VDaLish chef and owner Chantele Jones juggles culinary school, a full-time job and motherhood all in pursuit of her dream: opening a vegan bakery. She takes SEEN into her kitchen to show that vegan food is not only healthy – it’s delicious, too.
By Dorothy Hernandez
Photography by Derrick Martinez
In 2012, not long after her second daughter was born, Chantele Jones’ hair began falling out.
The Macomb Township resident went to the dermatologist for injections, but then she started getting painful cysts on her scalp.
“They started pumping me full of medication,” recalls Jones, who sought answers from several doctors. “They would run tests and nobody could figure this out.”
Finally she saw a specialist who diagnosed her with a chronic inflammatory disease called Hidradenitis Suppurativa. The doctor gave her two options: Get surgery or go on an anti-inflammatory diet.
“It really scared me,” says Jones, who started avoiding meat, dairy and gluten. The new diet — and the new way of cooking that came with it — was a departure for Jones, who’d grown up surrounded by good cooks. Her dad was the “barbecue guy” who could grill up perfectly cooked chicken and ribs and her mom was a caterer and avid baker who made killer sweet potato pie. “I would help her just so I could lick the bowl,” says Jones, who drew on those memories to reinvent her favorite recipes. “I would go in the kitchen and just try to create different things,” she says. “I’d add and take out [certain ingredients] until the dishes started to resemble something that I was used to.”
Within two weeks of changing her diet, Jones’ pain went away. About a month later, she came off all her medication. “I’m not ‘cured,’” she says. “But I only have flare-ups when I eat too many of my trigger foods, like wheat gluten and refined sugar.”
One thing that lingered: Jones’ passion for healthy cooking. Today, the 31-year-old mother of three is the owner of VDaLish, a plant-based catering company and pop-up restaurant that appears at spots like Nosh Pit Detroit and VegFest, Michigan’s annual vegan gathering that draws more than 5,000 attendees. She’s known for her popular “Vegan Soul Food Sundays” at Nosh Pit, which feature dishes like fried cauliflower, candied sweet potatoes and peach cobbler. “Customers come before we even open to place their order, and we always sell out,” says Jones.
While the reception to vegan food hasn’t always been so warm — “so many people have this stigma of it being nasty or bland,” says Jones — there’s a growing market hungry for healthy spins on everything from chicken wings and mac and cheese to baked goods. Take Jones’ blueberry bars, a customer favorite at the Conscious Café in Shelby Township. “[They’ve] been a big draw,” says owner Phyllis Sharbo, who started carrying Jones’ treats after meeting her through a vegan group on social media. “The pastries taste fantastic.”
Asked how Jones’ baked goods stack up against those made with butter and eggs, Sharbo references one of the shirts she sells in the shop: “Anything you can eat I can eat vegan,” she says, adding that Jones’ products are “just as delicious as anything my mother or grandmother made.”
When Jones isn’t busy cooking for her customers or her own family (her kids, ages 8, 7 and 5, eat a totally plant-based diet; her husband experimented with veganism but has since gone back to meat), she juggles a packed calendar. She attends Macomb Community College, where she’s pursuing a degree in culinary arts; she also works full time in the insurance industry.
Her next project: opening a vegan bakery, ideally in Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood, where she says it would fit well with the other local businesses, like Detroit Vegan Soul. If all goes to plan, she’s eyeing a grand opening in fall 2020. “The timing is great, as we’ll be the first all-vegan bakery in the Detroit area,” says Jones, who also eventually plans to launch a restaurant. “But I want to start small,” she says. “I can’t handle a restaurant right now.”
Until then, Jones is focusing on churning out healthier versions of her favorite treats, including her mom’s pound cake, which Jones used to sell during high school. “Her baked goods were so popular that my teachers would place their orders for the holidays,” she recalls. “It’s crazy to see how much I’ve followed in [my mom’s] footsteps — just with my vegan version.”
Makes 4 servings
2 cans chickpeas, drained
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup carrots, chopped
1 cup red onion, diced
1 ½ cups vegan mayo
1 cup sweet relish
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
3 tablespoons Braggs kelp seasoning
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 teaspoon black pepper
Salt, to taste
In a food processor, add chickpeas, celery, carrots and red onion. Pulse just until combined. You want to keep some texture.
Add chickpea mixture to a bowl. Add mayo, relish, mustard, and remaining seasonings. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed.
Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes and enjoy.
Chantele Jones was a winner of the Pitch Your Story Competition, judged by SEEN Magazine at The Detroit Writing Room.