Sargent, 37, is a barbecue lover, and he wasn’t ready to give it up. So he drew from his 20 years of culinary experience to craft his ideal vegan barbecue. He studied the vegan meat section in grocery stores and experimented with meat substitutes, wood and flavor enhancers such as brewed coffee and mushrooms. By early 2019, he had perfected vegan burnt ends — which morphed into his signature “veef” brisket — but he needed an audience. When July 4, 2019, rolled around, Sargent opened his first pop-up.
On opening day, a line of customers half a mile long waited for Sargent’s burnt ends and smoked jackfruit. He sold out in 45 minutes, so he returned the next week. It was the same result. Sargent filled out his menu with homemade smoked links, red curry greens and VicRiibs, his play on the McRib, and named his restaurant Grass VBQ Joint. In January 2021, Sargent opened a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in Stone Mountain, Ga., with VBQ’s fan base continuing to grow. In August, Southern Living named him Cook of the Year.
Sargent is part of a movement of chefs making waves in such traditional barbecue hubs as Texas and North Carolina and upcoming hot spots such as Georgia, in which they are among the few, if not the only, fully vegan barbecue establishments. These chefs have embraced vegan diets for reasons such as environmental impact and animal compassion. Sargent, influenced by his previous job serving fried foods to seniors, learned that veganism improved his health. Others are not vegan at all. But they all salivate at the challenge of creating a delicious product in a competitive field in which meat has historically been king.
Though their ingredients differ from neighboring joints, these chefs are no strangers to barbecue culture. Many are born-and-bred Southerners who have tasted their family’s smoked meats from a young age. In just a few years, they have used their culinary chops to win over new customers and entice even the most ravenous omnivores. For many of them, it isn’t enough to serve a plate with homemade mock meats and sides. They want it to be mouthwatering. Then they want you to come back for seconds. When you sit down for their barbecue, they want you to taste local history and fresh ingredients in one of the newest contributions to America’s oldest food traditions.
Barbecue’s meaning changes depending on whom you ask — pulled pork in North Carolina, brisket in Texas, burnt ends in Kansas City. The history of barbecue has an even blurrier timeline. A few historians insist that the smoking technique dates to Indigenous tribes in the West Indies cooking meat over an indirect flame. Then there is the question of whether American barbecue originated with enslaved West Africans or Native Americans. Ask Sargent, and he will tell you that barbecue is more technique than any specific ingredient.
“Barbecue isn’t a sauce. It isn’t a meat substance. The definition of barbecue is cooking over an open flame,” Sargent says. “So, when they say, ‘Vegan barbecue, how are you doing it?’ I answer, ‘The same way you’re cooking your meats is the same way I cook in my mock meats.’ ”
In January 2020, Jarrett Milton opened up vegan barbecue food truck Houston Sauce Pit with his friend Courtney Lindsey. The duo had barbecued for college tailgates, but when Lindsey became vegan, they decided to switch up ingredients. Nowadays, they offer a loaded brisket mac, which combines Beyond Meat patties with secret seasoning, and a baked potato with chives that pays tribute to Houston rapper DJ Screw. Even with pandemic slowdowns, Houston Sauce Pit, no longer the new food truck on the block, attracts lines every day. “Everyone’s heard of us now,” Milton says.
Unlike some chefs championing vegan barbecue, Milton is not vegan. He says at least 40 percent of his customer base is non-vegan, and with his “vegan-ish” diet, he can best advise them on what to order. “If you talk to somebody who’s 100 percent vegan, they haven’t had any meat for four or five years. They tear those chicken wings up. They love them,” Milton says. “If [a non-vegan] orders the chicken wings, they’re going to come by and say, ‘No, no, thank you. Can I have my money back?’ ”
The advantage does not only belong to omnivores: Vegetarians and vegans can spot gaps in this nostalgic cuisine. Caroline Morrison, 45, stopped eating meat more than 20 years ago, citing that she “always had a problem with walking up and looking at that pig on the smoker, even as a kid.” At the time, the East Carolina native was disappointed by the vegan options for her Southern favorites.
“I couldn't find anyone doing vegetarian or vegan cooking that was thinking about being a Southerner and missing those things,” Morrison says. “Not even [chefs] replicating the meat product, but cooking vegetables and any other way other than steaming them.”
Eight years ago, Morrison opened up the Fiction Kitchen in Raleigh, N.C., which she says was the first fully vegetarian restaurant in the city. Last year, the restaurant became 100 percent vegan. Morrison wants to provide alternatives to the bland steamed broccoli, rice and dinner rolls she was served at family gatherings. So she elevates an ingredient most special to her: fresh vegetables. In her Eastern-style barbecue plate, she incorporates seasonal farmers market produce, such as the mildly sweet watermelon radish. “We’ve made it as traditional as what I would call Eastern North Carolina barbecue out of a vegan restaurant, except our vegetables are much better,” she says.
In Texas, more barbecue restaurants are also beginning to highlight vegetables as main courses rather than afterthoughts. Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, recently praised barbecue joints that smoke portobello patties and fry cauliflower steaks, noting that the food was not only delicious but also “just makes business sense” in vegan-friendly cities such as Austin.
However, Vaughn remains skeptical that a solely plant-based barbecue restaurant can find long-term success, especially if customers have meat alternatives within reach. “When I'm judging their mock brisket versus a brisket, I'm going to like the brisket better,” he says.
So in the eyes of a veteran barbecue critic, does mock meat have no hope? Not quite, he says. The key to vegan barbecue’s success lies in the sauce. “With any of those mock meats, you do need barbecue sauce,” Vaughn says. “That's where a lot of the seasoning comes from. That's where a lot of the wood makes it taste like barbecue. It comes from sauce.”
Chefs like Sargent, Milton and Morrison have all received pushback from purists who balk at plant-based barbecue. Sargent says not a day goes by without a customer complaining about the merits of vegan barbecue. “They've made themselves known,” he says with a sigh. “We definitely didn't have to do anything.”
However, any chance to surprise customers is worthwhile to these chefs. Like when a carnivore initially refuses Sargent’s barbecue, but tries his brisket and comes back for another round. Morrison has a few tricks up her sleeve: She occasionally serves her barbecue without revealing that it is vegan. “People bring in their grandfather, because maybe Grandpa shouldn’t eat as much pork anymore,” she says. “They’ll order the pork plate for him and not tell Grandpa what it is. And he’s just enjoying it, and that’s what’s good about it.”
These chefs hope to open more eyes and pave the way for groups normally excluded from the barbecue experience. Vegan barbecue relies on ingredients such as vital wheat gluten, which is the primary ingredient in homemade seitan and other vegan mock meats. In the future, Morrison imagines a barbecue culture that accommodates people with allergies and a wide array of diets.
“We as cooks and chefs want to be able to produce things so that everybody can have that experience and not be limited just because of certain dietary concerns,” she says. And the future is coming soon: Barvecue, a plant-based barbecue company that offers gluten-free options, launched in 360 Sprouts Farmers Markets in August.
In the meantime, Sargent sees his Chef of the Year award as a big win for vegan barbecue chefs. New innovations in plant-based food and a growing population of vegetarian and vegan eaters have created ripe conditions for businesses such as his to take off. But for now, his goal is to attract non-vegans to sample his barbecue, and plant-based dishes, for the first time.
“Vegans are going to come here regardless just because it’s vegan. That’s the easy part,” Sargent says. “To get someone who’s not vegan — who’s used to eating meat just like I was, who’s carnivorous just like I was — to come in here and have the courage to try it, eat it and enjoy it, that’s the victory.”
More from Voraciously