The sounds of the zydeco band didn’t so much drift from the corner of the North Hollywood strip mall as stampede out of it. The good times began to roll at Krimsey’s Cajun Kitchen in early 2017, with live music, raucous annual Mardi Gras parties, po’ boys, beads, jambalaya, craft nights, hush puppies, fried okra and other “Looziana” fare, all of it vegan. But three years later, those good times came to an end.
Chef-owner Krimsey Lilleth (née Ramsey) closed her namesake spot, canceled a planned second location in Silver Lake, and eventually left Los Angeles due to the pandemic. These days, the Baton Rouge native is more likely to forage for mushrooms in the Snoqualmie Valley than serve anyone a pot of chicory coffee, but you don’t need to track her down in the hills of Washington state to learn the secrets of her plant-based restaurant. She’s written them all down for you.
In late November, Lilleth released “The Cajun Vegan Cookbook,” with more than 130 recipes for sauces, stews, salads, sandwiches, sips, sweets and entrées, all pulled from her Louisiana upbringing but made meat- and dairy-free. Vegetables, she says, take to spice and hearty seasoning, and when it comes to the bayou’s own blend of African, French and Spanish cuisines, the spice flows.
“I think with a lot of cooking that’s based in some sort of old tradition or culture, we always have some sort of spice base or flavor profile that isn’t meat-based. It’s what you put on the meat or marinate the meat in, and that’s super true for Cajun food,” she said. “When people think about Cajun food, a lot of times the ‘holy trinity’ comes up: celery, [bell] pepper and onion. That’s in almost every single classic or Cajun-Creole dish — and Cajun spice. I think it’s a great foundation for whatever you want to do with it.”
She uses her own Cajun spice blend of white pepper, paprika, chili powder, garlic powder, onion powder, salt and cracked black pepper to bring heat to the Cajun ranch dressing (one of Lilleth’s most-requested recipes) and to main dishes like the blackened tempeh, and uses the “holy trinity” to add depth to the nori-tinged étouffée and to the green gumbo packed with chard, mustard greens, collards, kale and turnip greens.
Everyone who’s gone vegan can point to a deciding moment or era, she says. For some, it’s a kind of a slow build; for Lilleth, now 34, it was “like a switch.” At the age of 20, after stumbling upon a YouTube video on the mistreatment of animals in factory farms, her brain looped on the topic; 24 hours later she was heavy into researching and decided to make the change. Now, she says it’s a little more selfish: She simply likes the way eating vegan makes her feel, and she feels less guilt about her dining choices.
She immediately realized there were no all-plant-based Cajun restaurants nearby, even in Baton Rouge, which meant the petroleum engineer would need to pick up some cooking skill. Her home meals started humbly: Some nights, it meant microwaving a russet potato and topping it with frozen broccoli. Eventually, she began to incorporate familiar spices and draw from Creole inspiration to lay the foundation for what would become Krimsey’s years later, nearly 2,000 miles away.
“I used to joke about opening a Cajun vegan restaurant, and it really was a joke at that time because we were like, ‘No one would eat there,’” she said. “I didn’t envision it being anywhere in Louisiana, but of course it worked in L.A. I think it could even work in Louisiana right now. If I had stayed in the game, I think this would be a great time to open a Cajun vegan spot there.”
A few years later she would get her chance to open that restaurant in L.A., but not before leaving her career in fossil fuels, divorcing her husband and heading west for a new start in 2015. She found it in food.
“I came to L.A. thinking I would probably like to do something in the vegan scene but had no idea it would be food-specific,” Lilleth said. “I don’t know what I imagined but I didn’t imagine owning my own restaurant.”
She began with a cookbook, writing and developing 50 vegan Cajun recipes; her sister designed it, and they self-published the spiral-bound collection, a sort of precursor to what would be served at Krimsey’s, though she didn’t realize it at the time. Lilleth began packaging her own dry mixes — corn breads, jambalayas, brownies — and selling them at farmers markets. That evolved into selling hot food at farmers markets, pop-ups and festivals, and amid the constant assembly and teardown of her food stall before and after these events, she realized it could be a restaurant of its own, a home base.
She opened Krimsey’s Cajun Kitchen in February 2017 for what she believed was an underserved vegan community. She already had a customer base built through pop-ups, but in the first few months, Lilleth was worried about reaching new audiences. Then animal-advocacy nonprofit Mercy for Animals featured the restaurant in a video on social media, and Krimsey’s exploded almost overnight. Lilleth had to hire more people and, eventually, move from one space in the strip mall to the larger corner spot.
For three years guests passed under the hanging wooden sign that yelled, “BONJOUR, VEGANS!” for a taste of plant-based bayou specialties. Musicians set up on a small stage area in a corner for live-music nights. Pride specials, Mardi Gras parties, fundraisers and other events kept the crowds coming back for more too. It was, she says, all about building community.
Lilleth was about to begin construction on the new location in Silver Lake when COVID hit. She asked her team to wait a week to see how the pandemic would play out but quickly realized the restaurant industry might never be the same. Already wavering in her role as a restaurateur — she was feeling the fatigue of running the day-to-day operations — she pulled out of both leases.
As remembrances poured in over social media, so did an offer: A publishing company wanted to know if Lilleth might consider writing a cookbook. For several months, Lilleth revisited her Krimsey’s recipes in Los Angeles, but also in a rented home in Utah with a large test kitchen to focus on writing and photographing the dishes, sometimes for 12 or 14 hours a day.
“Every recipe that I went back and perfected for the cookbook or made suitable for the reader, there was always some memory associated with it or a story,” she said. “Each one along the way was like closing a chapter, one recipe at a time.”
Krimsey’s, she says, might never come back. If it does, or if she takes up selling food again in any form, it might be in the Snoqualmie Valley to serve a smaller and tighter community, which Lilleth admits she’s been missing. For now, she’s already begun working on another cookbook — one more focused on whole foods, packed with legumes and greens and grains, the way she tends to cook at home — and rewriting Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” for the modern era. She’s foraging and hiking, but she’s not forgetting Krimsey’s. She’s hoping that “The Cajun Vegan Cookbook” will keep those good times rolling.