This Guy Spares No Effort To Make North Carolina Go Vegan

Sometimes it takes a lot of passion and effort to achieve your goals and sometimes it takes a brilliant idea to get there very quickly. By setting up a vegan pop-up “restaurant”, Shawn Harrison decided not to have an ordinary restaurant of his own. Instead he enjoys to travel around the country and to prepare a vegan meal whereever he is being asked to do so. The reason he prefers traveling is to “get the name and not the spot” as he puts it. In fact, Harrison has never attended culinary school. He developed his cooking techniques by working in several restaurants, some of them were vegan some were not. However, not only the idea of this traveling vegan chef is awesome but also his attitude since the only reason he puts so much passion in his work is to make Charlotte fall in love with vegan food.

Shawn Harrison is standing behind a bar that’s not really a bar because, well, this isn’t really a restaurant. There aren’t even any tables here, except for the three fold-up tables Harrison brought. And a pool table, if you count that. 

To Harrison’s right, charred okra heats up over the flames from two fold-up, butane stovetops. He carefully drops fresh fig preserves from a plastic container onto an exquisitely molded mound of chèvre that rests on a less-than-exquisite brown paper plate. The contrast of elegance and the mundane might sound unusual, but it’s become the norm for Harrison, who started hosting pop-up meals in June 2015. 

Paper plates may not be what you’d expect, but little is at this dinner. That chèvre cheese? It isn’t really cheese, because the dish is vegan, as are the other four courses this evening, as are all of Harrison’s pop-up meals. 

Harrison, the chef and founder of Tephra Vegan Pop-Up, prepares the cashew-based “cheese” for an autumn-themed pop-up dinner in September at The Art of Vape, a warehouse-style emporium with a smooth, exposed-brick interior. He’s expecting a sold-out crowd of 16 diners tonight. 

So far today, Harrison has prepared the beet and sweet potato purées, the pear butter, the miso black walnut crumble, the sage lavash, and the endless other ingredients for tonight. He packed enough food for 16 people into plastic containers and brought them here from his tiny kitchen near NoDa in a single blue cooler. To do it all, Harrison’s been up since 4 a.m.

“At first, people feel skeptical of this type of dining,” Harrison says. 

Do you mean the pop-up style or the vegan food?

“Both,” Harrison says with a laugh. 

Harrison acknowledges the Southern fixation on meat. In fact, it’s how his pop-up series got its name. Tephra is material created by a volcanic explosion—a violent reaction to change. 

“It’s like I’m changing people’s perceptions, but it may be a little violent,” Harrison says. “Sometimes, people are not accepting of anything different, even if it’s really good.”

Although Harrison compliments the handful of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Charlotte—notably, Bean, Fern, and Luna’s Living Kitchen, all places he’s worked—he says no restaurant is doing what he’s doing with plant-based fare. 

Harrison has never been to culinary school. He learned most of his cooking techniques in the restaurants where he worked, both vegan and non-vegan. 

Harrison started eating only plant-based foods in 2009. It wasn’t until 2015, though, that he staged his first pop-up dinner (then called As You Do) with his then-business partner, Brian Williams. At the time, Harrison was working at Whole Foods. The pop-up thing was just a side gig. 

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