Compton Chef Lemel Durrah's Vegan Soul Food Mission
What started as a 21-day diet turned into a drive toward a healthier community.
This story is part of The Food & Wine Guide to Plant-Based Meat.
Trying veganism was an "aha" moment for self-taught chef Lemel Durrah. A particularly tumultuous year of grief and upset led Durrah to the Daniel Fast, a 21-day plant-based diet with Biblical origins. By the end of it, something clicked. Durrah felt purified, mentally, physically, and spiritually—so much so that on day 22, he kept going in his pursuit of removing all meat, dairy, and eggs from his lifestyle, with a new-found resolve to share his learnings with his community in Compton, California.
"I'm trying to be a mirror," said Durrah, in a phone conversation. From his perspective as a former high school teacher, he hopes that by modeling consciously healthy choices, he can empower others to do the same. After quitting his corporate job, Durrah founded Compton Vegan, a food truck and restaurant operating out of a ghost kitchen in West Los Angeles, making vegan soul food and accessible plant-based meals his mission.
Jackfruit "ribs," gumbo with vegan shrimp, and a crowd-favorite Buffalo Chick'n Mac made with a cashew-based vegan mac and cheese and house-made vegan "chicken" all top the menu, along with classic sides of collard greens, cornbread, and baked beans, priced to be as affordable as possible. Through COVID restrictions, Durrah has made his vegan plates available through pick-up and delivery. While the business is on temporary hiatus, he has plans to open up again soon, bigger than before.
"It's becoming less of a misconception, that veganism is just for white folks." said Durrah. "We have so many different influencers showing that it could be done by people of all colors."
"There seems to be an agenda to basically make the cheap and non-nutritious foods more predominant in lower income communities," said Durrah. His observations are correct—numerous studies have found that fast food companies disproportionately advertise in predominantly Black communities, especially to children, and that there is a higher density of fast food restaurants in Black neighborhoods than white neighborhoods.
Making Compton Vegan based in his hometown was especially important to Durrah, to offer an alternative to the readily available fast food in the neighborhood. Even in the beginning of Durrah's personal journey to eliminating all animal products from his diet, Durrah lamented the fact that to get to healthier alternatives, he would have to drive miles to find the nearest health foods store such as Trader Joe's, Sprouts or Whole Foods, when in whiter neighborhoods, these grocery stores where fresh organic produce and plant-based alternatives were widely available, were much more accessible.
"We have elders in our families that are affected by a bunch of different health issues, and a lot of the health issues that they're facing on a daily basis is attributed to the things that they've been eating their whole lives," Durrah said. His goal: "Try to reverse some of the generational curses that have plagued our community for hundreds of years."
Health is Durrah's personal priority, but all facets of veganism have resonated with him and become part of his message. "Plant-based for the animals. Plant-based for the planet. Plant-based for me."
"I know that I probably won't be able to change everybody's perspective on what we should or shouldn't be eating," he said, "but if I'm able to just shed light on the fact that there are other choices out there, then I feel like I'm doing my job."