Chrissy Tracey, 26, is the first vegan chef to become a cast member in the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, an online channel of the food magazine’s popular instructional recipe videos. Her parents emigrated from Jamaica 35 years ago, and Tracey grew up in Cheshire with her six siblings. Today, Tracey owns and operates Vegan Vibes Meal Prep. Since September, the New Fairfield resident has been feeding 20 families a week in the New Haven Public Schools, of which her mother, Dr. Iline Tracey, was named superintendent in June. We spoke with Tracey the day before Thanksgiving.
Is Thanksgiving a big day for a chef or is that a day to sit back and let the amateurs handle everything?
Thanksgiving is a good day for a chef because, the way I see it, I get to switch out of business mode and switch into a more personal, more intimate family-and-loved-ones mode, which is totally different. Cooking is my passion and so when I get to share that passion with my loved ones, it just takes on a whole different meaning.
What are some of the influences that helped shape you into who you are today?
At Cheshire High School, one thing that was definitely encouraged was entrepreneurship, which I don’t think is normal per se, where it’s something that happens every day in the school system. That hit hard for me because I had this idea of wanting to do something to change the game — at that point in time I was a vegetarian — and make better plant-based meat alternatives and have more available options so that if I’m going out with friends or family there’s always something for me. That idea was sparked back then and it never left me.
Were you always a vegan or vegetarian?
Yes, my parents raised all seven kids on the vegetarian diet. I became vegan a year and a half ago. It’s always been a part of me, eating a plant-based diet. It’s been ingrained. There was a three-month period of my life where I decided, you know what, I’m gonna try meat and see what those flavors are like. It was like an experimental thing that I did. I know that’s not great, but I’m actually glad I did that because I think it allowed me to learn how to recreate certain textures and flavors that would be more appealing to non-vegans.
It was research.
It was research. It showed me something that was really interesting: It’s really hard to recreate the flavors of meat. You’re dealing with something that’s its own animal. When I look at my weekly meal-prep clients that I have, 95 percent of them are omnivores. It’s not vegan people buying my plant-based service. That’s what I initially thought it would be. It’s just meat-eaters trying to eat a little bit less meat.
How did you land the Bon Appétit gig?
After the George Floyd incident, all these companies were on social media doing these racial audits. They were posting apologies or saying hey, here’s what we’ve done wrong in the past and we acknowledge it, we see what we did and here’s what we want to do differently. There was a lot of hate and hostility rather than an open mind and a willingness to learn and grow with the company and move forward. I’ve always been a fan of them. I’ve always taken recipes from their website and veganized them, which is fun for me. So all I did was, I commented on the post and I said, hey, we’ve all failed at some point or another in our lives. What’s important is that you’re trying to do better and learn from your mistakes and move forward. I stand with you guys and I’m still here with you. That comment stuck out to them and it went viral. And that was just me commenting on social media, which I don’t even do that much. It was just one piece of positivity amongst hundreds of comments that were just bashing the company. A week later I have an email from Condé Nast Entertainment and I’m like, what? This is probably spam. [Laughs] I almost deleted it, that’s the craziest part to me. I interviewed with them over the summer, over the course of a couple of months. It was a big decision for them. I wouldn’t say it was a big decision for me.
You’re not the only one who got a new job this past year. Your mother was recently named superintendent of New Haven public schools.
She’s incredible and probably the biggest inspiration, I would say, because her whole life to me is a testimony of shattering glass ceilings. I’ve always been raised with the light of, don’t let anyone tell you that an opportunity is too far out of reach or that you can’t attain something. My mother started off as a teacher at 15 years old in Jamaica. When she came to the States and she was in school studying to be a teacher here, she always had the goal of where’s the furthest I can go within my field of education. Helping children, helping people. She ended up achieving her goal.