Born in Texas and raised on her dad’s daily BBQ, Pure Grit BBQ’s chef Emily Hersh has been a pitmaster-in-training since birth. But before committing to her culinary career, she had been struggling to find peace with food, until she decided to go vegetarian and become a professionally trained plant-based chef. Ever since, she has been working on combining her upbringing and culinary expertise to serve everyone awesome BBQ — that just happens to be vegan and gluten-free.
Food Karma: Tell us more about yourself and your culinary career!
Chef Emily Hersh: Sure! My name is Emily Hersh. I’m from Texas, born and raised in San Antonio. I have been a plant-based chef for four and a half years, so I’m still a baby in the industry.
I was a life-long dancer growing up, got my undergrad in kinesiology, being in dance teams and interacting with other dancers — and kinda didn’t know what to do with my career. Through that experience, I ended up developing a really negative relationship with food. And the way I healed from that was actually learning how to cook, and loving how to cook, specifically plant-based food.
FK: Why did you decide to shift your diet?
EH: When I was a dancer and I developed an eating disorder, I was really just searching for one, a normal way to eat, and two, a creative outlet, because dance was such a creative outlet for me — it’s my whole personality. So when I quit dancing, I was really searching for something to feel like myself again.
And I had a vegan roommate at the time who cooked all the time. I just watched her and saw her love for food, so I was like “Wow! Maybe if I just start cooking and eating plant-based, I will feel like myself again.” And after that, the lifestyle just stuck — I felt like I was eating like a normal person, I wasn’t shaming myself for food, and I was so much more passionate about cooking.
Looking back, I thought that I was really fortunate to have done this healing subconsciously through food. That’s why I want to help others to talk about mental health and their struggles over food, and be able to help them through food.
FK: And how have you been doing that?
EH: During the pandemic, I moved home to Texas and worked my way through different categories of the culinary world: recipe development with my gluten-free almond flour mix, food media with my YouTube channel where I invite people to cook plant-based food for them while we talk mental health, and I was invited to compete in Hell’s Kitchen (and got top seven!).
But more on my YouTube series, which is actually now on hold because restaurant life is crazy. It’s called “The Self-Help Chef” and it combines experts in different fields like therapists, nutritionists and even Run-D.M.C, and I’ll facilitate the conversations through cooking plant-based recipes using ingredients we both love. Some of the past episodes are “Hot Noodle Soup and Therapy” or “Being Confident in Your Passion and Veggie Burger.”
It’s really fun to cook for people and hear their advice because I’m no expert on therapy or anything like that, but it’s great to listen to and spread their stories. Our founder Kerry Fitzmaurice was actually on the show once and that’s where we developed our Impossible Cut 1.0.
FK: And was that also how you guys decided to start Pure Grit?
EH: Actually, while I was in Texas, Kerry found me through Instagram and she reached out saying “Hey! I’ve had this idea for vegan BBQ for three years now, and we’re thinking of opening a restaurant.” They were already hitting it off with sauces and rubs, and I was looking to move back to New York, so why not? Texas BBQ and vegan BBQ — all things that I love.
So we partnered up and did a couple of pop-ups in Queens and Brooklyn. Both of them sold out so we know that we had a good concept and good food. I developed the menu for the next couple months using inspiration from Texas and what my dad loved to grill, and just kinda vegified it.
It’s basically taking the delicious dishes that I grew up with and making them more welcoming for everybody. And that’s basically our goal for this restaurant — making good food that happens to be vegan and not shying away anyone.
FK: Tell us more about the restaurant and your menu.
EH: Yeah! So we just went through a menu transition. We’ve decided to trim down our menu and make it more fast-casual because it might look a bit intimidating to people who are not plant-based.
Our bites are fun food that you can share: our cashew queso — inspired by Texas queso with jalapenos and tomatoes mixed in, our fried tofu bites — fried tempura-battered tofu, our mac and cheese — which took a long time to find the right cheese for. We also have great salads and desserts, with classic sides.
Things that we are known for are our smoked main plates. We smoke each thing for about an hour, then we toss them into BBQ sauce. For our Impossible Cut, which is our vegan brisket, we mix Impossible ground beef, lentils and onions, our rub and sauce, then we form it into a loaf and smoke it. And we actually cover it in BBQ sauce and burn it to give it an amazing crust, before re-hydrating it so it slices like brisket. The mushroom, jackfruit, tofu — all smoked for an hour — are also really yummy.
The sandwiches that we’re keeping on our menu are our fried chicken and waffle sandwich, served open-faced on a waffle with hand-breaded chicken and BBQ ranches or hot maple butter. We’re also doing a sandwich on a bun coming soon, which is a bit more casual, and we’re still doing our Impossible queso burger with our secret sauce.
All of these are awesome, and they are filling but they don’t weigh you down. My sister came in one day, and she’s a big meat-eater. She ate the fried chicken sandwich and she said “I’m full, but I feel like I could run, and it also feels good not to eat a chicken today.”
FK: And how have other customers reacted to the concept and the food?
EH: The reactions have been mixed but I would say it’s mostly positive though. There are a lot of open-minded people in New York and even the meat-eaters would come in and check out what this is. A guy came in the other day and tried our sample platter — which we usually give people when they are on the fence — and loved it!
I think what we still struggle with is how people think of “vegan” as a bad word. We don’t have a lot of messaging about that around here. People are very set in their ways, but like I said, our goal for the restaurant is not to make vegan food, but to make good food that happens to be vegan.
FK: What about among the BBQ community?
EH: Very positive actually! We did a couple of events at Pig Beach in Queens and there was a blogger called NYCBarbecue, and he’s actually the one who really pushed for us to be successful. That’s really surprising because the people who are really supportive of us are the people who are in the BBQ community.
There are still people that love BBQ and aren’t really pitmasters that are still hesitant, because they think BBQ should be one way, but there’s Korean BBQ, Brazilian BBQ — there’s BBQ everywhere and so many ways to do it. It’s something that people don’t think a lot about but we realized that BBQ is just a word for a lot of things and it shouldn’t be so cut off. It should be inclusive because BBQ is about community and good food, and that’s what we have to offer to you all.
FK: Are you excited to meet all these people again at Pig Island?
EH: I’m so excited! It was such a fun experience at Pig Beach so I’m sure Pig Island is gonna be amazing as well. To see pitmasters in their fields and their elements is so inspiring, and to see others who are also passionate about food is something that Pure Grit loves.
FK: And do you have any specific goal for this year?
EH: I just want to make people happy with food. That’s my goal everyday — to be able to serve excellence, community and happiness all in one bite!
Try Pure Grit BBQ and meet chef Emily this Saturday at Pig Island, or support her at her restaurant and through social media platforms. Pure Grit also offers a student discount to Baruch students and they will be at VeganDale in Randall Island this September 24. Come by and try more great food that also happens to be vegan!