your e-books?
I launched my first one in 2014, Vegan Cooking With Love: Holidays and Celebrations. I ended up splitting the book up into multiple ones (Perfect Potluck Vegan Salads, Mouthwatering Homestyle Vegan Desserts), and later published my Vegan Meal Templates and & Ways to Replace Meat e-books. They’re still available on my website.
So tell me about Vegan Cooking With Love, where it’s been and where it’s going.
I’ve started and stopped it so many times in the past to be honest, deciding where it’s going. When I had my YouTube channel I focused heavily on desserts because I was in Petersburg and back then there was no Buttermilk Bake Shop. I wasn’t about to drive to Richmond for a cupcake. I didn’t know about WPA until I moved here, I knew Ellwood Thompson’s had some stuff, but it was limited so I made my own. By the way, I took 2nd place in a dessert contest with my carrot cake!
I don't plan to produce cooking videos in the future, and any recipes I develop will be in my e-books, not on my website. My big focus right now is helping people to transition to a vegan diet, and I'm doing that through my Vegan Roadmap Coaching Program. I really want to help people who want to go vegan, but they don't know where to start or they've started their transition, but are struggling.
Tell me more about that.
Well things are easy for me now that I’ve been vegan for ten years, I’m on autopilot with lots of things. So I asked myself what makes it easy NOW that would help others transitioning, things I wish I knew or had someone to guide me with back then. So I identified some key areas like: veganizing recipes, looking up ingredients, learning how to check menus and placing orders at a restaurant.
I want people to go out and do these things, not just read it, so the program includes lots of written and real world assignments. Knowing how to do these things now, in a way that’s not overwhelming, will help make it easier for them in the long term. Even learning how to socialize, I certainly didn’t know how to in the beginning! I stayed home and missed out on opportunities to hang out with people because I knew how to eat at home but not out. I have several lessons on eating out spread over two weeks just to tackle that.
Even realizing not everyone will respect your decision to go vegan and being okay with that even if they say some not so nice things. But most importantly learning how to cook at home first will transition to understanding how to order at a restaurant. If you can make it vegan at home, you can order it vegan in a restaurant.
That program sounds like it will be so helpful, I looked over the program and I was impressed to see how financially accessible it is.
Yes! I want to overcome the mindset that being vegan is expensive. So I offer three tiers ranging from just a plan for folks who don’t need accountability and someone to walk them through it to plans that include more individual help. I refer to it as a curriculum because I am a lifelong educator! I also teach people how to research because Google is your best friend. I want to help others be able to not bumble through their transition like I did.
Nice! Ok, since I know you’re a foodie - what’s your favorite meal around Richmond?
All these fried sandwiches - give me something battered and fried! The beer battered tofu at Harrison Street Cafe used to be my favorite, but now the Hen Shot First at Cobra Cabana or 821 Cafe’s Fried Chik’n with the slaw is just a perfect sandwich. Oh, and I’ve never had a dessert from WPA that I haven’t liked.
The Hen Shot First is pretty legit with Korean BBQ sauce on it! Okay, let’s fast forward, it’s 10 years in the future, what do you see?
I’m OLD! 10 years, 10 years... They’re going to be breeding less animals for food. I think just like with technology and how each generation of change keeps getting shorter and shorter, we’ll see change come faster and faster with veganism. We’re going to be able to eat at ALL the places. I think more people will be eating vegan on a daily and weekly basis. Richmond will have an all vegan fast food spot - I’m being hopeful on that. More stuff in the frozen/ready made meals too - with bigger servings so you don’t have to bulk them up with rice or veg.
Yea, some of the ready made meals are on the small side. Changing gears, do you have any dream businesses or projects you’d jump at given the chance?
I could totally see you doing that, ok so tell me, what’s ALWAYS in your fridge?
I don’t feel like I’m that person. Cashew milk maybe, but that lasts me a long time. I tend to buy and cook for one week at a time, so I don't have a lot in my fridge right now since it's close to the end of the week. I don’t like to waste food. I always have oatmeal, beans, rice. I am a meal prepper though. I can eat the same thing every day easily. When I come home from work or when I’m hungry, I just want to eat, I don’t want to cook. I’m lazy. It takes the guess-work out of things.
I hear that! What’s something you wish you could find more of in Richmond?
I need PANCAKES - not the buckwheat pancakes, I want fluffy, diner style pancakes! Strange Matter used to have a good breakfast. I want a good well rounded vegan breakfast, more than just acai bowls. There’s a place in Philly, Vegan Commissary, they had the BEST vegan pancakes that rival Cracker Barrel’s.
I left Philly before they came though, I’ll have to check them out when I go back. Alright, what’s the best vegan meal you’ve ever had in your life - what is it?
Those pancakes are just amazing. Oh, and In the Raw with Soul Catering - she had some shrimp and grits with some creole sauce at last year’s VegFest - amazing!
Who inspires you?
My mom was a really, really good cook. She was always in the back of my mind when I started cooking, I learned to cook way, way late, in my thirties. She told me I needed to watch videos to learn how to cook, and I learned how by watching Food Network. Being able to watch someone do it gave me a frame of reference of how to do it myself.
The first year I went vegan I took over Thanksgiving, luckily we have a small family. I had collard greens, stuffing, yams - I had EVERYTHING. I was testing, testing, testing because I was so nervous. I just want to cook food that people eat and say, “This is good!” Oh, and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, she's so compassionate and kind in her approach to navigating this journey.
Learning how to cook is so important. So we’ve had conversations about veganism and communities of color before, what are your thoughts on barriers to entry and ways to increase vegan education in those communities?
First thing that comes to mind is exposure, and in particular exposure to GOOD vegan food. It does the work for you. My community, although we’re not alone in this, has our issues with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes, and a lot of it is the food. People have the weirdest ideas of what vegan food is. You don’t need the animal products or a crap ton of butter for things to taste good, it’s all about the seasoning! Good food will make people open to it. You can’t just tell people, they need to experience it. That and inclusivity on more versions of veganism, seeing more brown faces. I’ve always had some level of guilt any time I had to step away from Vegan Cooking With Love because there’s not many of us as-is. Visibility is key, so I go to events and represent so others can feel comfortable.
I can’t agree more on visibility and good food. Speaking of food, if you could share a vegan meal with any one person, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
My mommy! I think she would be impressed with my cooking skills now. I always wonder what she would think of my decision to go vegan and my food.
That’s so sweet! Alright Michelle, thanks so much for spending some time with me. Do you have any social media handles you want to share for people to follow you?
Yes! They’re all Vegan Cooking With Love for the most part: