The “Woke” Chef Behind the 1st Dominican Vegetarian Food Business in New York City
With Anthony Santos’ bachata mix playing on her iPhone, 26-year-old Dominican Chef Ysanet Batista sways her hips back and forth as she stirs vegetables in a caldero. The freshly washed produce sizzles in hot oil as Santos croons in the background. Wrapped in an apron, Batista shifts from left to right in her small Washington Heights kitchen, contemplating what to add next to the pot. “She’s like a mad scientist, tasting a little bit of this and that, looking for how she can add crunch, sweetness, or cut the salt in a dish,” says Batista’s close friend Heidi Lopez.
Last summer, with just $200 in equity, Batista launched Woke Foods, a plant based Dominican food cooperative providing catering, cooking classes and meal planning to the Washington Heights community. In April, Batista, hosted the first cooking class of a series for community organizers to connect, understand and discuss issues in our food system. Once a month she collaborates with chefs of color in community kitchen spaces to host classes that take participants through a four-course meal that represents the culture of the collaborating chef. “I want to make sure we are not cooping other cultures. So I ensure chefs who are from a particular country teach their cuisine,” Batista says.
Her journey to becoming ‘woke’ about food began at an early age when, at 15, she stumbled across the PETA website. Scrolling through the brutal and graphic images the organization uses to illustrate meat consumption in America, she found herself in tears, and vowed to never eat meat again. But as a young girl being raised in a Dominican family, who stuck to their roots of “La Bandera Dominicana”(a plate of rice, beans, and meat) always on the dinner table, her new found vegetarianism became a challenge. “I thought making the food I grew up eating vegetarian would be impossible,” says Batista. “But my mentor Jeseli Soto and my grandmother demonstrated to me it wasn’t.”
Batista’s vegetarian quest intensified when she moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in her twenties to study hospitality and tourism at Johnson & Wales University. Determined to leave meat in her past life, she enrolled in the Peace Advocacy Network’s Vegan Pledge program. Paired with a Dominican mentor who would guide her through a 30-day trial period of veganism, Batista realized that Dominican meals and staples can, in fact, be transformed into delicious meatless food. As she traveled back and forth from Rhode Island to the Dominican Republic, she experimented even more so in her grandmother Ramona’s kitchen, recreating the hearty Dominican dishes she loved the most: sancocho, asopao, kipes, and pasteles without meat.
Adding a twist to Dominican pasteles, typically made with slow cooked beef or pork, Batista stuffs them with minced root vegetables, mushrooms, and cheese. She fills kipes, deep fried rolls made with bulgur wheat, ground beef and raisins, with sautéed minced vegetables flavored with organic Adobo. And to minimize her use of canola oil, she bakes or fries her sweet plantains in coconut oil or grape seed oil.
But healthy food is not the only thing on Batista’s agenda, she is also passionate about bringing food justice to communities of color through her business. “I want people in my community to understand that food is political even though we don’t see it that way. We vote with our dollars,” she says. “Farmers of color are constantly being exploited in our food system here and in my island. People need to stay woke about their food.”
As she now finds her self on a journey back to the island to start a farm that will produce the staples for her business, Batista is crowd founding in order to buy land and equipment. “I just want to farm and cook,” she says.
Says Lopez about her friend: “Woke Foods is literally Ysanet’s process of healing being transformed into a food business that helps our community.”
To view Batista’s cooking videos, visit her Facebook page.