Thursday, May 30, 2024

Seabirds Kitchen has helped define vegan food in Long Beach—and continues to push toward the ethos of a better food world

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“The food here? The food should really just speak for itself. It’s actually somewhat weird because, in all honesty, I don’t really consider Seabirds a ‘vegan restaurant;’ it’s just a restaurant.”

These are the words of Stephanie Morgan, the owner of the vastly respected (and rightfully so) Seabirds Kitchen on 4th Street—and in the spirit of those very words, I made a mistake in my headline because she is absolutely right: The idea that vegan food needs to be funneled into its own category, rather than just being a natural part of our food culture as a whole, is one that is, at best, diminutive of what food is supposed to mean. 

The fact that non-vegans regularly consume vegan food—be they chips and pita or hummus, all cuisines ranging from Chinese to Levantine can easily shift its plates toward a vegan diet—but refuse to recognize it is a deep-seated form of culinary cognitive dissonance. 

Seabirds owner and chef Stephanie Morgan. Photo by Brian Addison.
Seabirds owner and chef Stephanie Morgan. Photo by Brian Addison.

On the side of patrons, the end result is a strange dismissal of what vegan food can be when handled by a talented chef. On the chef side, it is the possible loss of creating distinctly unique things that they would have otherwise been unable to create were not they focused on making something vegan outside of a bean patty or salad.

This isn’t to downsize the power of when a non-vegan praises Morgan’s vastly sophisticated food, noting that they didn’t know “vegan food could taste like this;” in fact, that is empowering for both sides of the Eating Animals aisle.

“That type of comment is some of the biggest praise you can give because that is the whole mission: We’re just trying to introduce people to what vegan food can be and, along the same line, give practicing vegans something that is satisfying and hard to get.”

“I think we have a value problem,” Morgan said. “People see immediate value in something like McDonalds [which is just across the street from Seabirds]. But for me, the value in my food isn’t just immediate; it isn’t just about the taste. The value is longterm because the value is generational.”

In other words: Vegan food deserves to be uplifted but the tired, trash-talking tropes that existed for veganism two decades ago—”Where can I get good vegan food?” given the response of a photo of a trash can—still persist to this day.

But Morgan’s food can easily shift those stereotypes and assumptions—an impressive feat given that passion, not formal training, brought her to create the food she does. 

The jackfruit-as-meat craze? Morgan has been serving up jackfruit tacos for over a decade, even before Seabirds (when it was a food truck) ran for four episodes of Food Network’s “Great Food Truck Race.” 

The bacon and jalapeño pizza from Seabirds Kitchen. Photo by Brian Addison.
The bacon and jalapeño pizza from Seabirds Kitchen. Photo by Brian Addison.

Her famed deep-fried avocado tacos, also on the menu since her food truck days? They are mimicked across SoCal, without so much as a non-vegan remotely complaining about a need to add carne asada.

In-house vegan cheeses? Morgan does that too, becoming widely respected for her take on mozzarella, which is now a staple for her much-missed-but-now-returned pizza offerings, where jalapeños and her bacon sit atop a masterfully crafted dough. Or slices of pears and a blue cheese-like creation, drizzled in balsamic and topped with arugula, come to play with your tastebuds. 

What has made Morgan such a pillar for vegan food lovers is not just her determined spirit and success—she knows precisely what she wants out of her restaurant, her workers, her menus—but her jealousy-inducing sense of creativity. 

The aforementioned items are just a sliver of the vast array of dishes she has created—joining beautiful blue corn tortillas that are filled with a creamy potato mixture for her popular taquitos or her nacho cheese sauce is outright wondrous—and all that requires one very important thing: creativity. 

Seabirds Kitchen and its 4th Street-facing façade. Photo by Brian Addison.
Seabirds Kitchen and its 4th Street-facing façade. Photo by Brian Addison.

Here, Morgan admits something that is a key component in the discussion of our small business mental health update: Constant creativity requires constant energy—and while the beginning of the pandemic proved fire-under-one’s-ass-ness for many chefs, over a year-and-a-half later, creativity can prove to be a struggle more than an outlet for expression.

And that goes beyond this being Another Pandemic-versus-Restaurant Story, something Morgan noted she specifically didn’t want to seek. What it is about is the human struggle to keep holding onto what you love in a world that is dangerously divisive about how to move forward.

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“At first, it was about survival mode: I am going to keep doing specials and churning different things out,” Morgan said. “And before the pandemic, I felt like I could just pull out the dishes I wanted to do out of my head; there was a freedom and it almost came entirely naturally. Now, I feel like there is the weight of this fatigue from fighting the war for so long that it is hard to be creative.”

Vegan food deserves to be uplifted but the tired, trash-talking tropes that existed for veganism two decades ago—”Where can I get good vegan food?” given the response of a photo of a trash can—still persist to this day.

The result has been an entire shift in Morgan’s perspective: Noting that restaurant owners have had to “become the police for simple health mandates,” there has been a shift in her philosophical approach about the rightness of patrons, where before “the customer is always right was correct about 90% o the time” but now, that has shifted dramatically.

“I would say it’s 50/50, if not more toward my employees being right,” Morgan said. “I’m going to support my staff and assure they’re not going to be burnt out. If I lose their business, it’s worth it because my staff’s stress is not worth that customer’s $20 bill.”

This is no new story: As mask mandates began to become stricter, restaurant workers began being exposed to tirades and bouts of anger from patrons who either disagreed with the mandate or expected some type of stellar service during a time when most restaurant workers could barely afford rent.

The potato taquitos from Seabird Kitchen. Photo by Brian Addison.
The potato taquitos from Seabird Kitchen. Photo by Brian Addison.

The pandemic-centric stress is compounded with the stress of maintaining a restaurant-wide ethos about food—and for Morgan, it goes beyond just being vegan. 

When you create a food that eschews many of the world’s largest food industries, you are making a statement about the commodification of food. It is a silent nod toward the Big Beef industry, which has begun to destroy independent American cattle farms and cattle auctioning while heightening our greenhouse emissions. It is a subtle reference to Monsato, which patents _vegetable seeds_ themselves. It is a finger gesturing toward a fishing industry which is responsible for being the largest polluter in our oceans.

“My start in this business was reading about food politics; how the meat and dairy industries are influencing and influenced by government—it just pissed me off,” Morgan said. “It’s like this huge secret that is finally being unveiled.”

Even beyond the direct effects of corporate over-farming and over-fishing, there is an even deeper drive behind Morgan’s love of keeping her food vegan and her food local, avoiding things like Impossible meats or Beyond burgers. And that deeper thing is value.

“I think we have a value problem,” Morgan said. “People see immediate value in something like McDonalds [which is just across the street from Seabirds]. But for me, the value in my food isn’t just immediate; it isn’t just about the taste. The value is longterm because the value is generational. Why would you want to ruin your daughter’s ability to live happily? Or ruin the ocean?”

Can we get an amen?

Seabirds Kitchen is located at 975 E. 4th St.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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