The power in omens, through the eyes of vegan dynamo Babette Davis.
There is no way you can know how someone will impact your life when you first meet them. No matter how big the “Stuff I Eat” (SIE) brand gets, it will always be my own little private joy—a nostalgia that has been delicately woven throughout the fabric of my journey as a musician. Sitting across from this dynamic woman, known to the world as a vegan chef and restaurateur Babette Davis, I feel as if 17 years worth of memories quickly rush in. They are warm and flavorful like her signature vegan soul food plate, palpable and symbiotic like pre-J*Davey tunes.
That back room of the house on 67th Street in South Los Angeles was full of new, exciting sounds; the kitchen filled with fresh, new smells. I was still finding myself as a young artist, jumping head first into a musical partnership with no plans beyond creating something organic and life altering. Babette, a vegan since meeting her husband and business partner, Rondal Davis, in 1990 simply wanted to challenge herself to create fun new recipes at home. J*Davey was just a love note waiting to blossom into true love, and SIE was a curious hand forcing taster spoons into our mouths to much delight.
“On one of our first dates, he [Ron] cooked for me,” Babette tells me as we sit in the Inglewood, California restaurant one morning before opening. “He made string beans and tofu that tasted like chicken. He had this brown bread, and I was still used to eating wonder bread, you know?” She graciously takes time to speak with me in the middle of prepping for yet another busy day, and I realize this is the first time I’ve seen the restaurant so empty. The power of what this woman has been able to accomplish in the nine years since SIE opened its doors lies in the strength of partnership, a sentiment I share as a bandmate to her stepson Brook Davis (or D’Leau, as J*Davey fans have fondly come to know him).
“He was my catalyst. I remember I kept calling the tofu chicken,” she laughs. “Ron is an oversharer; he loves to teach, and I just so happened to be in a space for learning. He shared the information with me, and it appealed to my common sense. At the time, he was a vegetarian, but we transitioned to veganism together and never looked back.”
What a notion. Being open to all of the information. Receiving the signals clear as day and moving organically toward a dream. This is something that directly resonates with my shared journey in music. Babette has known me for almost more than half of my life. When Brook and I first started discovering our sound in Ron’s home studio, we surrendered our talents to a power much bigger than us—an omen of sorts. Some things are just in the plan without us even knowing. SIE’s humble beginnings as a vegan hot food cart in the parking lot of Los Angeles’s premiere spiritual center, Agape, served as a blueprint for a bigger picture.
“We knew we could possibly have a restaurant when we had our taco stand at Agape,” Babette says as her eyes light up. “We weren’t really considering it. We understood our ages and how hard it could be, but one day right before we left for vacation to Jamaica, we were randomly on Market Street and the doors to this place were open.”
The theme of openness seems to follow her, not only as a mantra but also as a design aesthetic and business model. SIE’s extra high ceilings and open kitchen speak to an inclusivity: everyone who walks through the door is greeted with Miss Babette’s song or infectious laughter. As a 65-year-old vegan of 25 years, she never imagined this could be a possibility. “I’m from the east side of Los Angeles. I grew up wanting to be what every other little Black girl wanted to be: a teacher or a nurse,” she tells me. “This place was a Mexican restaurant with low ceilings and funky blue carpet, but their tiles were the same color as my business cards. I instantly thought it’s a sign!”
That omen created an openness for SIE to become a breath of fresh air in a health food desert. She tells me that the restaurant has been open for nine years now, and I am blown away. We have both done so much in our careers symbiotically, and the journey always feels like it is just beginning.
“Neither you nor Brook were born with silver spoons in your mouths,” she says. “Ron and I were high school graduates, but we were all meant to do these great things. Everything has been an organic and authentic labor of love.” This is where success lies; trusting the power of your authenticity and remaining true to who you are in an ever changing, trend happy world.
“There was never a fear of rejection,” Babette says assuredly. “We knew that every single human that tasted the food would fall in love with it.” As a chef, she has managed to pack a powerful punch in a small and simple menu. Every entree includes the same ingredients prepared in a variety of different ways. “We knew that in terms of providing fresh food at a great price point we needed to create a clever menu,” she explains. The power of creativity has taken her brand a long way, as she has expanded beyond the kitchen and into people’s social media feeds and television screens, courtesy of Buzzfeed and HBO’s hot new female comedy Insecure.
“I want to reach more people with the message of veganism not only as it applies to individual health and wellness, but I believe in it for the planet,” Babette answers when I ask about her brand as a Black female vegan and raw food progenitor. “I love animals being able to live their lives the way they were meant to live it.” She attributes her sole use of fresh ingredients and intense daily food prep to SIE’s continued success. “There is a salad on every plate; you eat with your eyes so when you look at your plate you see all the colors of life,” she explains. As a musician and burgeoning entrepreneur, I understand the importance of customer satisfaction. In this case, Babette woos each and every customer with presentation. “You can tell it took time and care,” she says. “Authenticity. People feel it.”
These people are more than customers. Each person that walks through the door becomes a family member who weaves themselves into the fabric of “Stuff I Eat” just like “Stuff I Eat” interlaced its flavor into the J*Davey sound 17 years before in the house on 67th. We are both older but still look exactly the same. In Babette’s case, she seems to be aging in reverse.
“The power of thought keeps me young,” she says confidently. “I never felt old or felt like I had to settle down at a certain age. It’s important how you think.”
This resonates with me at a time in our society when everyone is obsessed with youth, and art is seemingly driven by fickle pre-teens and too often changing trends. Change has been a big part of my life this past year. I’ve been recalibrating myself as a mother and career woman, diligently working toward building a foundation for the next phase of my life. Inglewood seems to be doing the same. “Gentrification is real!” we both exclaim simultaneously, but I’m curious to know what she hopes will change and what she would like to see remain the same. “I hope the people get to stay,” she tells me. “I hate that the first thought in our world is to push people out because they are poor.”
Los Angeles county’s acquisition of a pro-football team is transforming South Central into a desirable option for affordable property. Metro stations are going up to provide more access to places that have been purposely inaccessible for years, and long-standing small businesses within the community have either folded or fear what rapid gentrification may ultimately bring.
“It would be great to see more healthy alternatives in the neighborhood,” Babette says hopefully. “Ya know, all we are is a fuckin’ tiny little dot in the grand scheme of the universe, but we think we are all of it and above it. We’re still caught up on color, meanwhile, our food is killing us.”
The surroundings may change, but if there is one thing I know for sure, “Stuff I Eat” is built to last. Babette knows it, too.
“I pray that we always get to stay here in this location,” she says a bit hesitantly before quickly changing her tune. “Once I do what I’m about to do and become a household name, they’re not going to want us to leave! We’ll be here.” And so will we.
Visit Stuff I Eat in Inglewood California at 114 N Market Street.
Original UNDO Mag Issue 6 title: The Power of Omens
Written by Briana Cartwright
Photos by Nick Onken