Raegan Gibson infuses comfort food with unexpected flavors
Raegan R. Gibson praises her late great-grandmother, Hazel Gooden, for encouraging her to hone the art and craft of cooking.
Those memories are as warm as they are indelible.
Raised in Richmond by her maternal great-grandparents, “I was always home with her. She cooked every day, so that’s where I think I picked it up,” said Gibson. “[Hazel Gooden] was born in 1923, so she was a very traditional housewife by the time I came along.”
She recalls watching her great-grandmother cook meals without written ingredients, and can watermelon, tomatoes and okra every summer. Her great-grandmother also demonstrated how to cook for many since their home was often full of relatives.
Gibson credits her great-grandmother for inspiring her culinary journey. While her great- grandmother made fresh bread, she did not bake often. But Gibson fell in love with baking at age 14. She was happy to make sweet potato pies and other desserts for church bake sales and other events. Baking made her eyes dance and heart sing. Still, Gibson thought she wanted to be a pediatrician.
The drumbeat of her true calling became louder as an undergraduate pre-medicine student at the University of Virginia.
“I took my first biology class and said, ‘No, thank you,’” recalled Gibson, 43, who ultimately earned a degree in sociology.
Gibson loved to bake throughout high school and shared her cooking skills at UVA with friends whom she always welcomed to drop in for home-cooked meals. After graduation, she considered pursuing a formal education for her culinary interests. She requested a few applications, but the Culinary Institute of America in New York was her first choice.
“I held on to that application, but I just talked myself out of it because all of my family is in Richmond,” she said. “While in college I had a baby, and I didn’t want to be so far away from family.”
Gibson and her son, now 22 years old, Sydney stayed in Richmond. She earned an MBA from Averett University, too. It’s served her well as the owner of Sweets and Soirées, LLC, which she started part-time in 2008. From the beginning, she’s provided event management and design.
“I have planned weddings and events, day of coordination for weddings, provided decor including fresh flowers, etcetera,” said Gibson, who estimated that she’s made more than 100 wedding cakes. She added catering in 2017. Last summer, her business became full-time when she left a corporate job in finance after 15 years.
While baking is her first love, “What wears me down is the decorating part. I’m not so into that anymore. I’d rather make a nice cake that tastes good” than invest time in elaborate designs, said Gibson. “My customers would probably die if I tell them, ‘No.’ I’m really trying to figure that out, “she said with a chuckle. “I’d rather cook and give you things that taste good. “
Gibson aims to make comfort food her niche by “incorporating flavor profiles from other cultures that we typically consider to be ‘soul food.’ And to take it one step further, make that food available to more people by adapting our recipes to different diets such as plant-based, and gluten free.”
The Henrico County resident especially enjoys the surprised and satisfied reactions to her “vegan soul food” dishes, which include Jamaican mox tails and rice, and vegan barbecue.
“All the same elements are there, it’s still comfort food. The reactions people have when they taste it is what does it for me,” she said. “Say ‘vegan’ and they think salad and vegetables and assume a bland and boring taste. Instead, they get something unexpected that really reminds them of the original soul food dish. The reactions I get are amazing.”
Gibson is currently working on meat substitutes with flavors reminiscent of goat and lamb for some African dishes. Between her growing vegan clientele and collaborations with Duron Chavis, an urban agriculturalist and food equity advocate, her vegan food is becoming a specialty.
Whatever’s prepared, happiness is seeing a plate come back clean. Other goals include writing a cookbook and studying in another country with a chef of a different cultural background.
And now, like her great-grandmother, she’s inspiring another generation: Her 11-year-old daughter, Ryann, is taking cooking classes at a community center nearby. In fact, she’s planning to cook in a Chopped-style competition soon, according to the proud mother.
Gibson advises self-taught chefs to believe they are good enough — advice she had to embrace. “It took a lot of encouragement from friends, clients and other chefs for me to even consider calling myself a chef or wearing a chef’s coat. I didn’t feel like I deserved it. Even now, I would love to go to school one day, but I think the knowledge I’ve gained studying on my own and through practice is just as valuable as a classroom education.”
Gibson will demonstrate her Okra Stew recipe at VPM’s booth on Aug. 12, 2023 at the Richmond Night Market as homage to her great-grandmother Hazel, who died in 2021 at the age of 98.
“She was my biggest cheerleader,” Gibson said. “I owe my tenacity to her, and I wish she was here to see I am doing it full-time.”
To connect with Raegan Gibson, go to https://www.instagram.com/sweetsnsoirees/
Recipe of Okra Stew
- 1 pound okra, fresh or frozen
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon garlic minced
- 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
- 2 cup tomatoes, diced
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- ½ teaspoon coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground fenugreek
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon vegetable bouillon powder
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- Salt and pepper, to taste
If using fresh okra, wash and remove the tops and tails. Dry and slice into rounds. Heat oil over medium heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger to the pan. Sauté until the onions are tender, 4-5 minutes. Add diced tomatoes, tomato paste, crushed red pepper, coriander, fenugreek, smoked paprika and bouillon powder. Stir, letting it simmer for about 10 minutes. Add vegetable stock, and let it simmer for another 15 minutes.