2015 Leadership Award Honoree Bryant Terry

Chef, Author, and Food-Justice Activist

For Bryant Terry, creating a more accessible, equitable, and ethical food system in America starts with getting people to eat better. “I see empowering people to cook real food and share meals with a community as a revolutionary first step toward politicizing around food issues,” says the Oakland-based chef and activist. “When one considers that, for many social movements throughout the 20th century, educating, strategizing, and organizing took place in people’s homes, it seems appropriate that the food revolution will find its spark in home kitchens.”

Through his cookbooks and videos, Terry has unquestionably ignited an enthusiasm for cooking in many kitchens around America. With a web-based video series and four highly regarded cookbooks under his belt, including Afro-Vegan and Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine, he has built an extensive fan base in support of his innovative and healthy interpretations of foods of the South and the African diaspora.

“What he tries to get across is that food is medicine. It’s not just cooking in terms of health, but cooking in terms of health along ethnic and cultural lines,” says 2014 Leadership Award honoree Karen Washington. “He delivers the message that you can still break bread around the table for a traditional African-American meal, but without the high sodium and the grease.”

Motivating people to transform their eating habits will, as Terry sees it, lay the foundation for big-picture change, a strategy that is echoed in his mantra: “Start with the visceral, move to the cerebral, and end at the political.” “I strive to use the sensual pleasures of the table to shift people’s habits, attitudes, and politics in regard to food,” he says.

A Memphis native whose relatives owned farms in rural Mississippi, Terry acquired an appreciation for food and cooking at a young age. In high school he grew more aware of food practices and principles on a broader scale. “I became interested in the ethics of eating after hearing ‘Beef,’ a hip-hop song about animal cruelty in factory farms,” Terry recalls. He shifted toward a plant-based diet and, while pursuing a graduate degree in history in New York, studied historic efforts to address inequalities in the food system, such as those made by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and ’70s. He later enrolled in culinary school and in 2002 established b-healthy!, an organization that engages young people in the pursuit of food justice.

Today Terry gives talks on food justice and healthy eating, mentors young chefs and activists, and, with his wife, Jidan Koon, are writing a new cookbook and a children’s book. This year he became the inaugural chef-in-residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, where he creates food-themed programming and partners with local schools.

“Bryant is such a positive role model. How many black male chefs do we see?” says Washington. “He has taken it to another level as a mentor and inspiration.”

—Emily Carrus