Ask most chefs about their formative influences, and they’ll most likely cite a James Beard Award-winning artisan or an esoteric New York restaurant (or possibly a grandmother).
Matt Props, a vegan chef in Durham, answers the question from a surprisingly different angle.
“Punk rock, hip hop, and jazz,” he tells me over the phone, a grin practically audible over the line.
“Punk has a do-it-yourself mentality,” the Ohio native explains, noting that bands often played in garages or basements when traditional music venues were inaccessible. “Hip hop is about creating a persona and a voice and an angle,” he continues, while jazz involves “taking classics and adding your own twist.”
Like his musical influences, Props’ culinary projects are inventive, persona-driven, and improvisational. Stay Fresh and Day One, both of Props’ restaurants, take over Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery once a week. Stay Fresh (open on Tuesday nights) is a “no-frills,” order-at-the-counter enterprise, and Day One (open on Saturday nights), while still casual, is a tad more structured and cozy. Both operations feature the music Props grew up listening to and the vegan cuisine he loves to share with an ever-growing fanbase.
Props, vegan since the age of 16, fully recognizes that “vegan” is often unfairly associated with an “air of elitism and privilege,” and that many people think vegan food, while healthy, is “all brown rice” and “flavorless.” Furthermore, he adds, people tend to think that vegans are “starved for options” (no pun intended) and will gratefully eat whatever animal-free options they can find, no matter how tasteless. (“I’ve been to weddings where the vegan option is just grilled asparagus on a plate,” he sighs.)
But Props wants to defy that desperate, flavorless reputation by proving that vegan food can be creative, tasty, and satisfying. “A lot of what people eat everyday is vegan but they don’t know it,” he notes. Through both his pop-up eateries, he aims to serve “relatable food,” or what he terms “vegan cuisine for the masses.”
To that effect, Stay Fresh has featured biscuit-laden brunches, Chesapeake Bay-inspired delights, and a burger night. Similarly, Day One, Prop’s collaboration with baker and fellow hip hop enthusiast Ari Berenbaum, has served up meals inspired by Chinese take-out, Southern picnic eats, and, perhaps most interestingly, neighborhood bodegas. Of course, all the items contain no animal ingredients, but they do highlight Props’ own imaginative twist on familiar favorites. For example, bodega night starred portabella mushroom jerky, pig-free pork rinds, and scratch-made SpaghettiOs (dressed up with caramelized leeks and capers).
A graduate of Bauman College’s Natural Chef Certification program (where he completed an internship with vegan superstar Colleen Patrick-Goudreau), Props self-identifies as “a chef first and foremost,” adding that he loves to “apply classic culinary techniques to things that aren’t traditionally vegan.” Even as a vegan, he doesn’t shy away from meat-heavy cookbooks, instead scouring them for techniques and flavor pairings he can adapt for vegan dishes. “Just because a cookbook has a picture of a fish head on it,” he advises, “you shouldn’t discount its advice.”
So how has Durham’s food community responded to his vegan-remixed classics?
The most common customer reaction Props has experienced has been sheer gratitude. Props designs his themes with his too-often-marginalized diners in mind, and to that end, his menus always include at least one gluten-free option. (He is also able to work around other allergies with three to four days’ notice.) According to Props, Durham’s vegan community has been “phenomenally supportive,” and the gluten-free diners have been “the most supportive and thankful and hopeful.” Props wants customers to feel welcome and return often enough that they feel comfortable making suggestions for themes or menu items.
For as often as Props’ diners have communicated gratitude, they have also happily expressed surprise at the creativity and robust flavor of his dishes. He gets a real thrill out of seeing born-and-bred Southerners enjoying his animal-free take on soul food.
Now that Props has established his culinary identity, he is focusing on the future. “Ultimately our goal is to have our own space,” he explains with pride. Currently serving up dishes with a staff of only three or four, Props is comfortable in Ninth Street Bakery and thankful for the “amazing support” the owners have given him. However, in the future, he’d like to expand his workspace to give himself, his co-workers, the local DJs he hosts, and his diners more elbow room.
“We’re trying to foster a real community,” he explains.
Props’ focus on the future and the positive allows him to remain optimistic in spite of occasional challenges. As the hip hop community has known for years, haters gonna hate. Within the chef scene, some traditionally-minded cooks view the idea of a vegan chef as a joke, even taking offense at the notion that chefs could conjure up flavor without using any animal-derived ingredients.
Perhaps drawing on that hip hop swagger, Props just laughs off their sneers, boasting, “I love proving them wrong.”
Update: Check out Day One's Jamaican Night this coming Saturday, July 13th!