Jamaican-born Paradise Natural Foods chef wants to 'represent people on a plate'
Now a catering and pop-up business, Paradise Natural Foods will have a brick-and-mortar space in Detroit's Love Building in 2021
Chef and caterer Nezaa Bandele specializes in healthy, plant-based foods, not because vegan food is growing in popularity, but because "this should be the cuisine that everybody eats."
The chef and educator, who has studied community health education and cultural anthropology, says she likes to weave all her expertise into her cuisine, which she'll serve next year out of a new, permanent home — called the Love Building — in Detroit in 2021.
"I'm also an immigrant and I'm a citizen of two other countries," she said. "I like to represent people on a plate and tell their stories on the plate. Food is not centered in any one place."
She said that while she grew up cooking, she didn't intend on making it her job until she started studying nutrition and community health.
"I found that by providing food, even in formal settings outside of the classroom, I have more reach in terms of getting people to each healthy and make healthier choices," she said.
Right now she has no brick-and-mortar restaurant, which is becoming less of an obstacle for chefs as carryout becomes the norm and pop-up service is welcome at more and more spaces.
Up until this most recent COVID-19 spike, she was offering meal prep packages and a weekly pop-up at Mama Akua Community House, a book store and community kitchen in Detroit. She's still doing drop off service for catering orders, but all other service is on hold because of the coronavirus. She said business is down about 80% because of the pandemic because there are no events and fewer corporate catering gigs.
While COVID-19 has negatively impacted her business, she is still thankful that the health crisis has more people focused on eating better.
"The underlining message in this whole COVID thing is we have to have strong immune systems. People are more interested in the food I prepare now because they see it as a preventative medicine even more so," she said. "I think we'll see a big uptick where people are asking for healthier foods after this."
Bandele prefers the term plant-based over vegan, because she wants to actually promote people eating more naturally grown foods. With her catering clients, she's happy to make dishes that include meat if that's what they request.
She said her target client isn't even a vegan.
"It’s the person that’s not (vegan), but we try to make food, when they eat it, it reminds them of what they’re used to eating and they don’t even really miss the meat," she said.
Calling herself, a "Detroiter by choice, Jamaican by birth," Bandele put roots in Detroit a few decades ago, and has also lived in Toronto. She said she sees the influence of Caribbean food all over her adopted hometown, and not just in the Jamaican-owned restaurants.
“I see a lot of people adopting the flavor profiles of Jamaican food and offering it in regular restaurants, it may not seem like it’s having an influence in terms of the number of Jamaican restaurants but it really is, in terms of being part of the Detroit food scene," she said.
One of her biggest catering clients is Allied Media Projects, the developer of the Love Building. This will be the location of Paradise Natural Foods' cafe in late 2021. The building, at 4731 Grand River, just broke ground this fall.
Besides Allied Media, the Love Building will be home to other social justice-centered organizations like Detroit Community Technology Project, Detroit Disability Power, the Detroit Justice Center and Detroit Narrative Agency, a community group that aims to disrupt harmful narratives about the city.
Bandele says once open in the Love Building next year, she'll serve coffee and smoothies and her largely plant-based menu of stews, lasagnas, sandwiches, salads and baked goods.
"It’s going to be a hybrid of a deli and a café and one of our focuses is going to be grab-and-go where people can come in and grab something that’s already packaged and still have a service area where we could have warm food," she said.
Like many food businesses, things are currently touch-and-go, but Bandele will take drop-off catering orders through the end of the year. Visit paradisedetroit.com for more information.