Ain’t easy being a vegan. Harder being a vegan in the Midwest in the ‘90s. Your eating options were the steamed broccoli at the steakhouse (hold the butter), some room-temp air, or learning to cook in self-defense.
“That’s why I learned to cook,” says Roy Elam, chef and owner of Donna Jean in Bankers Hill. He’s wearing a death metal t-shirt in our conference room. Actually I could have that wrong. It may be doom core or emo-dream core. So many dooms and cores. Point is, he and David are really getting along on this episode of Happy Half Hour (David plays in a doom or core band you should check out, Weight of the Sun).
In the September issue of San Diego Magazine, we tasked our food writer with creating the ultimate guide to plant-based restaurants, or plant-based friendly restaurants, in the city. Donna Jean is on that list. Roy’s been vegan for a few decades, having trained under one of the most-respected plant-based chefs in the country—Matthew Kenney and Scott Winegard at Plant Food in Venice, before becoming head chef at SunCafe in Studio City.
He got a call from a longtime friend and one of San Diego’s most prominent plant-based restaurateurs, Mitch Wallis, who owns Evolution Fast Food and Plant Power. He had a restaurant space available, wanted to create a more modern, sleek, attractive place. Elam signed on, naming the restaurant Donna Jean in tribute to his mom, who he lost to cancer.
“When she was diagnosed a second time, the doctor gave her a lot of recommendations for foods that would help,” he says. “I was helping her cook, and realized most of them were plant-based. It made me realize, ‘Why wait until something bad happens? Why not just eat more plants?”
To be clear, he and his restaurant are not plant-based indoctrination hot spots. “I don’t even want to be known for plant-based food,” he says. “I want to be known for just food.”
For this episode, Matt comes in and talks music and food and plant-based and family. When you go to Donna Jean, try his pizza. He learned to make the dough by sitting at the counter of Tribute Pizza, asking questions, just watching. He says the cooks there have enormous patience. He’s on his 100th iteration of his dough recipe. We eat it in house amid some conversation about POD and how many hardcore bands come from church backgrounds.
It’s got a garlicky white wine sauce, spinach, cashew ricotta, plant-based mozzarella, spinach, pistachio, and preserved lemon-infused olive oil. It’s named “Thunderkiss 65,” a classic White Zombie song.
All his pizzas are named after bands parents hate.