Compton native Lemel Durrah did not grow up eating a plant-based diet. In fact, his journey towards a vegan lifestyle – and towards being a chef, business owner, and pillar of his local community – is one that happened a bit by chance.
The story begins in 2014, when Durrah discovered the health benefits of a plant-based diet following a cleanse. But while Durrah learned that the secret to improved health – and reduced risk of metabolic disease – was through diet, embracing a vegan way of life in his own home, he didn’t develop his company until 2017. It was then that his diet – and an influential Dame Dash interview about being your own boss – calcified into the project he has created today.
“The purpose behind the idea was not just to have a business to have a business, but to have a business that would help my community as well as try to provide generational wealth at the same time.”
Three years ago, Compton Vegan began as a small vegan catering business. It was a bit of a leap of faith in this community where, Durrah explains, he grew up surrounded by fast food. While his grandmother grew her own fruits and vegetables in her backyard, her expertise – and this tradition – disappeared when she passed away in 2001. And, Durrah notes, “even though she was growing her own fruits and vegetables, she was still putting meat in all of her dishes.
“So the agricultural side of it, I got a little bit of exposure, but as far as an outright plant-based diet? It was unheard of.”
In addition to plant-based diets being unfamiliar in Compton, this area of South Los Angeles is considered a “food desert,” with little access to fresh, healthy food. It’s perhaps no coincidence that South Los Angeles has higher obesity rates and incidences of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than nearby West Los Angeles or Los Angeles county. With his business, Durrah wants to change that from the inside.
“When you live in the inner city, you see a lot of your elder statesmen having to survive on a bunch of different pills,” he says. “And during my initial transition to being plant-based, I just learned about a lot of the effects that foods that grow naturally from the earth have on your body.”
The health benefits of a plant-based diet have been touted far and wide, from movie stars like Kevin Smith to organizations like the United Nations.
“Learning all of that information helps me to understand that there's a different way of living life," says Durrah. "As opposed to surviving off of 8, 9, 10 different pills, I can just eat 8, 9, 10 different fruits and vegetables.”
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His approach in introducing his newfound knowledge to his community is to make vegan food familiar. His most popular dish is his jackfruit ribs, but he also frequently cooks up plant-based mac and cheese or jackfruit tacos with Upfield cheese.
“Naturally, people have their suspicions about vegan food in general,” he says. “But what I try to do is bring as much awareness to the fact that in our communities, we oftentimes wait until the doctor tells us that we have to change our eating habits, as opposed to being proactive and making the changes that we need to make.”
“I wanted to be the option – when people were ready to make that leap or even just put their toes in the water – I wanted to be that option for my community.”
Rather than pushback or skepticism, Durrah is pleased to say that his community is really receiving him with “intrigue and open arms.”
“I'm starting to see a lot of people actually be more interested and intrigued by the fact that I have foods that resemble things that they've been accustomed to eating pretty much their whole lives,” he says.
The Compton Vegan has evolved from a small catering business to a much larger to-go venture, serving the community nearly every day of the week. But while his business is growing massively in popularity, Durrah never forgets his original mission: giving back to his community. In a recent video for docuseries A Better Plant-Based Future, a joint venture from from VICE media and plant-based food company Upfield, Durrah showed off his community garden – a vacant lot near his former middle school, that is helping him develop an even closer link to the local populace. And on Juneteenth, as part of his Compton Cares initiative, Durrah closed the restaurant for a week in order to prepare for a massive giveaway: 200 Compton Vegan meals, toilet paper, paper towels, face masks, and cases of water, provided for free to 200 Compton residents.
“It was a drive-through situation,” he explains, “so everyone stayed in their cars and just showed their Compton IDs, and we loaded them up. It was beautiful.”
Be sure to check out the rest of the videos from A Better Plant-Based Future (including one on plant-based butchers Kale and Aubry Walch, who we wrote about when they first started out!) To find out where in LA Durrah's food will be available next, follow him on Instagram.
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