Chef takes inspiration from feeding people and offers up food prepared with soul

For Carnell Willoughby, cooking is a passion, and the soul in his soul food is his own.

“It's not that other ethnic groups don't have their own sense of soul, but coming from an African-American standpoint, the soul food ‘brand' is something that's pretty prevalent when it comes to cooking style,” Willoughby said in an interview at a Franklinton coffee shop. “Every [group of] people has [its] sense of soul. Soul is injected into your food, especially when there's a certain type of spirit you have when you're making your food.”

Having spent a significant portion of his adult life working in the restaurant/food/hospitality industry, Willoughby launched Willowbeez Soulveg, serving “vegan soul food,” about four years ago. Through a series of catered events, pop-ups and takeovers, Willoughby brought Soulveg food to venues such as 400 West Rich, Upper Cup Coffee and the Lincoln Cafe, and currently his fare can be found at The Hills Market Downtown on Mondays and Fridays.

“I'm not schooled in culinary arts. There's just a passion,” he said. “You don't realize sometimes what a gift is until much later in life, and then you open it up and all these other things just kind of sprout from it.”

Beyond wanting to serve people good, healthy food and his insistence that it be made with the proper spirit, Willoughby finds inspiration in bringing his creativity, imagination and taste to a dish. It all began with curry cabbage.

“My aunt, Ivy Brown, she could probably outcook me on her worst day,” Willoughby said. “She makes killer cabbage. She juliennes red and green peppers, some fresh garlic, and never puts water in it. She just pre-seasons and sautés it and it comes out to be famous. She said, ‘You lose the taste if you put it in water. Water makes it wilt and get soft. It gets enough of that from the heat but still keeps its body and a bit of a crunch.'

“I said, ‘I'm stealing this, and I'm going to embellish it.'”

It became the dish Willoughby always brought to family gatherings and was the dish his brother Malik mentioned when he told Carnell about a dream he'd had in which Carnell cooked food for people and called it Willowbeez.

“He was excited, on fire about it,” Willoughby said with a laugh. “He said, ‘The first item on the menu has to be curry cabbage.' … I bought into his excitement. I liked the idea of feeding the community this good food. But man, I needed more dishes!”

Experimentation has led to menu staples and since-discarded items. Willoughby, who was once a part of influential '90s rap group S.P.I.R.I.T., nods to his love of hip-hop through dish names such asLeft Eye Soul Chili and Ooh I Like It Raw.

“Chefs create stuff they see and know they can embellish and know they can make it better and put their own personal spin on it,” Willoughby said. “But I can't be the gauge. I have to see how people respond to it.”

He's been getting a good response to a recent menu addition he calls PlantaSoul, a plantain spring roll dessert that builds on the fruit's natural sweetness. Inspired by a banana dish he tried at a local restaurant, the PlantaSoul came about because Willoughby thought, “Oh, man. I could do this better.”

“The plantain is a huge staple in African and Caribbean dishes, but not something you often see in your basic American household,” Willoughby said. “I knew the plantain would hold up better than a banana, and if you get it nice and ripe it has its own sweetness. I knew for certain that I could brighten it up and change the flavor profile, and since ginger is something people are starting to reintroduce into their diets, I made this ginger syrup that I knew would heighten that flavor. I drizzle it on the plantain, and … I want this hot, so I wrap it in a spring roll and drizzle some more on after it's cooked.”

“I don't do a lot of desserts, and you know you want something sweet after you've had a Left Eye Chili,” Willoughby said with a smile. “But I just felt like this was something I had never made and I could introduce the public to something a little different, a little unusual, and I could put my spin — my sense of soul — on it.”

Willoughby is comfortable with a slow-grow approach to Willowbeez Soulveg. He acknowledges the importance of an increased emphasis on the business side of his operation, but it doesn't feed his passion the way cooking food does.

“With every blessing, there always come some trials and tests — things that are part of the growth process,” he said. “I'm always focused on food. The spirit of you goes into that food. If I can feed someone something better and it enriches their life, I'm going to do my part. I don't do this for me. I'm cooking for other people.”