When Yesenia Ramdass bought the book Skinny Bitch in the early 2000s, she did not expect it to change her life. “I bought it for the title,” she says. Self recently called the best seller “a bizarre portal to the body hell image that was 2005,” but Ramdass had a different response: “There was no such thing as ‘vegetarian,’” she says. “I never even heard of it” while growing up Dominican in the pernil-rich neighborhood of Washington Heights. It was Skinny Bitch that got Ramdass to rethink her turkey-and-cheese roll from the deli and to eventually start developing her own approach to plant-based cooking, “veganizing” takes on the dishes she grew up loving: Alfredo pasta, pastelon, and mangu. That was over a decade ago, but her appreciation for meat-free cooking hasn’t waned, and on November 15 she’ll open her first restaurant, HAAM, in Williamsburg.
HAAM is not a winking reference to cured pork, nor is it some new high-science competitor to plant-based proteins like Impossible or Beyond (neither of which are on the menu here). Instead, it’s short for “Healthy As A Motha,” and it reflects Ramdass’s growth from a vegan-curious teenager into a mother of three who has opened the restaurant alongside her Trinidad-born husband, Randy. Their menu is focused on representing their particular blend of Spanish and West Indian sensibilities in a setting that they hope will evoke true Caribbean hospitality: At least half of the corner space is windows, letting in enough sun to brighten up a mural that layers the fauna and highest terrains of each the Ramdasses’ home countries, along with some other reminders of home: a steel drum and tawa, a pan for cooking flatbreads that Randy’s grandmother brought from Trinidad, and a Dominican guira.
For the food, Ramdass is still interested in taking traditional recipes and replacing the animal-based ingredients with recognizable substitutes: She transforms mushrooms in a number of different ways, crisping lion’s mane to mimic chicharron in Yuh Motha’s Mofongo, while oyster mushrooms stand in for chicken and get the jerk treatment. Cross sections of king oyster mushrooms replace seafood in “scallops” al ajillo, and Yuh Motha’s Ceviche is made with hearts of palm. “It’s just about finding the right texture,” she says.
Healthy As A Motha began as a social-media project for Ramdass: In 2019, while she was pregnant and her own mother battled cancer, she began sharing her recipes and perspective on health and family as an outlet on her blog and other social media, building a “millennial mom” following that has helped the project gain traction for years without her ever having her own place. When she launched Healthy As A Motha, first as a cooking pop-up and later as a delivery-only service, those fans followed her.
And when HAAM’s brick-and-mortar opens, Ramdass hopes to make it less “fast casual” than it was when confined to a ghost kitchen. They plan to open at 1 p.m. each day with a daytime menu (the Motha Earth bowl is a sweet-plantain boat with plant-based beef and queso; bake and shark replaces carnivorous seafood with banana blossoms) and fresh fruit, a HAAM holdover from its earliest days, when Randy’s father chopped coconuts and pressed sugarcane at their events.
It’s also a nod to Ramdass’s own father, who has sold tropical fruit from a stand on St. Nicholas Ave for as long as she can remember: “He was always that street vendor with the things that no one else had,” she says, bringing in soursop and extra-large avocados. At HAAM, those same fruits will be turned into fresh juices and — once a liquor license is approved — cocktails.
Throughout, the couple have been able to carve out their own niche within the ever-growing vegan sector by emphasizing their Dominican-Trinidadian roots. Their Trini-style “hot as a motha” sauce is made by Randy’s mother, with peppers from the family’s garden on Long Island. And yes, she is another maternal figure who has been instrumental in bringing HAAM to life, helping as a caretaker to the kids while the restaurant gets up and running. “No one wants anything better for you than your mother,” Ramdass says. “I never really cared much when it was just me — but being a mother is what got me on this journey.”
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