Vegans of Color
How Compton Vegan Helps Nourish South L.A.
Lemel Durrah, the chef and owner of Compton Vegan, on being his own boss and serving a community that has lacked access to delicious, healthy food
Staying healthy in food desert—an area with a lack of supermarkets, fresh produce, and access to non-processed food—is no easy task. A 2010 study showed that in South L.A., there were only only 60 supermarkets to service approximately 1.3 million residents (the same number of supermarkets that service half as many residents in affluent neighborhoods in West L.A.).
“If I’m not providing vegan food, there is no option for the city,” says Lemel Durrah, the chef and owner of Compton Vegan. “It’s important for me to continue on the marathon that I’m on. It’s important for me now, not just to keep my business going, but because as a kid growing up, I didn’t have vegan options.” While there many residents working to improve access to healthier foods in South L.A. neighborhoods, there are still many hurdles to overcome.
Durrah spoke with Tenderly about the empowerment of becoming his own boss, his dreams of bringing vegan food to Compton, and shares his advice on staying on your own path in the face of adversity.
Tenderly: What is your ethnic and cultural background? Where did you grow up?
Lemel Durrah: I’m black. I grew up in Compton, CA. I was a military kid, so I’ve seen different states. Texas, Virginia, and I lived in Germany all before the fourth grade. I went to college in Alabama, at Tuskegee [University]. So I’ve seen a little bit of everywhere.
But Compton’s home?
What kinds of foods did you eat growing up? Do you have any memorable meals you ate on holidays or special occasions?
All the same traditional foods that are popular in America. The turkey, the ham, all the other stuff at Thanksgiving. The ribs, links and whatnot for Christmas and Fourth of July.
When did you become vegan and what led you to that decision?
I did a fast in 2014, for a mental, spiritual, and physical cleanse. I learned a lot of things about the food we put into our bodies, and the effect that has on us. The end result was basically me becoming conscious of my diet, and ultimately adopting that same lifestyle that I was partaking in when I went on the fast.
Was there anyone in your life who was vegan and influenced you? Or are you the one bringing this to other people?
Basically it was me teaching myself, and now it’s me teaching others.
Why did you decide to found Compton Vegan? Who or what inspired you?
Dame Dash’s interview on The Breakfast Club made me want to be my own boss. So I wanted to be able to build something for my family, as well as use the experience and the knowledge that I had gained on my own personal journey. Compton Vegan was started because of Dame Dash. I started my first place a couple years after that — the idea came along because of that interview, but the actual manifestation didn’t happen until 2017.
When I started my first place, I had a pretty busy schedule — a lot of the things I wanted to do were hard to make happen, because I was still working for somebody else. I was coaching basketball, so the time just wasn’t there. But then I was fired from coaching, and when I was fired, I decided to reclaim my time instead of looking for another coaching job. All this time and energy that I was putting into other people’s kids, I poured it into myself.
What challenges have you faced in getting your catering service off the ground? What are the next steps you plan to take?
To be perfectly honest with you, I can’t say that I’ve had any problems with my business. I started it with the vision of just having a restaurant in the city of Compton, and I was prepared to do the legwork. I gave myself ten years to accomplish that goal — so everything that’s come my way has been so many blessings. So I really can’t say that I was struggling with this or that, it’s just been me putting my product out, and whoever’s supported me has been a bonus for me. At the end of the day, the things I was cooking and selling were things I was eating anyway.
And where do I see Compton Vegan heading? I want to see Compton Vegan setting up in cities all across the world.
I have a physical location in West LA. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with cloud kitchens or ghost kitchens — I have a kitchen in a space that houses 25 other companies. I have a restaurant, I’ve on Grubhub, I’m on Doordash, and I continue my own delivery service that services Compton residents and local people.
What does it mean to you to be a business owner offering vegan food to the neighborhood where you grew up?
I look at it like this: if I’m not providing vegan food, there is no option for the city. It’s important for me to continue on the marathon that I’m on. It’s important for me now, not just to keep my business going, but because as a kid growing up, I didn’t have vegan options.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know what a vegan was — I knew what a vegetarian was, and most of the time, vegetarians were laughed at. People made jokes about them. But changing the narrative about someone taking back their own health is important to me.
I look at it like this: if I’m not providing vegan food, there is no option for the city. It’s important for me now, not just to keep my business going, but because as a kid growing up, I didn’t have vegan options.
And it’s alright if it doesn’t happen right away — generations to come will benefit from the decisions that I’ve made, and people who continue to open their eyes and open their minds to alternative lifestyles that aren’t detrimental to your health.
What advice do you have for new vegans or someone considering veganism?
Don’t worry about falling off the wagon. If you aren’t fully ready to commit to a plant-based lifestyle, then go at your own pace. Don’t worry about somebody else. Find your favorite fruits and vegetables, and be creative with those. Drink a lot of water. And don’t be afraid to experiment with recipes.
Don’t worry about what other people have to say about you, just be the best you that you can possibly be.
A lot of people say it’s expensive to be a vegan — but it’s expensive to be a carnivore too! It’s just all about where you choose to spend your money, and how you choose to get your food. Are you eating out every day? Because if you eat out every day, whether as a vegan or as a carnivore, it’s going to cost a lot of money. But if you’re making your own meals, and eating out not as often, you’re going to be okay.
And lastly, don’t worry about what other people have to say. You know the benefits of being a vegan, and if somebody’s joking or laughing at you for making a decision that’s good for you — that’s essentially like somebody laughing at a crackhead who’s trying to get clean. Don’t worry about what other people have to say about you, just be the best you that you can possibly be.
What are some of your favorite vegan spots in LA?
Well, I’ll give my homegirl a plug. I like Jackfruit Cafe, owned by Angela Means — she played Felisha in Friday. She’s incredibly compassionate about animals, and she makes great food. She’s in the same kitchen space as I am, in the same commissary.