November 8, 2016
Thug Kitchen, a Million Books and F-Bombs Later
thug kitchen

Whatever your opinions about the Thug Kitchen vegan-cooking empire, you have to admit that these motherfuckers (I’m using one of their favorite words, OK?) are ahead of the trends.

They started a cultural-appropriation firestorm way back in 2014 when it was revealed that their F-bomb-dropping, easy-for-newbies website was authored by two white Los Angeles millennials. They were accused of digital blackface, of ripping off hip-hop culture, of being lame white people who looked like they sold insurance. (They thought that last dig was really funny.)

They could have done without the death threats and rape threats and incorrect info circulating about them being a privileged, married Hollywood couple (they’re not married, and they live modestly in Echo Park and Mid-City). But they knew it wasn’t their place to tell people how to feel about race and class. So they went on the road and talked about their backgrounds.

And then they became really fucking successful.

Their first cookbook, Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a Fuck (Rodalewas an instant New York Times number-one best seller. That and their best-selling second book, Thug Kitchen Party Grub: For Social Motherfuckershave been translated into seven languages. Their third book, Thug Kitchen 101: Fast as Fuck, just dropped last month and shot to number two on the New York Times bestseller list.

Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway—both 31 years old—aren’t preachy plant-life crusaders. They know that a big part of their mass appeal is keeping things light, so they avoided using the word “vegan” completely in their latest book.

“It’s alienating,” Holloway says of the term. “It’s a little different now. When we were starting, vegan was still sort of a crunchy California hippie who grows their own food. They come from money, so they have the resources to piss away all day in the garden and, like, cook this huge meal and go to farmers markets and shit. That’s not the world either of us come from. We grew up eating canned beans.”

But in 2016, Los Angeles is where Marcel Vigneron uses nutritional yeast for carrot “queso” and other star chefs like Josef Centeno and Nick Erven are going all-in with produce-forward restaurants. So again: Thug Kitchen, ahead of trends.

Davis and Holloway don’t visit many restaurants. They cook a lot of pastas and soups, and they make “fancy-ass” salads now that they can afford to hit farmers’ markets.

“A lot of the food in the books is stuff I cook for myself,” Davis says. “The first book, there’s the roasted chickpea and broccoli burrito. That’s something I made myself after work, like every night, for 10 years.”

Back then, recipes came out of necessity—not being able to afford pricey vegan ingredients and figuring out other ways to make satisfying meals.

“I think a lot of home cooks don’t add acid to their food,” Davis says. “They just keep salting and salting and salting. I try to get people to add lemon juice or vinegar before they salt anything. That doesn’t cost any fucking money.”

And Davis likes cooking with what’s in season for a simple reason: “It’s going to be what’s on sale at the grocery store.”

thug kitchen

Thug Kitchen chili mac with a side of Super NES

Frugality is still a big part of the Thug Kitchen ethic. Because even with the top-selling vegan cookbook ever and about a million books in print, Davis and Holloway aren’t ready to declare themselves rich as fuck.They’re still hustling, they don’t know anybody with a marble kitchen, and they don’t have pals that fly them around on private jets. “No new friends, like Drake.” Davis says. And the main difference between their pre-cookbook life and today is health insurance. They’re adding more videos to their Gwyneth Paltrow–approved site and have considered opening a restaurant, but writing remains their primary focus. They both crack up when I ask if they realize they can have a career making millions of dollars from books.

“No!” they say in unison.

“I definitely feel financially secure for the first time in my life, like if I hurt myself I can go to the doctor,” Davis says. “My car got stolen a couple months ago, and I was able to buy a new car, which at any other time in my life would have been totally devastating. But I’m still not at the point where it’s like, ‘Oh, cool, I’m a fancy person now.’”

They haven’t changed their lifestyle, either. They still buy clothes at Target, and they’re still DIYers. Davis, not trained as a chef, develops recipes for dishes like chickpea Bolognese, dan dan noodles, skillet beer chili mac, and pan-fried cabbage with mustard seeds in the Mid-City house they use as their test kitchen, photo studio and a place to crash when they work too late, which is often.

The tattooed Holloway—who’s wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans and who at some point during this interview puts on a beanie—walks me through the casual and well-appointed house full of old pots, plates and Tupperware. Davis is sporting a black T-shirt and overalls as she makes lunch in the kitchen with laminate counters.

Holloway, not trained as a photographer, takes all the pictures for their books. (Holloway’s rescue dog, Phoenix, has appeared in every cookbook.) They write together too, with Davis dropping cooking knowledge and Holloway providing many one-liners. They had no idea until they became cookbook authors that some chefs and writers aren’t nearly as hands-on with their books, but they don’t mind doing all the work because control is important to them. “We’re very particular about the shit we put out, which is weird because it seems, kind of, so lowbrow,” Holloway says.

And working on books full time like they do now is better than grinding away your days at a Whole Foods (which Davis did) or being a Hollywood gofer (which Holloway was).

“The only thing that makes it hard is deadlines,” Davis says. Some days, it’s too hot and they’re not in the mood to write and they’ve run out of weed. But they stay motivated because they know their work has given them a life that allows them to prepare dishes with Le Creuset cast-iron pans and a Vitamix instead of their old $20 two-cup food processor.

Before Thug Kitchen, Davis, who grew up in the East Bay, bagged groceries for eight years. Holloway, who grew up in Houston, worked in construction and used to fold jeans at The Gap before becoming a temporary production assistant. Like a lot of people in L.A. who’ve worked dead-end jobs, Davis used to draw and paint, and Holloway played guitar.

They were once a couple.

“It was three dates into us going out together that I found out she was vegan,” he says. “She didn’t wear it on her sleeve. I was like, ‘Dude, you’re a cool vegan.’”

“That’s not actually a compliment,” she replies.

Davis, who’s been vegan for 13 years, turned Holloway (who learned to chop an onion on YouTube) onto this healthier lifestyle, and he’s been vegan for five years. He’s not going to bullshit me, though, after finding out I’m also from Texas. Yes, Thug Kitchen’s new cookbook will teach you how to make nachos with ingredients like almond milk and nutritional yeast. But it doesn’t taste like Texas queso.

“Fuck no, it’s not the same thing,” says Holloway, who adds that Thug Kitchen mostly avoids creating substitutes for meats and cheeses.

“I haven’t eaten a fucking real hamburger in so long that I couldn’t eat the Impossible Foods burger,” Davis says of the new plant-based burger that bleeds like beef. “I had to put it down because it was freaking me out too much. If you’re going to change your diet, you should use it as an opportunity to try new shit, not just mimic the six dishes you know how to cook.”

thug kitchen

Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway at their studio in Los Angeles.

That said, I eat Davis’s creamy squash macaroni and “cheese” with hot-sauce breadcrumbs (pictured on 101’s cover) during my visit to Thug Kitchen headquarters, and it’s hearty and flavorful enough to satisfy even Lone Star State carnivores. (Holloway cooks vegan for family gatherings when he’s back in Houston.) The generous portion of mac and cheese Davis has spooned onto my plate, along with some chipotle Caesar salad, is creamy and a little spicy (I decline to pour on extra hot sauce) and such a carb bomb that it makes for a comforting meal even though I don’t usually like squash in any form.

The new cookbook is all about making large quantities of food. It’s about simple, healthful one-pot recipes where cooking once means you can have several days’ worth of meals. Holloway is a man who will prepare a big pan of lasagna and eat it for a week.

The book feels distinctly American with its focus on comfort food, vintage dishware Davis and Holloway found at flea markets, and tongue-in-cheek images of items like a Super Nintendo and a Blockbuster Video card. There are gorgeous photos of a California road trip Holloway shot. He used the book as an excuse to take his first semi-vacation in years even though 101 isn’t exactly a celebration of diners, drive-ins, and dives.

Davis and Holloway love hearing from readers who tell them one of their books is the first cookbook they’ve ever bought, the first recipes they’ve ever used to make dinner.

“So many people have written us saying that we’ve actually helped improve their diets because they don’t feel like they need to apologize for eating a little bit healthier,” Davis says. “Like, enjoying the food is secondary to laughing at our dumb asses.”

Vegan ingredients, lots of profanity and swagger, and a dash of self-awareness. Turns out, that’s a recipe for success.

Andy Wang

Andy Wang, a former real estate and travel editor at the New York Post, has written regularly about L.A. food and nightlife for publications including the New York Observer and Los Angeles magazine. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vegas magazine, Ocean Drive, Condé Nast Traveler, Yahoo Travel, and Epicurious.

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