Shenarri Freeman is at the vanguard of vegan cooking in America. Her vegan soul menu at Cadence in New York City combines the flavors of her Virginia upbringing with her passion for sustainable, health-conscious dining. And it all started with too much partying.
In her early 20s, Freeman worked as a front-of-house manager at a popular bar and restaurant in Washington DC She was often drinking and partying into the night after her shifts ended, a lifestyle that eventually became unsustainable. Craving a better routine, she transitioned to a vegan diet. “I was looking for discipline and started with my eating habits,” he remembers.
This shift led Freeman to a plant-forward culinary program at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) and her current role as executive chef at Cadence. “We’re not using soy-based products or anything highly processed,” she explained. “We’re mainly cooking with vegetables and all of our produce is organic. We’re trying to show our clientele a different way of eating.”
Freeman’s boundary-pushing menu at Cadence has earned her James Beard Award semifinalist nods for Emerging Chef in 2022 and Best Chef: New York State in 2023 — but she hasn’t become remotely complacent. Instead, she’s opening a new vegan West African restaurant in Los Angeles and writing a cookbook. Here, she shares the details of her career path, why people skills are so important for chefs, and how she’s making changes in the restaurant world.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Shenarrie Freeman: I am the executive chef of Cadence, a vegan soul food restaurant focusing on healthier alternatives, where I cook and I do recipe development. I’m also the executive chef of Ubuntu, which is our LA concept that’ll be opening up sometime in the summer or the fall. I cater events and private dinner parties, too.
I also do chef residencies. Last year, I did a residency at J Vineyards in Sonoma for three weeks, and a two-week residency in Costa Rica. I work with the culinary program at Food and Finance High School, where I help the students with internship placements. We have a gala every year, fundraising to get students to culinary school. And I do alumni work with ICE.
Did you go to culinary school or college?
For undergrad, I went to Howard University in DC I was a pre-physical therapy major, so I was getting ready for a graduate physical therapy program. I wanted to work with professional sports teams as a physical therapist. That came from playing sports all my life. Obviously that changed, but originally, my interest was sports medicine.
I knew I didn’t want to do physical therapy by my sophomore or junior year because the science was really hard. It was too much. But I don’t think I realized I was fully interested in food until 2017 or 2018, when I became a bit more serious about being a chef. That’s when I started looking for a vegan accredited culinary program, and I didn’t really see any.
Then, in January 2019 I visited the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. During the open house, they mentioned they were launching this health-supportive culinary arts program. I learned that the program was pretty much vegan, minus three classes, and it was the only program that I had heard of that catered to what I wanted to do. It was just the right timing, right fit.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
For a long time, my biggest challenge was getting in my own way. I think everyone’s their harshest critic. I was cooking for a very long time before I actually served my food to anyone because I didn’t have TV-level production for my food content. Not putting my food out there and not putting myself out there was probably the biggest challenge, but clearly I have overcome that.
When was the first time you felt successful?
When I lived in DC, I was doing pop-up dinners and that was my first time doing my own thing, publicly cooking my own food for other people. It was my first time putting on my own event. And they all sold out. So that solidified the road to culinary school. I was like, “Okay, people like my food, let me go to culinary school.”
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
In July 2020, culinary school was on pause because of the pandemic and restaurants had just reopened with the outdoor dining situation. I had already been a fan of the restaurant group Overthrow Hospitality and I was eating at Ladybird. The manager recognized me and my friend randomly pitched me. She’s like, “Oh you guys should hire my girl, she’s a chef.” And the manager said I should apply.
I wasn’t really looking for a job, but I applied and I interviewed the next day and I got hired as a manager at Avant Garden. Two days into that job, the original space of Cadence became available. So the owner asked me if I wanted to do a concept there and I’m like, ‘Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything else.’ And it just grew.
What were the most important skills that got you to this point?
Just regular people skills, customer service. Because our original space was a chef’s counter, so we were cooking in front of the guests. It was half back-of-house, half front-of-house. Being well-rounded in restaurants — having management skills and server skills, along with cooking skills — is really important. And some type of faith. It’s hard to open during a pandemic. A lot of times, you can’t really see the light at the end of the tunnel, but having some type of faith to keep you focused, keep you going, is really important, too.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field?
Oh my gosh, yes. My mentor now is Adrienne Cheatham. She’s also a graduate of ICE. When I was a student, she was on a panel and I thought she was the only woman. I wanted to know everything about her. I talked to her after and then I posted a picture and tagged her and she followed me and I freaked out.
I saw her at a couple more events and then I just asked her, “Will you be my mentor? Because I need help.” From that point on, she has put my name into a lot of rooms, and has introduced me to a lot of people. I’ll be her plus-one to industry events. She’s helped me negotiate contracts and told me how much I should be asking for.
How are you making changes in your industry?
Now that I’m deep into the chef world, especially here in New York, and I know pretty much everyone for the most part, I have not met that many other vegan chefs that are doing what I’m doing. When it comes to visiting chef programs at schools, there is rarely ever a vegan chef. So I’m happy to be that person.
And not many chefs are actually running kitchens, either. So I think with that power and that platform, I’m able to reach people a little bit differently because I’m actually dealing with customers every single day, versus some of my friends who run pop-ups.
I’m also collaborating with other chefs and bringing other people up. I’m a mentor now, too. I did a lot of work with the James Beard House, learning about advocacy and how I can do better things for the restaurant and my staff — and I share all this information. I’m not a gatekeeper. As I’m learning these things and going through these processes, I’m sharing it with my peers so that we can all lift each other up and push the agenda forward.