Vegan barbecue may sound like an oxymoron, but it seems inevitable in a world where plant-based foods like Impossible Burgers have become supermarket staples, and a local restaurant specializing in faux burgers, Slutty Vegan, has become a hot brand.
Sargent knows that many barbecue purists will roll their eyes at ribs molded from vegan ingredients like wheat gluten. John Shelton Reed, a noted barbecue author in North Carolina, has tried smoked jackfruit, an Asian fruit often used to stand in for pork, and says he liked it — although it was drenched in barbecue sauce and “cardboard would taste pretty good that way.”
“I respect people who won’t eat meat and pity those who can’t,” Reed says, “but there are so many great vegetarian dishes, why would you want to make vegetables taste like something else? Respect the vegetables, I say.”
Oddly enough, it was Sargent’s respect for meat that led him to become a barbecue shapeshifter.
The 38-year-old Roswell native grew up with a busy schoolteacher mother and two siblings who usually got by on TV dinners. He didn’t develop a passion for barbecue until he went to work at a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Alpharetta and manned the grill station. “The heat, the sweat, the pressure,” he says. “I loved it.”
Sargent spent the next decade learning the hospitality trade in Marriott hotel kitchens. Then he led dining operations at retirement homes in the Atlanta area. It was a demanding job, and he didn’t eat right. “I was having bacon croissants from Burger King every day,” he remembers. “I got up to 270 pounds and was having all sorts of health problems.”
One of his best friends, Jonart Banks, a veteran of the Atlanta hospitality business, suggested he go vegan like his wife. “I challenged him to make some of his favorite dishes without meat,” Banks says, “and he took me up on it.”
Within a couple of months, Sargent was vegan. One of his restaurant friends, Maximilian Hines, most recently executive chef of the Lawrence, was shocked. “Terry did a complete 180. He wasn’t even close to vegan when we met. He was really into animal butchery and offal and all that.”
As a vegan, Sargent lost weight and felt better. But he still loved the taste and texture of meat, so he set out to re-create it by concentrating on a niche he thought was being ignored: meatless barbecue.
“Getting the flavors right was easy,” he says. “Texture was the hard part.” He rejected tofu as a substitute protein because he disliked its mushiness. After tireless experimentation, he settled on jackfruit, chickpea flour and wheat gluten as the best building blocks for the meaty mouthfeel he craved.
When Sargent debuted his new cuisine at a pop-up dinner in 2019, there was a line waiting around the block. After several more successful pop-ups, he quit his day job and opened Grass VBQ Joint, operating first in an Asian food hall, then a brewpub, then a storefront restaurant in Stone Mountain.
Word got around, and Southern Living magazine named Sargent one of its 2021 cooks of the year in the South. “I was getting media calls from all over,” which made him feel like a Beatle, he says.
One of the calls came from Harvard Common Press, inviting him to write a vegan cookbook.
Credit: Bites and Bevs LLC
Credit: Bites and Bevs LLC
Today Grass VBQ Joint operates inside Decatur Food Hub, a new cloud kitchen near the Avondale MARTA station. Inside his small space, Sargent starts one of most popular dishes, “veef” brisket, by mixing wheat gluten and other ingredients to make a pale dough. He darkens it with cocoa and paprika and forms it into brisket-shaped loaves that look like banana bread, and bakes them. Then he takes the loaves home and smokes them with a blend of hickory, cherry and apple wood pellets. He uses two inexpensive vertical smokers that he calls his R2-D2s because he customized them to resemble the droid from “Star Wars.”
Finally, he totes the loaves back to the food hub and thinly slices them to assemble drippy, smoky sandwiches that look pretty much like ones you’d get at your typical barbecue joint.
None of this is culinary trickery to Sargent. He believes the essence of barbecue is smoke flavor, more than what’s being cooked, whether it’s pork, beef or something else.
“Barbecue is an art and a technique,” he says. “It isn’t a particular protein.”
Jim Auchmutey, a former AJC feature writer for almost 30 years, is the author of “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America.”
Grass VBQ Joint. Noon-9 p.m. daily. Takeout and delivery only. Inside Decatur Food Hub, 2670 E. College Ave., Decatur; 470-310-3656, grassvbqjoint.com.
Terry Sargent has developed vegan dishes that approximate many of the barbecue and grilling favorites he used to love when he ate meat: ribs, burnt ends, wings, smoked chicken and turkey, smoked oysters and salmon, even bacon and bratwurst. Here are three of his classics: brisket, pork sandwich and Brunswick stew.
Veef Brisket Sandwich
This was Sargent’s first vegan barbecue experimentation. He trademarked the word “veef.” Optional: Top the sandwich with slaw for extra crunch.
Recipes adapted from “Vegan Barbecue: More Than 100 Recipes for Smoky and Satisfying Plant-Based BBQ” by Terry Sargent, with permission from Harvard Common Press.
BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich
Jackfruit, a cousin to figs, has become popular among vegans because of its umami flavor and protein. In this recipe, it stands in for chopped pork.
Smoky Vidalia VBQ Sauce
Sargent uses this tomato-based sauce in several of his recipes.
Signature VBQ Spice Rub
As the hot sauce commercial says, Sargent uses this stuff on everything: mock meats, vegetables, even fruit. He buys stout beer powder at larger farmers markets and online.
Smoked Brunswick Stewie
Georgia’s most distinctive barbecue dish gets the vegan treatment, with smoked jackfruit and tempeh bacon providing much of the flavor. This recipe also uses the Smoky Vidalia VBQ Sauce found elsewhere in this feature.
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