Chef Rene Johnson is no stranger to making show-stopping vegan meals for political powerhouses. She’s been cooking for some of the world’s dignitaries for over two decades, including Vice President Kamala Harris, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Governor of California Gavin Newsom, and others. She’s known for serving up healthy southern-inspired comfort food made vegan – such as collard greens, sweet potato waffles, old-fashioned grits, butter beans, cobblers, and decadent pies. All without any animal products, including eggs or dairy.

“I want everyone to know going vegan isn’t as hard as you think it is. Take baby steps to your vegan journey. Going vegan doesn’t mean no flavor,” Johnson says. “Vegan and soul food are a dynamic combination.”

She loves preparing healthier vegan soul food dishes inspired by cooking in her grandmother Katherine's kitchen. Johnson’s grandmother prioritized fresh ingredients, often from her own backyard, for making peach cobbler with fresh peaches from her trees and blackberry jams made from scratch from her own blackberry bush. Johnson carries on her grandmother's legacy of preparing dishes with love. She’s removed harmful fats from her grandmother’s old-style soul food favorites to offer healthier takes on the family recipes. Johnson says there’s no reason to use pork or turkey in red beans and rice or collard greens.

We spoke with the Blackberry Soul author about how she incorporates a little bit of love into every bite and her top vegan cooking tips and her vegan gumbo recipe.

1. Swap out meat for legumes

I often substitute rice, beans, potatoes, or quinoa for meat. I use quinoa to make a wonderful vegan meatloaf. Cooked quinoa can be used just like ground beef, add your onions, bell peppers, garlic, spices, add flax eggs, bread crumbs, another secret is to add oil into the meatloaf mixture just like a real meatloaf has. This will help your meatloaf stick together and give a nice juicy meatloaf.  

2. Use oil instead of animal fat

When cooking vegan, make sure you add the oil back into your recipes. When making my grandmother's collard greens, I make them vegan. I take out the smoked turkey wings, but I add olive oil to lift up the spices that I added to my pot. When making my grandmother's red beans, I add the oil back to the recipe because I have taken out the pork shank. To give me the smoked flavor in both recipes, I add fresh leeks and fresh fennel, both are game-changers. Leeks are a wonderful savory onion and fennel gives you that chicory flavor that links have. 

3. Never under-estimate tofu

Tofu can be used in so many ways. It can be used as eggs in a lot of recipes. Tofu can be scrambled and flavored just like scrambled eggs. It can be blended to make the best vegan french toast you’ve ever tasted. Tofu can also be cut up in strips and fried up just like fried chicken. It makes some of the best vegan fried chicken ever. 

4. Don't be afraid to "veganize" favorite recipes

Most recipes can be changed to vegan. Whole milk can be changed to plant-based milk. My favorites are whole oat milk and coconut milk. When making my vegan cornbread, the secret is adding a little more milk, and making sure you have added a little bit more vegan butter. Remember you are not going to have any eggs in the recipe so the cornbread is going to take a little bit longer to cook, but I promise you’ll love your cornbread. This recipe is in my cookbook, From My Heart to Your Table, and I talk about these two secrets to making a wonderful vegan cornbread. 

5. Find your go-to dairy-free butter

There are some wonderful vegan butters out there. Buy a few to see which one you like best. I prefer cashew butter, but I prefer to make my own. It’s super easy to make and has no preservatives in it. It lasts for a long time! I use my vegan cashew butter when making my no-fail peach cobbler. The cashew still gives you a buttery taste without the dairy. 

Bottom Line: With a few easy swaps you can make your favorite foods vegan.

For more great celebrity chef recipes, check out The Beet's Celebrity Chef Recipe Column and see what Derek Sarno and Chard Sarno are cooking up, as well as what Matthew Kenney has shared, along with Mark Bittman, Chloe Coscarelli, Chef AJ and Guy Vaknin.

More From The Beet