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Kamiya Willoughby and Tess Hurlburt seemingly never stop moving. Willoughby attends school and works part-time, while Hurlburt works full-time in the field of physical therapy—on top of jointly owning and running SoulNia, their vegetarian soul food catering company that challenges stereotypes while celebrating that historic cuisine.
Even with such wildly busy schedules, married partners Willoughby, 25, and Hurlburt, 28, always make time to give back to their community. On June 22, they’re happy to do so via a pop-up dinner at the Bindery in support of Colorado’s black and LGBTQA communities. Proceeds from the event, which are being matched by the Bindery’s owner and chef Linda Hampsten Fox, will be donated to Black Lives Matter 5280 and the Center on Colfax.
SoulNia’s $79 four-course menu features Southern pearl shooters (marinated melon and cucumber), zucchini fritters, cornbread, collard greens, mac and cheese, and sweet potato casserole; drink pairings are also included. “It feels so right to be doing a pop up now, for these causes,” says Hurlburt. “It feels very serendipitous.”
SoulNia (which translates as “soul purpose”) has been Willoughby’s dream since she was a teenager, when her father and uncle founded a vegan soul food pop up and catering company in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. After high school, Willoughby joined the Air Force and headed west to California, where she met and fell in love with Hurlburt. But Willoughby never lost sight of that early goal: to carry on her family’s legacy and recipes.
For their first Valentine’s Day together, Hurlburt called Willoughby’s mom and asked for the family’s soul food recipes. Without any formal training, Hurlburt expertly replicated the Willoughby’s cornbread, mac and cheese, collard greens with pickled onions, and fried chicken. Willoughby knew then and there that despite their different races and backgrounds, Hurlburt would someday lead SoulNia’s kitchen. “I remember being like, ‘This white girl from the Bay Area is going to be the head chef.’ People are going to have puzzled looks on their faces when they see her, but if my mom can give her the blessing of providing these recipes, then I have full faith in her being the chef,” Willoughby says.
The couple moved to Colorado so Willoughby could attend the University of Colorado Denver to study entrepreneurship and management, so she could finally open her catering business. With an entrepreneurship grant and encouragement from local small business owners, Willoughby and Hurlburt officially launched SoulNia in December 2018.
Their company is about much more than the soul food they serve. Through SoulNia’s vegetarian cooking, Willoughby and Hurlburt want to enlighten the public about the true origins of the cuisine. Fried chicken, for example, became a soul food staple because enslaved Africans served it to their masters. To feed their families on scant rations, those enslaved people cooked with otherwise discarded or unwanted animal parts, which is where the use of lard and dishes like chitlins (fried pig intestines) comes from.
Of course, soul food cooking also has plant-based roots in West Africa, where root vegetables, leafy greens, and legumes were prominent ingredients. Through menu items including Caribbean curried cauliflower and seasonal fruit cobbler, Willoughby and Hurlburt hope to honor the diverse culinary history of black Americans. “There’s a little bit of Caribbean influence, there’s Native American influence, there’s West African and European influence, there are all these different hands in this beautiful cuisine and it’s so reflective of this country,” says Hurlburt. “It’s such a beautiful celebration of who we are.”
The couple also cook sustainably, using local, in-season produce—which creates both challenges and opportunities. Collard greens with pickled onions and cornbread is one of SoulNia’s most popular dishes, but since collard greens are grown seasonally in Denver, Hurlburt sometimes uses rainbow chard, kale, or other iron-rich leafy greens instead. “Having specific boundaries and definitions for what you’re doing calls for a different kind of creativity,” Hurlburt says. “Working with the seasons allows us to work on our sustainability as a business while at the same time supporting local farms.”
Can’t make it to the pop-up on June 22? You can hire Willoughby and Hurlburt to cater your next private dinner or event. They’re never too busy to change hearts and minds through soul food.
Call the Bindery at 303-993-2364 to purchase your tickets to the pop up; the first seating is at 6 p.m. and limited takeout is also available.