“Vegan was never even on the radar whatsoever, and then that happened,” says Reid, a Norcross native who grew up smoking bacon-wrapped beef tenderloins with his dad. He studied journalism at Georgia State and paid for college working as a server at restaurants around Atlanta, including Genki, Atlanta Fish Market, Superica and Atkins Park, where he scarfed fried chicken sandwiches with double patties.
When his mother, Katie, a beloved Atlanta schoolteacher, died of breast cancer at age 58, the seed sprouted into something bigger.
“That just totally changed the course of my life in terms of literally throwing away a degree to dive head first into a dream that we had,” Reid says. “Once my mother passed away, we went vegan very quickly.”
They not only wanted to eat healthier to reduce the risk of cancer, they wanted to feed others plant-based food. That was 2017, and on Jan. 12, the couple will open their first restaurant, La Semilla (the seed), a plant-based modern Latin kitchen in the Modera Reynoldstown complex on Memorial Drive.
In the years since going vegan, Reid, 30, has immersed himself in the cuisines of Mexico and Cuba, among others. Sophia, 28, has become a student of the region’s spirits: rum, tequila and mezcal. In March 2020, they launched their Happy Seed pop-up at A Mano in the Old Fourth Ward. It was a fecund two years that allowed the earnest and enthusiastic young couple to develop their vocabulary and cultivate a following.
Reid, who has a tattoo of a lanky, dancing mushroom man on his upper left arm, has developed a style that includes plant-based renditions of Latin classics and snappy original dishes of his own. He refers to his cooking as “soul warming plant-based comfort food without pretension.” Underneath the homeyness, though, lies a hefty dose of rigor and craft.
“If you come here, everything is an authentic representation of that cuisine,” he says. “If it’s a tamale, we are toasting the banana leaves. We are grinding spices in a molcajete (a mortar and pestle made of volcanic rock). We make our tortillas from scratch. I try to represent as authentically as possible.”
Dustin Harder, an Atlanta-based vegan author and podcaster, is a fan. “It’s just next level, and they take it to a place that’s accessible for everyone,” he says. “It’s so delicious but also happens to be plant-based. I mean, I have dreams about their carne asada tacos.”
A love story, with recipes
Reid and Sophia met nine years ago — just two college kids who loved music and hanging out at festivals. He was into sports, skateboarding and going to concerts with his dad, a Rolling Stones fanatic. She had struggled a bit in high school, but came back to graduate summa cum laude from Georgia State. Tell her she can’t do something, and she’ll prove you wrong.
“She was just like this ray of sunshine,” Reid said. “A very unique spirit.” They married in May.
Growing up in Norcross, Reid fell in love with Mexican food. As a Marist student, he was assigned to write a paper on who he wanted to be when he grew up. He chose the manager of the Mexican restaurant where he and his mom ate “four times a week.”
Meeting Sophia only broadened his horizons. Her grandmother immigrated from Cuba at age 13. “A lot of the dishes that we are putting out are inspired by my grandmother and my family,” Sophia says proudly. “She’s one of my biggest inspirations.”
When Reid began to explore Cuban cooking, he asked Sophia’s grandmother, Ana Torga Reija, who now resides in Virginia-Highland, for recipes.
As it turned out, when Reija was a newlywed living in New Hampshire, her own Cuban grandmother would send her letters and recipes. One of her favorite treats was her grandmother Adela’s sweet calabaza fritters. She gave the notes to Reid, and “he changed it to be vegan,” Reija says. “He made it for me the other day, and I said, ‘This is awesome.’”
When she told him about the croquetas de jamon her family cook used to make — she remembers the smell of them wafting from the kitchen as she returned home from school — he came up with a potato-based version, now on the La Semilla menu. “I feel like I am the guinea pig,” Reija jokes, “because he lets me try all his stuff.”
“It’s extremely hard to win over a Cuban woman with vegan cooking,” Sophia says. But the Trapanis succeeded. Her abuela attended every pop-up for two years.
When Reija realized the focal point of the dining room would be an enormous photo of her grandmother (Sophia’s great-great-grandmother), she was moved to tears.
A plant-based lab on Memorial
On a recent Sunday, the Trapanis bop around the kitchen of their soon-to-open restaurant, showing a visitor how to make tamales. Using a technique they learned in the Yucatan, they slide green banana leaves over an open flame to soften them. Then they spread the shiny green rectangles with wet masa, and pile on the fillings: rajas (roasted pepper) and salsa raja, or mole poblano and a plant-based chicken alternative.
For the most part, Reid avoids meat substitutes he doesn’t make himself, because he doesn’t know what’s in them. He builds his Cuban sandwich from house-made seitan ham and jackfruit lechon (pork), on vegan bread that he sources from the historic La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa.
There’s an ethical concern at play here, you see: The Trapanis insist on knowing what’s in the food they serve, on sourcing their masa and beans from top-notch growers, their produce from local farmers.
“It started with the idea that what we eat plays a significant role in our overall health,” Sophia says. “And then once we scratched the surface of a plant-based lifestyle, it opened our eyes to living harm free, the benefits of eating sustainably for the planet and for the welfare of all living beings.”
Atlanta chef Shay Lavi believes the Trapanis’ thoughtful approach is sorely needed. In the rapidly growing plant-based industry, there’s a lot of fast food that may taste delicious in the minute, but is it good for you? “In my opinion, vegan food should be vegan food,” Lavi says.
“The ultimate goal,” Reid says, “is for us is to feed as many people vegan food as possible. It doesn’t matter where you are in your journey. If you come here one night and fall in love with seitan or mushrooms, and then you ... start buying mushrooms, that’s like a win for us.”
That’s when they know they’ve planted a seed.
La Semilla. Opens Jan. 12. 780 Memorial Drive SE, Unit 4A, Atlanta. 404-228-3090, lasemilla.kitchen