The local chef’s mission is to bring healing to the community through food, music.
Interview by Phil Gillen
Egypt McKizia, better known as Chef Egypt, is an Omaha-based chef and musician who does various pop-ups and events around town serving delicious vegan cuisine. After tasting Chef Egypt’s work at a pop-up in North Omaha a couple of months ago, I was impressed. I wanted to learn more about where this food was coming from, so I set up an interview with the multi-talented cook last week in Benson.
Phil Gillen: Where did your passion for cooking come from?
Chef Egypt: Well, I started cooking when I was a child; my grandmother taught me. And the passion really came after I decided to become vegan. I wanted to still eat good food, but I didn’t want to eat out all the time or only eat, like, steamed vegetables, so then I started really getting passionate about making really great-tasting vegan food. That’s where the passion kinda stems from — being innovative, making sure I still get to eat delicious food, but also it’s aligning with my personal lifestyle.
PG: So you learned mostly at home?
CE: Yeah, mostly at home.
PG: Did you go to school [for cooking] at all?
CE: I didn’t, but I did learn at a lot of everyday experiences. I learned a lot of vegan cooking when I was in Jamaica. For the past couple of years I’ve been there, learning from some really top-notch ital cooks. That’s what they call their vegan… is like ital, natural. So I learned a lot of ways to be innovative, keep the food natural — you know, dairy-free, meat-free. So I learned from different people; I never went to school, just everyday experiences.
PG: What’s the importance of vegan food to you?
CE: To me it’s about health and wellness. Not eating meat is healthy for you but also for the animals, and it’s better for the environment. I don’t feel like animals have to die so that I can live. I can eat other things, and we can both live. So for me, that’s the importance of being vegan. It’s for health and wellness — not only for myself, but for the animals and the environment.
PG: You mentioned you were in Jamaica for a while; they have a vegan culinary tradition there?
CE: Yes, it’s actually really big in the Rastafarian community. They’re the ones really kinda promoting not eating meat, not eating animals, and eating plants. They call it ital food, and they’re the ones who’ve been like, promoting it for the past sixty years or so. For a long time they’ve been promoting that, and they’re really just about eating plants, eating from the earth, and making really great food. And that’s actually a big tourist attraction — when foreigners come to Jamaica, they always want to try some ital food because it’s like, known all around the world for being so good. And so it really kinda helps to promote being vegan or vegetarian.
PG: Yeah, that’s great. So, I’m guessing you get a lot of inspiration from the Jamaican-style dishes, but where else do you get inspiration for your dishes?
CE: I like a lot of African food. I like Mexican food, like you had at the pop-up the other day. I like Asian style; I also do a lot of American stuff, like some of the fried stuff from time to time, or make like a veggie burger with beans… So I’m actually inspired by all kinds of food. But I do like tropical foods, so like African and Caribbean are like my big top ones. But I love a lot of Mexican and Latin-style foods as well.
PG: What role does community play in your work, in your cooking?
CE: It plays a huge role because most of my support comes from community. Actually, doing the pop-ups, I get to meet people that I’ve never met before who live in different communities in Omaha. So it plays a big role, and I’m actually really happy to be able to give to the community by showing them hey, you can eat some healthier food for you, and it doesn’t have to contain animal products. So for me, to give to the community like that, to inspire them to try the vegan lifestyle, it’s like we’re giving to each other. They’re supporting me and I’m supporting them, we’re all centered around eating healthier, and it’s better for the planet. So to me it’s all around, it’s helping our communities, but also helping the planet.
PG: So, being in Nebraska, you know, it’s such a beef and meat-centric state. Do you feel like that’s a big challenge for you to be totally plant-centered?
CE: It has been a little bit of a challenge because some people don’t want to try vegan food. They think it’s like some crazy thing, but I just kinda explain to them, “It’s just vegetables, it’s like all of the sides, but just no meat!” And so I give people samples sometimes, to just kinda encourage them, “hey, try this!” And they actually turn out to like the samples. So I see that it’s getting hard, but people are more receptive; the more I’ve been doing it, I’ve been finding more meat-eaters are actually really liking the food.
PG: Yeah, [as a vegetarian] I’ve kinda experienced that as well. Like family members who just don’t consider eating vegetarian or vegan, but if you give them a vegetarian or vegan dish, they enjoy it. It seems like it’s a kind of a consciousness thing, where people have to get past that.
CE: Yeah, get past the mindset that they have to eat meat for the food to be good.
PG: Mentioning the pop-ups, how did you start doing them?
CE: I actually did my first pop-up when I was in Jamaica. I was at this event called Sankofa Sessions [curated by DJ Iset Sankofa], and they’re always bringing different vegan chefs to promote it. So she brought me and my friend, Lex Jonae, who is also a vegan chef, and we did our first pop-up there. We did like, Mexican food, and we introduced the people to burritos because they’d never had burritos before. A lot of them never even heard of it. So that was my first pop-up. And that, like, really inspired me to continue it when I came to Omaha. And I’ve mostly been doing it here in Omaha, [but] I recently did one in Colorado, in Denver…
PG: I think I saw that on your Facebook. How’d that go?
CE: It went really good. I was really happy about it; people loved the food. We did the barbecue jackfruit sandwich, so kinda similar to a pulled pork sandwich, and people loved it. They couldn’t really tell the difference.
PG: Yeah, I had the jackfruit enchilada when I visited your pop-up, so I’m guessing that’s pretty similar.
CE: Yeah, it is pretty similar.
PG: The texture was really similar to pulled pork. I was surprised!
CE: Yeah, it’s so similar. I like to show people that hey, you can still eat the same stuff, just make a little bit of a replacement and it’s not that different.
PG: So obviously veganism is really important to you. Are there any [other] causes or organizations that are important to you, like in the community?
CE: Well, aside from just the food, I incorporate the food with other aspects. I’m a musician as well. So I have a show the third Thursday of every month for the rest of the year at the B-Side, the Benson theater right across the street. With that we bring healing sounds through music to help victims who are facing trauma or violence, and we bring the music to kinda help them get some healing. So with the music, I pair that with the food, I prepare some vegan food. It’s all about bringing comfort to people who are in need. That’s another cause that’s really important to me — helping victims who have been through traumatic situations, who have gone through violent situations, and we bring the healing through the music, and through the food. That’s another thing I’m really passionate about in the community.
PG: Wow, so is there a specific type of music you perform?
CE: It’s not a specific type. I do a lot of reggae and roots music, that’s like my main focus, but I play acoustic guitar as well. And that’s not necessarily just reggae, it’s like a singer-songwriter vibe. And then I also invite local artists to come perform as well — like last Thursday we had John Joseph Evans, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of him but he plays with Mesonjixx, [and] he used to play with The Hottman Sisters. So he was there, and we’ve had some other artists, local artists come.
PG: Was he [The Hottman Sisters’] drummer?
CE: Yeah, he was their drummer. So he actually sings as well, and produces music, and he came out. So it’s about including people from the community, how we can all come together and help others.
PG: Okay, sweet. So I’m getting that’s what your whole vibe is about; healing through food, through music…
CE: Yes, it is, it really is. I feel it’s just so necessary because, you know, the world we’re living in, people go through a lot of tough things, and we’re all in need of some kind of healing from something. So I’m just doing my part through the avenues that I feel most inclined to.
PG: So what are your plans or hopes for the future of the Chef Egypt project?
CE: Well, one of my plans is to have a restaurant, where people can come in a couple days out of the week, four days out of the week, and just get the healing foods. I would love to have a place people can come and feel good, have a good atmosphere, and eat some good nourishing, healing food. That’s like one of my main goals for the future. And then also to do some more pop-ups in different places, to travel and go to different festivals, and sell the vegan food. So those are my plans.
PG: Has it just been Omaha, and then recently Colorado?
CE: Yeah, Omaha, Colorado, and Jamaica have been the main ones.
PG: So, international!
CE: Yeah, international, which is really cool! And I want to take it to more countries and more states.
PG: But you’d like to open a restaurant in town?
CE: Yeah, I would love to have a place in town, but also I would love to have one in Jamaica too because the vegan food there is really big. People are always looking for new places and different types of vegan food. So, I would love a place in Omaha because I’m here right now, but in the future, I’m looking at Jamaica.
Follow Chef Egypt on Facebook @ChefEgyptFoods to be notified of all her upcoming appearances.