At 67 years old, this self-taught chef is the healthiest she’s ever been, and she's helping others get there too.
- Posted on Nov 13, 2017
Meet me now and it’s hard to believe that, for decades, I was the worst cook ever (just ask my friends) and spent very little time in the kitchen and even less in the gym. Eating healthy and exercising weren’t even on my radar. Now, at age 67, I’m a world-class vegan chef, a fitness coach, a motivational speaker and the owner of Stuff I Eat, a successful vegan soul food restaurant in Inglewood, California. I’m also the healthiest I’ve ever been.
How did this incredible transformation come about? Like a great recipe, it took time for all the ingredients to come together.
My Mom’s Cooking
The first ingredient was my mom’s cooking. I grew up on the Eastside of Los Angeles. My mother was a cook for a couple households on the Westside. I saw her on the weekends and, during the week, stayed with my godmother, who was a vegetarian. She served frozen or canned foods. Bland, boring, tasteless—that was my impression of a vegetarian diet. Very different from what my mom whipped up.
She loved to cook, and everything that came out of her kitchen was delicious: chitterlings, smothered pork chops, baked chicken, cornbread, even the vegetables—because she put sugar in them. “When I was a kid, vegetables came from the garden and had a beautiful, sweet flavor,” she would tell me. “These vegetables from the store aren’t like that, so I sugared them up.” And her desserts were to die for!
I was crazy about sweets. There were candy factories in our neighborhood, and I’d go Dumpster diving behind them and gobble up all kinds of discarded candy. That’s how addicted I was to sugar. And it showed. My teeth were a mess.
My Health Challenges
Second was my health issues. Besides dental problems, I had a number of other ailments as a kid—asthma, eczema, earaches. In adulthood, I suffered digestive problems. I’d get heartburn, bloating and stomach aches after every meal, especially the down-home Southern cooking I’d grown up with. I didn’t cook much, but when I did, I mimicked my mom. Sundays I’d make baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, steamed cabbage with bacon and, for dessert, warm banana pudding. I’d load my plate, devour every bite. Then, oh my goodness, I’d be gassy and sluggish all day long.
Finally I couldn’t stand feeling sick every time I ate. I didn’t know anything about nutrition. I just cut out the stuff that didn’t seem to agree with me. No more chitterlings and bacon. Less fat. I started eating cleaner meals—baked fish, rice, salad. I felt a bit better, but healthwise I still wasn’t doing great. I had a series of surgeries for fibroids and hernias.
It didn’t dawn on me that I needed to change my way of life until the winter of 1990, when I was 40. That’s where the third ingredient came in. I met a fascinating man named Rondal Davis when I auditioned as a singer for his music group. He was handsome and fit and a big yoga enthusiast. During breaks, he’d do all these yoga poses. I had no idea the human body could bend like that! I thought we were all destined to break down with age. At least, that’s what my body was telling me. But Ron was two years older than me and living proof that dedication to your health could make a difference.
On one of our first dates, he invited me over to his place for a home-cooked meal. When I walked into his kitchen, a tantalizing aroma greeted me. I watched as Ron tossed white chunks into a cast-iron skillet.
“That chicken looks good,” I said. “My stomach’s growling.”
“It’s not chicken. It’s pan-grilled tofu to go with our string beans and basmati brown rice.”
“Tofu? And bas-what?”
Ron laughed. “You’re just going to have to trust me.”
I’d never heard of basmati. The only rice I knew was Uncle Ben’s. And the one time I’d tried tofu, it was totally tasteless, even more bland than my godmother’s canned vegetables.
I’d showed up hungry because Ron had promised he was fixing us a delicious meal. I really liked this guy. What if I didn’t like his cooking? How was I going to explain not finishing my food when I’d already confessed my stomach was growling?
I sat down at the table, and Ron set a full plate in front of me. “Dig in,” he said.
I took a tentative bite. I didn’t know what seasonings he’d put in the tofu and string beans, but the flavors worked together in a way I had never tasted before. I finished everything. What an amazing meal!
The most amazing thing was, I didn’t feel tired, heavy and bloated afterwards. To my surprise, I had no digestive issues. I actually felt energized. “I need to learn how to cook like this,” I said to Ron.
He shared a wealth of information about his vegetarian lifestyle and a few of his favorite books—Fit for Life, Volumes 1 and 2, by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond and Mucusless Diet Healing System by Professor Arnold Ehret.
That dinner date with Ron was the first day in my new life as a vegan.
I read the books he suggested and thought about my eating habits. Mom had always tried to get me in the kitchen. But I’d never really gotten into it, maybe because I’d felt sick after every meal. Now I was inspired. No more processed, overcooked foods. I became a chemist in the kitchen, experimenting with herbs and spices and other ingredients, creating dishes that were so delicious and satisfying that I didn’t miss meat and dairy.
Ron also motivated me to exercise. As a kid, I was the fastest runner on the block, but I wasn’t physically active as an adult. Ron became my exercise partner. We started off with power walks. After a few months, he felt I was ready for more of a challenge.
He took me to the bottom of a steep, 1,600-foot hill at Griffith Park.
“We’re going to go all the way to the top,” he said. I looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.
Ron just smiled and started running up the hill, backwards. “Come on—you can do it.”
I gazed up at him as the distance between us grew. He was older than me and able to conquer the hill. I could do it too. I started climbing, slowly. I promised myself that one day I would be able to run up that hill, just like Ron.
The more time I spent with him, the more I learned—and the more inspired I felt. Ron and I married in 1992 and continued our journey together.
My God-Given Purpose
The fourth ingredient was one I discovered overseas. Flight attendant, hairstylist, owner of a floral and balloon design business, singer—my résumé jumped from one experience to the next. I wanted to find my calling. In 2002, I got a gig singing at the Motown Café in Tokyo. There I prayed and meditated about what to do in the second half of my life. I knew singing wasn’t it for me anymore.
While the other musicians were busy writing songs and rehearsing, I worked out and continued my experiments in the kitchen. I discovered new ways of cooking without meat and shared what I made with everyone else. I wanted people to feel as if they’d eaten a really good meal, even with no meat on the menu. Seeing everyone clean their plates and sit back with satisfied smiles was better than getting a standing ovation. Finally I understood why my mother loved being in the kitchen. Cooking was a way to connect with others, to make them happy. And it was fun!
Before that gig in Japan, I’d done some light catering at the church Ron and I attended. But I hadn’t taken it seriously. I delivered food late and always had stuff left over. How could I hope to be a blessing to others if I wasn’t consistent and committed?
I decided to go all in and start a full-service catering company when I got home. “This might mean I have to turn our living room into a catering business,” I told Ron.
“You want me to help?” he asked.
I was good at creating tasty meals. Ron excelled at business, organizing, logistics. He had our own special 15-foot cart built with a griddle, a refrigerator and a smoothie counter. We set up every Sunday at our new church home, Agape Spiritual Center in Culver City, and our customers came in droves. We bought a few tents for people to sit under and enjoy eating with one another. Soon we had so many customers, the line wrapped around the block.
After a few years, Ron and I knew it was time to expand, but we didn’t know how or where. We didn’t have much money. We prayed about it and decided we were going to wait for a sign from God.
One day, while walking down Market Street, here in Inglewood, we saw the doors to a building open. We went inside and I spotted the built-in steam table—one with the exact same color and tiles we’d used on our cart. That was the sign I needed. We met the owner, who had been thinking of turning the space into a sporting goods store. He took our business card and, within days, called us, offering the space for a budget-friendly rent.
Stuff I Eat opened its doors on July 1, 2008. It was slow going at first. People in this neighborhood are used to eating what I grew up with, meat-based cooking. I’d let them try a wild rice taco for free, and then most would sit down and order a full meal. Business has grown steadily over the past nine years. We’ve never done any advertising—our customers come by word of mouth, and they become a part of our family.
I never would’ve dreamed all my experiences would lead me here, living my best, healthiest life and helping others do the same. I’ve never felt better, physically or spiritually. But that’s what happens with a great recipe—the ingredients come together in a way that’s truly inspired.
Try Chef Babette's recipe for vegan Raspberry Cakes at home!