The kitchen at Collington Square School is closed. That’s not something a chef wants to hear right before teaching a cooking class for about 15 elementary school kids, but this setback doesn’t phase Ihsan Baha-Umbra Bey, or Chef Bey, as everyone calls him. With two griddles set up in the cafeteria, they will be “reverse-making pizza,” cooking the ingredients first and then warming the crust. The kids are quiet and attentive, their eyes fixed securely on Chef Bey.
“Can I get one person...”
Before he can finish explaining, four children shoot up from their seats, hands raised.
“ME!!,” they scream.
Their eagerness could be a mark of Chef Bey’s infectious positive energy. Comfortably clad in a black tee, camouflage shorts, and secondhand Pumas, the vegan chef wears a jovial grin as he snaps a photo of a satisfied student’s milkshake mustache (a product of their first task). He looks like he’s been doing this for a long time, but he just started teaching kids at Collington Square School in late June, with the help of the Creative Allliance.
Before that, his cooking was mostly focused on his ongoing pop-up vegan restaurant, Son Dey’s, run out of the popular Grind House Juice Bar on St. Paul Street the first Sunday of every month. But it was not always cooking that grabbed him.
Bey was born in the Flaghouse Projects in Little Italy in 1983 and began pursuing his first love, drawing, at age 7. By the time he got to college, he was fully invested in fashion and clothing design. “I was hangin’ out with fashion kids from New York and Atlanta and California and learning about different stuff and not looking like the normal African-American male,” he says.
He started a clothing company in 2002, but everything came to a halt in 2004 after a 30-day hospitalization for pancreatitis. Bey lost his Pell Grant, his fiancee, his job, and, as a result of poor food selection in the house, his vegan lifestyle. The illness and some other problems at home propelled him onto the streets, where he was homeless for three months before renting a room in the city with a fresh perspective and, ultimately, moving in with his girlfriend who became his wife in 2010. He turned his attention to a Muslim youth ministry.
“I became a youth minister ’cause I didn’t want to be hangin’ around negative people no more,” he says.
The youth ministry also set him back on the vegan track. He began to study what he calls his forefathers (Moors that settled in Morocco and the Indus Valley) and discovered that San¿tana Dharmaism, the peaceful sect of Hinduism that they practiced, fell perfectly in line with the positive energy Bey was after. It also had a vegan component. He traded the Islamic ministry for Sanatana Dharmaism, and began exploring its culture and cuisine.
This research combined with much closer ancestors—namely his mother—to steer him toward working in the culinary arts. Ever since trying to cook his family’s “chicken muddle,” he had been experimenting in the kitchen. His mother didn’t do a lot of cooking, but “she loved to eat.” Among his early concoctions was pancake-wrapped french toast.
She said, “Boy, you always makin’ somethin’ up!”
Whenever he thought back to his childhood in Little Italy, he thought of the positivity that came through food and decided to give up ministry for food.
“That’s what showed me, when I got into cooking, that I could stop doin’ ministry and just cook,” he says. “’Cause the energy I put in the food, when I would break down and show the people something, they were appreciative. People don’t care about [ministry] much,” but they “love to stuff their face.”
When his mother died in 2013, Bey took her advice and started something on his own, and, since last September, he has been flexing his cooking chops at Son Dey’s. The name of the restaurant is a fusion of son and dey, a Turkish term for commander, the idea being that as a “son” of his ancestors, he can “command” his future if he reveres them.
But the inspiration is not all ancient. Many of his items are cleverly named to attract interest. The Wiz Khalifa scrambler was named after the famous rapper and his penchant for ordering vegan “cheese eggs” whenever he traveled.
“He always talkin’ about cannabis, so I sprinkle parsley, which is the color of cannabis, on there,” Bey jokes. It was “the closest thing to soundin’ like a cool tofu scrambler cause the word ‘tofu scrambler,’ to people under 10, sounds disgusting.”
The pop-up restaurant is nearing its one-year anniversary, and Bey says right now is just a big transition period for him—and not just as a chef. He also has the clothing company he started, and he tattoos at Monument Ink (where he was an owner) as well as his self-owned mobile tattoo business, Quiller Inque. He happens to casually mention that he raps, too.
“Everything I’m doin now, I’m catching up with what I broke away from myself almost 8 years. So I kinda feel like I’m 23,” he says.