By Tom Reardon, December 2018 Issue.
All photos by Maria Vassett.
Does Phoenix need a Vegan district?
If you subscribe to the belief system of one Keith Wyatt Jr., it certainly does, and if Wyatt has anything to do with it, it is happening right now along Seventh Street between Camelback and McDowell roads.
“Seventh Street is known for its vegan scene. We want to turn it into a vegan district. No one’s really said it, but it feels like what we want to do. To centralize something like veganism would be nice for people. A lot of times when you go to a restaurant, as a vegan, you have to worry about cross-contamination, so it would be nice to have a district,” says Wyatt of his vision for a vegan-friendly area of Phoenix.
A man of action, Wyatt, 37, has recently opened a Phoenix location of his super tasty vegan restaurant, Whyld Ass, at 4810 North Seventh Street (just south of Camelback in the spot that once housed Shuka Shack, next to Segal’s Oasis). This move follows his last four years of delighting vegans and non-vegans alike at his Flagstaff location with his signature breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes. The Flagstaff location will remain in operation, so fans of the Northern Arizona staple for plant-based dining have nothing to fear, but Phoenicians who dig a meat and animal product-free diet are in for a major treat. And Wyatt, well, he’s like no one you’ve ever met.
For starters, Wyatt has multiple facial tattoos so to say he is striking to look at is an understatement yet when he opens his mouth, his subtle North Carolina (where he spent the majority of his formative years) accent is soothing, and you will quickly pick up on his passion for putting love into everything he does. Despite the somewhat rough exterior, though, there is a depth of soul and understanding for struggle that permeates the relatively soft-spoken chef/entrepreneur.
Wyatt grew up an outsider and the impact of this is apparent.
“My parents are bikers. My first tattoo was when I turned 18. When I was 12, we moved from Baltimore to a teeny town in North Carolina. The town we lived in is now 600 people. When I lived there, it was 200. Very Baptist, very judgmental, anti-gay. They showed their appreciation by slashing my tires. When I got there, I thought, ‘I don’t like it here, I don’t like these people, I don’t give a shit what they think of me.’ I pierced my nose at 15 and just went from there,” shares Wyatt with a gleam in his eye.
For a guy that has “Fag Life” tattooed across his stomach, there is a combination of defiance and the affirmations of both freedom and life that will be appealing to many as it may be shocking to some. Wyatt understands the importance of making what may be considered a bold statement to show where a person’s head and heart meet. Wyatt is also unconcerned about how others may judge the statements he makes with his body art. A tattoo like “Fag Life,” for example, could be easily misconstrued and in this day, age, and socio-political climate, there are probably people who would not dig Wyatt’s choice of words nor understand where he is coming from with his perspective.
“If (members of the LGBTQ community) did say anything, I feel like my generation and today’s generation are completely different. They don’t understand the importance of having a spot to go to where you can flirt with someone without feeling like you’re going to get killed, which was the case for my generation,” says Wyatt.
While this may seem like indifference, it could not be farther from the case. Wyatt cares about not only his customers, but people in general, and got into vegan cooking as a way to share his beliefs about choosing a healthy lifestyle that is not preachy, but humble and based in logic. Wyatt is not just passionate about a plant-based diet, but he is also educated in the field. The man is certified in Holistic Nutrition by the Southwest Institute of Healing Arts, which is based in Tempe, and no slouch in the kitchen.
Wyatt’s path to where he is today was not always about food, though.
“Initially, I went to school for sociology and psychology at the University of North Carolina, with an emphasis on gender studies. I wanted to do activism for human rights, which I’m still pro, of course, but I started doing stuff like tattooing my face, so I needed to find something a bit more suitable where people would take me seriously. Cooking is a place where you can, sort of, hide in the kitchen,” says Wyatt.
Years of hard partying in North Carolina, though, caught up with Wyatt and a change of scenery was necessary which led him to Arizona. The first incarnation of Whyld Ass was down south in Bisbee where Wyatt moved after completing his certification course, but Wyatt’s love for the mountains took him to Flagstaff where Whyld Ass has been thriving since 2014.
“I didn’t want to be in a big city. At the time, I didn’t appreciate what a big city had to offer. Coming from the mountains of North Carolina, I missed the mountains. I kept visiting Flagstaff. One January I was up there, and I thought, ‘What the hell am I doing down (in Bisbee),’ so I moved to Flagstaff,” shared Wyatt.
And while Wyatt loves Flagstaff, it was another love that brought him around to the idea of living in a big city again.
“Two years ago, I met someone and found out he (Chris Regan pictured top right, in the center) lived in Phoenix. We did the long-distance relationship for a little over a year, and I decided to move down here. I did the commute four or five days a week and it was horrible,” says Wyatt.
Like Wyatt, Regan shares a love for both running and great food, so the move to Phoenix is not only good for the two of them, but also for diners in Arizona’s capital city. As Whyld Ass in Phoenix celebrates its first official month in business, the opportunity to be part of a growing vegan community is not lost on Wyatt.
“Seeing the vegan community booming down here, in the past few years, it has just taken off. Down here, I feel like I’m part of a community, but in Flagstaff, I just feed people,” says Wyatt.
As previously alluded to, with several other vegan restaurants on 7th Street already, Whyld Ass brings Wyatt’s unique take on a plant-based menu serving to widen the respective palate, if you will, of what is available to one of the more health and preparation conscious segments of the foodie world. For starters, and please pardon the pun, Whyld Ass will offer a full breakfast menu which many vegan restaurants do not provide. Wyatt is a skilled baker whose rosemary biscuits are heavenly and a staple of his daily routine, as well. For those who dig a more southwestern flavor, his breakfast burritos are amazing. The breakfast burritos feature a robust lentil sausage combined with sunflower seed cheese and a roasted sweet potato hash that is both hearty and delicious.
Everything Whyld Ass serves is an original Wyatt creation, and Wyatt strongly believes in making each ingredient, whenever possible, in his own kitchen. While this adds to his prep time each day, it is more than extra time in his kitchen so that his customers, which seem to be loyal to a fault (as witnessed while spending time with Wyatt at his weekly stand at North Phoenix Baptist Church’s Farmers Market), can sample his wide variety of soup, sandwiches, salads, and entrees. According to Wyatt, he changes up his menu about every six months and will always look to add seasonal fruits and vegetables to his menu whenever possible, but the most important thing is serving healthy food to the community.
“I went vegan about eight years ago, and it is probably the best thing I’ve ever done. I wanted to go to school for the nutrition aspect, so I could explain to people why vegan is good for you. Health issues are on the rise. Our lifespans are lessening, and our weight is on the rise, and it’s all related to our food,” concluded Wyatt.