Taste buds can samba while stomachs are docile wallflowers.
That’s the “love in every bite” anthem of chef Ariel Bangs of Healthy Creations, her private cooking and doughnut company. South Seattle-bred, Bangs has spent the past decade bringing its message, in the flavorful form of her experiential pastries, doughnuts and broader cuisine, to the minds and mouths of communities in and around King County afflicted by health problems and the notion that plant-based food is on par with grated cardboard.
Bangs, 40, is a doughnut magnate, food educator, “culinary mad scientist,” urban gardener, and merger of hip-hop and veganism based in Des Moines.
But her greatest role might be healthy-eating evangelist to communities of color living amid low-quality food options.
“There are so many people who have so many diseases that are preventable,” Bangs says. “People tell me ‘someone in my family has an illness. Is there something I can do?’”
There is, she replies, and the kitchen is a good place to start.
Her calling beckoned when she was 16 and her stomach felt trapped in an ever-wrenching vice grip.
Bangs’ childhood consisted of eating and cooking healthy meals with skills honed under the nurturing eye of her mother, Luisa, at the family’s Beacon Hill home.
But after years of a fast-foodless life, she succumbed to the seduction of the Golden Arches during her mother’s trip out of town.
After ingesting a quarter-pounder with cheese, a staple of so many teenagers’ diets, she found herself squirming on the living-room couch, invoking the universe for sympathy. She received none from mom.
“She told me that’s what you get. She wanted me to wallow in my sickness,” Bangs says, with a vivacious laugh her friends know well.
The experience, along with a conversion to veganism in her early 20s after numerous sicknesses she blames on the standard meat-heavy American diet, eventually led her on an unplanned course to invent health-conscious comfort food for those believing taste need not be sacrificed for well-being.
“I win people over with food that tastes good, and it just happens to be plant-based,” she says, aware “black vegan cook” may sound atypical to some.
Bangs never intended to start her own business after receiving her culinary degree from The Art Institute of Seattle in 2007. But restaurant cooking jobs eluded her more than snow does August.
“Some managers assumed I’d be a know-it-all in the kitchen because of my degree,” she says.
Facing limited prospects, she found herself working an administrative job at the Washington Athletic Club (WAC).
Fellow staffers quickly became eager tasters of her home-cooked, vegan meals including pasta, vegetable curries and cardamom rice dishes.
Soon, members of the club’s affluent base got a sampling. Recently married, one woman asked Bangs for private chef lessons.
Those quickly turned into “ghost-cooking” arrangements, with Bangs preparing an entire dinner for the woman’s family, leaving before they arrived.
Word-of-mouth spread wide among WAC clients and business-minded Seattleites.
“I’ve been in her kitchen when I thought there was nothing in the cupboards, and 45 minutes later she’s cooked up an eight-course meal,” says Anika Lehde. Bangs recently prepared a five-course vegan meal for Lehde’s staff that left mouths exultant.
As her clientele grew, Bangs kept encountering people with health ailments and food allergies — including a client who had several miscarriages she said were related to complications from gluten sensitivity — desperate for food that satiated both taste buds and health.
The issues were particularly acute in her South Seattle community and its sizable black population.
Black people are 80% more likely than white people to be diagnosed with diabetes, with 48% qualifying as obese. Black women are 60% and men 30% more likely to have high blood pressure, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It’s why Bangs has developed not just popular doughnuts and soul food, but an educational curriculum.
“If African slaves had been able to eat the vegetables they picked for other people that’s what they would’ve eaten, instead of the high-fat foods that became staples of their diet,” says Bangs, who also speaks with pride about her Italian heritage.
Bangs provides these lessons at the various cooking classes she teaches for local middle-schoolers at community centers and arts and culture organizations such as Community Arts Create, and Coyote Central in the Central District.
“Arial has this radiance that makes people so comfortable around food,” says Kristen Bennett, whose daughter KZ attended one of Bangs’ classes two years ago. “KZ really came out of her shell. It was a total shock to see her pictured wearing a chef coat.”
Bangs’ food-justice curriculum has spread far and wide. In 2014 she began collaborating with Hip Hop Is Green, a plant-based organization pairing hip-hop performances with free vegan dinners for communities of color across the nation. They recently traveled to Flint, Michigan, and saw a city still beset by unclean water and few places to buy high-quality food.
Some had never heard of the food she prepared for the meal.
“Communities weren’t really getting the message of eating healthy,” says Hip Hop is Green Founder, Keith Tucker. “We were trying to reach black kids. She’s put together meals that encompass many different cultures.”
The experience reaffirmed Bangs’ commitment to setting up local community garden food co-ops. She grows her own food and sources all of Healthy Creations ingredients from local farmers.
She also is an advocate of local small businesses, exclusively selling her doughnuts wholesale. They run about $48 a dozen, a price approaching what high-end shops in the Seattle area charge for cupcakes. They can also be ordered on her website, along with her catering, private-chef and plant-based meal-planning services.
She hopes to open her own retail shop that would carry her doughnuts.
On a personal note, food is all about connections for Bangs, who takes full advantage of living in an area ripe with diversity, where she’s picked up recipes in Greek, Eritrean, and Filipino kitchens.
“Food can really bring people together,” she says before mentioning her latest creation, an asparagus-cheddar doughnut.
She knows most would wager against its delectability.
She’ll take that bet.