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Photo by Rob Bartlett

Chef Jenn Ross of Eatonville's DaJen Eats wants people to have an emotional connection with her food 

A self-described "happy, irie vegan," Jenn Ross left Jamaica when she was 16, taught herself how to cook, then adopted a plant-based diet as a way to live a more compassionate life. DaJen Eats started as a pop-up, then moved into a Citgo gas station off North Orange Blossom Trail before finding a permanent home in historic Eatonville.

How has opening a vegan restaurant in Eatonville changed the community's perception of plant-based eating? The majority of our clientele comes into Eatonville. We are beyond grateful for that, but we still struggle with Eatonville residents simply not knowing we are there. (That's partly because we still haven't put up our building sign, though we're working on it.) We went in knowing Eatonville is a food desert of sorts, and knowing some of the resulting health issues residents face. We've conducted cooking classes with Healthy Eatonville Place and collaborated with Eatonville Community Heritage Foundation to bring free cooking classes. The interest is there, and residents are implementing what they've learned.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

As an immigrant chef, have you felt the need to compromise "authenticity" in order to satisfy a broader palate? In the beginning, the hard-core Jamaican flavors weren't doing well. Our best selling breakfast was our chick'n biscuit, but our ackee and "saltfish" – Jamaica's national dish – wouldn't sell. Our best-selling lunch sandwich was our Buffalo chick'n. Neither biscuits nor Buffalo sauce is Jamaican. Then I realized ... the average person walking through the door had no clue what ackee and "saltfish" was, so I started a social media campaign. Food is all about connection, so I shared a story of how I grew up eating ackee, how it feels like home, and how I just can't wait to share a childhood favorite. It made a world of difference. People got that emotional connection with my food, got excited about trying it, and then loved eating it. Creating a connection with authentic Jamaican items and selling the "story" allows us to honor the traditional flavors with a broader audience. Dahling, now we sell vegan ox tail ("hoax tail") without much eye-batting!

How are you reducing food waste? What are you doing to make the restaurant more sustainable? We reuse items. For example, we garnish all of our bowls with the green part of the green onion, but we save the white to flavor our "rice and peas" and stews. Tomato ends that we don't use in sandwiches get diced and added to our stews. Leftover "hoax tail" from Sunday gets ground and put in our "hoax tail" lasagna. At the end of each shift, we create freezer meals with the prepared food that didn't sell. These meals go in our grab-and-go refrigerator and are good for five days; someone coming in for breakfast may grab a rice bowl from the grab-and-go refrigerator for lunch. Also, we changed our takeout bowl containers from Styrofoam to a molded fiber clamshell. Our cups are biodegradable and we use straws made from corn. These are far more expensive options, but they are good investments and a vote for the world we want to live in. ( ▲


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