These Atlantans make it easy for us to love our veggies

Gardeners and chefs, pumpkin whisperers and okra aficionados, taco technicians and pecan purveyors: meet Atlanta’s green giants

Palak Patel
Palak Patel

Photograph by Bailey Garrot

Palak Patel
One thing Palak Patel loves about Patel Brothers? “Year round, you can find okra. Okra is such a big staple of Indian households. Any time you need it, it’s here.” For Patel, who immigrated from India as a child, shopping at the Indian supermarket is a matter not just of nostalgia but of necessity: She visits at least once a week to get ingredients for Dash & Chutney, the vegan street food stall she opened last year at Chattahoochee Food Works. (Recently returned to Atlanta from New York, she may be a familiar face to those who watch Beat Bobby Flay—which she did. She serves a veggie version of the winning chicken curry at the new place.)

For her samosa chaat bowl, for instance, Patel needs chickpeas, amchoor (aka mango powder), and pomegranate seeds. I follow as she fills her cart with pureed mango—for lassis—and heads deeper into the produce section, where she points out a bin overflowing with the long Thai chilis she uses in at least three dishes. We pass shelves lined with pickles (“I’ll never understand why Indian pickles didn’t get their heyday”) and a refrigerated yogurt case (in India, she says, families pass down yogurt starters for generations). In the basmati aisle, Patel becomes adamant about the aged long-grain. “I recently bought a bag from California at Whole Foods,” she says. “I threw it out. It was disgusting.”

Patel was raised vegetarian at home but, coming to the U.S. at age 12, she wanted to eat what her classmates ate: “Basically, I would sneak a gnarly chicken nugget at the school cafeteria.” In culinary school, learning more about the food system, she decided to return to a more plant-based diet. “Honestly, I feel better. It’s not something where I feel like you need to have that specific diet, but if everybody ate a little bit more plant-based, I think we would have a huge impact on sustainability,” she says. She realized that there were very few strictly vegan restaurants, and that she could fill that gap.

She picks up a bar of soap—we’re on to the toiletry aisle now—and breathes it in. “This is the soap I grew up with. You can still find it 40 years later,” she says. There are two locations of Patel Brothers today in the Atlanta area—one in Suwanee and this one in Decatur, lodged in the Patel Plaza shopping center among restaurants, sweets shops, jewelers. “There’s shops where you can get food, there’s clothing stores, you can get your eyebrows done,” she says. “You can come here and just feel like you’re back.” —Lia Picard

Hyunsil Choung
Clipboard in hand, Your DeKalb Farmers Market produce-buying coordinator Hyunsil Choung heads for the ripening rooms—a trek she makes twice a day, morning and afternoon. Each of the 14 rooms is temperature-controlled and equipped with ethylene gas, which helps produce ripen uniformly and predictably. Today, Choung is explaining this process to me when something catches her eye. She stops midsentence to speak to a worker unloading a pallet of fresh aloe leaves: “Can you show me that sticker?” She inspects the box and explains that YDFM was supposed to receive two pallets of organic aloe leaves this morning. The worker is unloading a pallet of conventional aloe leaves. She calls one of her buyers to notify them of the supplier’s mistake, makes a note to request a credit, and continues on.

Choung checks the ripening rooms one by one, each chilled to a different temperature: mangoes at 55 degrees, papayas at 58 degrees, one batch of bananas at 62 degrees. “We gradually change the temperature and watch the color change from green to light yellow to yellow,” she explains. One batch of bananas will be ready today, the second over the weekend, the third on Monday—that batch is being kept at 57 degrees. She records the temperature and time as she exits each chamber.

Choung, who will celebrate her 60th birthday in September, worked at YDFM for nearly 30 years before the specialized rooms were installed in 2012. She joined the famous Decatur grocery in 1984 at 21 years old. Choung was a junior in college, studying to be a teacher, when her family emigrated from South Korea, settling first in LA before moving on to Atlanta. At the recommendation of an aunt who worked in the produce section, she checked out Your DeKalb Farmers Market the day after she arrived in the city and was hired on the spot. It was a fast-paced, vibrant, colorful workplace. It reminded her of the markets back home, and she loved meeting people from around the world—YDFM currently employs people from more than 30 countries. “I have never had another job, and I’ve never thought about leaving,” she says. “It’s become my life.”

Starting as a cashier, she was promoted to accounts payable, then to the produce-buying office the following year. Not long after, the buyer who trained her went out of town and left her to run things on her own. “I was so scared I couldn’t sleep,” she says. Not only was she scheduling shipments—she was also planning the delivery trucks’ routes and loads. Today, buyers use a computer to calculate the total weight of a truck, making sure it’s 42,000 pounds or less. But when Choung started, everything was calculated by hand: “100 boxes of okra, multiply by 15 pounds a box. Broccoli: How many pounds? It’s overweight? Cut 10 boxes of carrots.”

Today, Choung walks confidently through the produce section, where she oversees six buyers. More than 450 types of produce, sourced from more than 300 suppliers, fill the long stainless-steel tables here, in a giant room where oversized flags representing 184 countries—Mauritania, Tajikistan, Finland—hang from the ceiling. Choung wears a coat and scarf against the perpetually chilly air. She walks past her favorite vegetables—Japanese sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, avocados, watercress—and her least favorite: artichokes. “Why do people eat those?” Choung jokes.

A handful of employees move around her on the floor, making sure the produce is in stock, neatly arranged, and correctly labeled with its country of origin. There are grapes from Peru and Chile, citrus from Morocco and Spain, snow peas from Guatemala. Bananas and plantains are grown on the market’s own farm in Mexico and transported here on their own ship. YDFM’s bestselling veggies are tomatoes, onions, and potatoes, but green beans and okra—with their two- or three-day shelf lives—give Choung, a self-described perfectionist, the most grief. YDFM receives a shipment of those items, mushrooms, and sprouts nearly every day.

Throughout the afternoon, buyers record what produce sells out and when—“out of broccoli, two o’clock.” Choung and her colleagues constantly restock and rearrange, following two daily checklists (a.m. and p.m.) and a separate checklist for Tuesdays and Fridays. Choung uses an online database to search for, say, organic ginger from Florida, though most of the time she already knows who to buy from: She’s been working with some of these companies since she was hired. She has been thinking about how to train someone to take her place when she eventually retires, but that’s one aspect of her work not on a strict schedule: “As long as I can work and the market needs me, I’ll work for the market.” —Heather Buckner

Mayra Peralta
My mother, who has never eaten a vegan meal on purpose, stands beside me at the Met in Adair Park as I order every street taco on the menu at Calaveritas Taqueria Vegana, which is selling vegan Mexican food here on a Friday night. I throw in a quesadilla as well, made with Daiya mozzarella cheese. Maybe she’ll like it if she tries it. That’s also the approach that Calaveritas co-owner Mayra Peralta took when she launched this business, and as she went about convincing her family to cut back on animal products.

“If they don’t like the food, they are never going to even think about it,” says Peralta. Going vegan was important to her, but so was maintaining a relationship with the foods—and the people—she’d grown up with. “I like to serve everyone, but part of me wants to be in a place where there’s a lot of Latinos so I can show them that going vegan can actually be possible. Food is important to keeping our traditions and culture alive, but we can also keep animals alive.” Tonight, nearly everything on the menu is made from scratch; Peralta’s birria recipe alone calls for 15 ingredients, including ginger and guajillo chilis. Oats, rice, and mushroom become asada tacos; shredded oyster mushrooms stand in for carnitas.

Peralta’s family emigrated from Querétaro, Mexico, when she was a kid. Growing up in Chamblee, she didn’t know anyone who was vegetarian—much less vegan. In 2016, when she made the switch, her family hoped it was a phase. “They would ask me, You’re not going to eat tamales anymore?” Peralta remembers. She describes the years that followed as a “science experiment”: “The first time I cooked tofu, it tasted terrible. But I was like, I have to learn. I can’t go back to anything else.

She became skilled at creating vegan versions of her favorite dishes and eventually convinced her sister, Sandra, to join her. Today, the two co-own and operate Calaveritas alongside Peralta’s partner, Michael Chatman. In 2020, a few months after Calaveritas opened, PETA named it one of the top 10 Latinx-owned vegan restaurants in the country. Since then, the Peraltas have catered to followers via roving pop-ups, especially at breweries.

Calaveritas is in the process of buying its first food truck, and Peralta hopes to eventually open a brick-and-mortar. In the meantime, she’ll continue to grow her fan base, which tentatively includes my mom, who said she wouldn’t mind trying the burrito next time she’s in town. “Even if you’re not vegan and you come to eat with us, that’s already one meal that you ate that didn’t have animals in it,” Peralta says. “It’s more than a business for us—it’s a movement. This is my form of activism.” —Heather Buckner

Haylene Green
Haylene Green

Photograph by Bailey Garrot

Haylene Green
Upon entering the West End Community Garden—a plot of land hemmed in by a chain-link fence along University Avenue, near the BeltLine Southside Trail—you’ll find a few chicken coops, plastic tanks filled with rainwater, some raised garden beds, and what looks like an endless supply of potted plants and seedlings. They’ll grow up to produce fruits and vegetables, some found in gardens across Georgia (tomatoes, peppers), others native to the Caribbean—tropical pumpkins, hibiscus sorrel. Like those plants, the grower here is also from the Caribbean: 77-year-old Haylene Green, aka the Garden Queen.

A fifth-generation farmer from Port Antonio, Jamaica, Green grew up surrounded by fresh produce. When she was 14, her family moved to New York, where Green kept raising vegetables but switched to container gardening. After visiting Atlanta for a family reunion, she fell in love with the city’s greenery and relocated—but was distressed to find, when she moved here, that most of the trees didn’t bear edible fruit. It wasn’t until her early 50s that Green took gardening from a hobby to a profession. Previously, she enjoyed an eclectic career, working in real estate, as a nurse, and as the owner of a printing press based in Atlanta and Jamaica. “I’m a nurse by passion and a printer by trade, but I’m a farmer by DNA,” Green says.

Operating out of Southwest Atlanta has given Green the opportunity to farm with purpose. “I specialize in gardening in underserved communities and food deserts,” says Green. “The nearest stores are filled with junk food, with no real healthy options. So, I’m here in the community, teaching people how to grow.” Down the street from her current plot—she previously kept a garden off Ralph David Abernathy—Green sells plants, produce, and teas and juices (sorrel and ginger, soursop leaf) at the Pittsburgh Community Market.

Green is especially keen on engaging senior citizens—like her 95-year-old mother, who lives with one of Green’s sisters about five blocks from the garden—and connecting them to younger generations. Her garden-therapy program, for instance, pairs seniors and youth in a course of education that involves classes on growing, food prep, and recycling—and container gardening, a mainstay of Green’s long career. The reason so much of her produce lives in pots? It’s to make it easy, she tells me: “If you don’t have any land, you can put pots on your porch and grow your food there.” —Jameelah Nasheed

Zeb Stevenson
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in March, the kitchen at Redbird buzzes with the sound of cooks prepping for the evening’s dinner service. Stations are lined up, veggies chopped; dough is worked into pretzels for one of the restaurant’s popular starters; apples are peeled and sliced. These apples will be enfolded, with veggies and soft robiola cheese, into savory crepes whose batter is made with a roasted squash puree. “I think it’s an unusual dish but it provides a lot of richness, a lot of texture,” says Zeb Stevenson, Redbird’s 47-year-old chef. “Kind of an unexpected twist.”

An “unexpected twist” is what fans have come to expect from this chef, whose seasonally driven cuisine tends toward the simple and fresh—“I’m really devoted to not cooking food in plastic bags,” he says. His vegetable dishes, which take up a good portion of the menu, always surprise. For example, the fried mushroom appetizer—which came about as a surprise to Stevenson himself. Originally, he wanted a broccoli dish, but the pakora-like batter (made with chickpeas) wasn’t cooperating with the crucifer’s many crevices. “I threw up my hands in utter defeat and grabbed some oyster mushrooms that we had in the walk-in cooler and said, Well, let’s just try this and see what happens,” says Stevenson. “And fast-forward to now: It’s the number one selling dish on our menu.” Light and crispy, the mushrooms are served with creamy, garlic-forward dipping sauce similar to Lebanese toum.

Jars of preserves line shelves in the kitchen: tomato jelly from last summer, shishito jelly from a surplus delivery, strawberry jam. Chili-rubbed half chicken, a staple on Redbird’s menu, relies on marmalade made with satsumas from South Georgia and Florida—which are in season only three or four weeks, Stevenson says, in late fall: “So, when that time comes, we have to make enough to last an entire year.”

Devotion to a veggie-heavy menu means simultaneously planning ahead and staying nimble: When I visit in March, the sweet potatoes he got from Farmer Cass last September are starting to dwindle; he’s hoping to make them last just a while longer to avoid having a hole in the menu. Stevenson works with several local farmers, including William Lobb (of Stoke Farm in Bostwick) and Ashley Rodgers (of Rodgers Greens and Roots), and stays in contact about which crops are coming down the line. “I want there to be enough variety to keep people coming back,” he says—but with a process in place to keep things orderly. “Every chef does it differently, but for me, it’s very detailed. And even strict, in a way. I guess the older I get, the less I’m inclined to just do things spontaneously.”

Stevenson grew up in 1980s Indiana, feasting on processed snacks and meat and potatoes. It wasn’t until his mid-30s, beginning to pay attention to his health, that he started eating more vegetables. When he opened Redbird in 2019 with Ross Jones—for whom he’d previously worked at the seminal Southern restaurant Watershed—Stevenson resolved to cook what he liked. “It just felt like, in this town, you couldn’t open your door and not get pork belly or bacon or pork shank or meat, meat, meat, meat, meat,” says Stevenson. “I guess I just felt like it was wise to open a restaurant that shares my own taste. Hopefully, people will like it.” —Lia Picard

Pecan Milk Co-op
“This is something we just got that is not in use yet,” says Cai O’Reilly-Green. We’re standing in a brightly lit room cluttered with shelving and storage cages in the back of Leaven, a shared kitchen in Decatur, and O’Reilly-Green is gesturing at some piece of bulky industrial machinery—two gray steel boxes stacked atop one another. It is not a piece of equipment typically found in kitchens: a label on the side reveals it to be a product called Mr. Deburr, a “vibratory finishing machine” for removing defects from the surface of metal and other parts. O’Reilly-Green and their colleagues, however, will be using it to strain pecan milk.

“It was this dude who called us from North Georgia who just loves co-ops,” says Nijil Jones, another co-op member. It was Jones who founded the Pecan Milk Co-op, which sells milk in several varieties, from unsweetened (the taste of pure pecans, sharpened with a little sea salt) to sweetened (mildly, with dates) all the way to chocolate. The North Georgia co-op enthusiast is also a machinist, Jones continues, who helped them figure out the ideal straining apparatus: “We couldn’t go to Amazon for, like, a pecan-milk straining machine.” They had to improvise. Hence, Mr. Deburr.

The co-op, which now comprises a dozen, mostly Black and LGBTQ member-owners, improvised its way into existence. In 2013, Jones was living at the Lake Claire Community Land Trust and working a series of unsatisfying jobs. They began making almond milk with a roommate’s Vitamix, sharing it with friends and eventually transforming a hobby into a business—one where Jones wouldn’t be the boss, but an owner among many. In 2017, the Pecan Milk Co-op began selling at local farmers markets, having switched from almond to a flagship Georgia product. (The milk can now be ordered online for local delivery.) “I like the taste of pecans better,” Jones says. Also: “We’re in a place that grows more pecans than anywhere in the world.”

The Pecan Milk Co-op sources its feedstock locally, including from New Communities, the collective farm cofounded by the legendary civil rights activist Shirley Sherrod. “She’s a giant,” Jones says. “The work she’s doing now is superhuge.” Launched in Albany in 1969, New Communities inspired the development of hundreds of community land trusts across the U.S., and was involved in a seminal class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by the United States Department of Agriculture. The Pecan Milk Co-op has been inspired, too, by developments in Jackson, Mississippi, a majority-Black city where, in the last couple decades, activists have sought to create a federation of worker-owned cooperatives, modeled after similar endeavors in Mondragón, Spain.

In the shared kitchen, they’ve got the production process down: The nuts and dates are soaked to soften them up, then blended, strained, and packaged. The business process, particularly as the co-op grows, is what’s slightly more complicated. “Everything we do, it’s like, All right, let’s go vote on it,” O’Reilly-Green says. “And that takes a couple weeks. It’s an incredibly slow process, but the results are so great. We’re building something completely different. None of us have built something like this before.” Nor have many others, Jones points out—as far as Black- and LGBTQ-owned co-ops are concerned, the pecan-milk makers are making their own way: “There’s not a lot of businesses like ours.” —Sam Worley

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This article appears in our June 2022 issue.