There's a sign on the wall above the buffet at the Yabba Pot--Baltimore's only fully vegan restaurant, according to its chef--that reads, peace begins in the kitchen. Skai Davis, the chef and owner, is usually there each day, dishing out curried eggplant, barbecued soy protein, and other nonviolent delicacies, and every time a customer leaves, she wishes them well by saying, "Peace!" Davis truly believes that herbivores, because they don't have foreign animal blood in them, are less wild and apt to hurt others.
Everything about the Yabba Pot--the bathrooms that are labeled "nature centers," the funky paint job, the Saturday night poetry readings--speaks to an easygoing ethos that belies its business-minded chef, whose head is more often than not occupied with practical matters, like the price of vegetables or her four children's bedtimes, rather than off in some vegetarian dreamland.
Davis, a native of the Caribbean, says she moved from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to Baltimore in 2000 because she "was getting tired of island life. I was not feeling like I was growing. People think it's so easygoing down there because it's a tropical island, but, really, people do work. We're working all the time."
Davis is a veteran of more formal restaurants, but she always felt more at home at beachside shacks serving plantains and grilled fish.
"I learned how to cook from trial and error," she says. "It happened spiritually or in an engrained way, I knew about flavor and taste." The 20-year vegetarian started hosting buffets in her living room in West Baltimore in 2002, inviting friends and charging them a few bucks for an all-you-can-eat plate.
"The guests made it into a café scene, with the TV on and music playing," she says. "I thought they were just going to fill up to-go boxes and leave."
Word spread, and Davis soon found herself making $500-$600 a week, and only spent about a third of it on groceries. A year later she opened the Yabba Pot in lower Charles Village, where she greets each customer personally and gets to know the neighborhood regulars.
It didn't take long for the café to catch on in a town starved for delicious vegan fare. These days, the Yabba Pot hosts a regular flow of lunch and dinner customers.
Davis knows she is lucky to have found such a captive audience here in Baltimore. St. Thomas, she says, is just 32 square miles but is home to at least a dozen vegan restaurants, despite having very little soil in which to grow anything.
"When I talk to people I still know in the restaurant business in St. Thomas, and I hear what they pay for a case of vegetables . . . I mean, I pay half what they do!" she says. And being able to pay the bills ensures that Davis' businesswoman side is as much at peace as her kitchen.