Shenarri Freeman, the wunderkind chef known for her vegan soul food at Cadence in New York, is digging deeper into her roots as she prepares to debut her first Los Angeles restaurant.
Ubuntu, which Freeman will open under Ravi DeRossi’s Overthrow Hospitality umbrella on August 1, is another plant-based restaurant with a strong point of view. Ubuntu is the first Overthrow Hospitality restaurant in L.A.; Cadence is also a part of the vegan dining group.
The menu is inspired by West Africa, where the Virginia-raised Freeman spent a few weeks doing research and development for Ubuntu. “I think my biggest takeaway from traveling to Africa and eating the food there is that it’s very farm-to-table, which is in alignment with a lot of the foodways here in California,” Freeman told Observer. “It just seemed very natural to be cooking this menu in California.”
She’s ready to showcase vegan versions of African dishes like yassa, a Senegalese speciality that often involves braising chicken. Freeman is using jackfruit, seasoning it with limes and adding coconut for creaminess to make Ubuntu’s plant-based yassa.
Freeman has seen suya, a popular dish in Nigeria, prepared with beef, lamb and other meat. For Ubuntu’s suya, she’s making her own seitan. She’s riffing on jollof rice, a beloved staple in Nigeria and other West African countries, with a curry jollof rice arancini. She’ll serve dishes like charred okra salad with pigeon peas, red kidney beans and passion fruit vinaigrette as she merges California produce and seasonal ingredients from Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana and beyond. She’s been working on what she calls a no-meat pie, which is a spin on a Nigerian meat pie and includes mushrooms and tamarind applesauce, with some Creole influences. Freeman has also been visiting L.A.’s famous farmers markets and marveling at the different types of berries she could use for a compote atop a plantain tart.
The plant-based menu at Ubuntu is a dramatic departure from the cuisine of her childhood. Growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Freeman ate lots of meat, including pork chops, chitlins and “pretty much all parts of the pig.” She remembers how her mom would cook nonstop, and how there never was a shortage of food in the house. It was this food that taught Freeman the transformative power of slow-cooking, which is something she relies on to coax deep flavors out of vegetables.
Ubuntu is about plant-based comfort food, but in an elegant, garden-like atmosphere with wine and beer from Black-owned vintners and brewers. Plus, there’s a cocktail list that weaves in African ingredients, put together by Colin Asare-Appiah, co-author of Black Mixcellence: A Comprehensive Guide To Black Mixology.
“I just want people to know it’s a very intentional space in everything that we do,” Freeman said. “The food highlights certain ingredients and uses them in a different way than what most people are used to seeing. The all-Black-owned wine list and beer list, along with our cocktail list, are very intentional.”
For Freeman, who went vegan in 2017, plant-based cooking is about having balance in her life. “Initially, what prompted it is, I was managing a very busy bar in D.C.,” she said. “A lightbulb went off—I’m partying too much, I’m drinking too much, I’m out too late. I have no type of routine. There’s no discipline.” She decided to take action and put more structure into her life. “I did a 30-day cleanse—no liquor. I stopped going out. I started being more intentional with my time. It led me to a vegan, plant-based diet.”
It also led her down a path to becoming a critically acclaimed chef, complete with a New York Times rave review in 2021 and a James Beard semifinalist nod in 2022 for her work at Cadence. And Freeman, who turned 30 this year, is now happily living a life of moderation. She still cooks vegan at home, but is less strict when it comes to a plant-based diet when dining out. Recently, she’s been eating and drinking at a variety of non-vegan Los Angeles restaurants, including happy-hour visits to Italian spot Spartina, just down the street from Ubuntu.
Meanwhile, the speed of Los Angeles has been suiting Freeman nicely, as working to open Ubuntu has been a breeze so far. “It’s really like starting from scratch, like a fresh blank canvas,” said Freeman, who’s now based in L.A., but is still involved with Cadence. “There’s just something about L.A. that makes things flow. It’s just less chaotic—for me, at least. And I think I still have that East Coast hustle in me, which is making this process a little easier.”
Ubuntu, located at 7469 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, is now open.