Cleveland, OH-based vegan chef Sonia Steele has made it to the cooking big leagues. That’s because the chef was recently crowned winner of the Vegan Women Summit’s (VWS) Top Chef global competition, held in New York City last month. Steele rose above more than 100 other culinary hopefuls to win the title with her vegan soul food.

The VWS is a global organization aiming to empower women in vegan and sustainable industries. The cooking competition was judged by food industry giants: Sherene Jagla, Chief Development Officer of Impossible Foods; Andre Menezes, CEO of Tindle; and Pete Speranza, CEO of Wicked Kitchen. All three judges were impressed by Steele’s unique and flavorful dishes highlighting the breadth and depth of vegan cuisine. 

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“I am still on a high from hearing my name being called  the Inaugural VWS 2023 Top Chef Winner,” Steel tells VegNews. “I mean, having CEOs and directors of major plant-based companies tell you, ‘You created a masterpiece’ and that your food is amazing, it truly touched me in a way that still makes me tear up.” 

Vegan chefs on the global stage

Chef Sonia’s victory not only places her and her meal service company, Koncious Kuisine, on the global stage but also raises the profile of Cleveland, OH as a city that is nurturing the future of food innovation. 

Steele was born and raised in Cleveland, but the chef says she has strong family ties planted deep in the South. She transitioned to veganism in 2008 after being diagnosed with cancer—and that’s when her whole life changed.

“After being diagnosed with nonsmoker lung cancer and having my lower left lung removed in 2008, I knew I didn’t want the cancer to come back in any other forms,” Steele says. 

“Turning to a vegan diet not only made me feel better during my recovery, it gave me more energy while building the strength back in my lungs.”

When Steele went vegan, she turned to her Southern roots and began veganizing her favorite recipes. As owner of Konscious Kuisine, she is credited as the first chef to introduce vegan soul food to Cleveland, but Steele says it was something not many were receptive to at first.

“When I first started my company, vegan soul food was not a thing in Cleveland,” Steele says. “There were very few vegan places, but none made the type of food I grew up eating and cooking.”

“So most people were not very receptive at all when they heard the words ‘vegan’ and ‘soul food’ in the same sentence,” Steele says. 

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In fact, Steele experienced a lot of judgment, but eventually she found her place. “I would beg people to let me set up a table at certain events, because I was so determined to get my food to the masses,” she explains. “When I did get into the events, people would walk past me and not even try the food. If they would take a plate, I would literally watch them not smell it, not taste it, and just go throw it away.” 

Go where the vegans go

Eventually, Steele found her success at vegan-focused events. “Once the word got out that there was a lady that makes authentic flavorful soul food that happens to be vegan, that’s when my name and my company started gaining more popularity,” Steele says. 

It’s then that the opportunities came knocking. She is the first vegan to be made a chef partner with foodservice company Aramark at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers. “It’s awesome getting messages from vegans and people who just want an alternative, saying they can finally enjoy a vegan meal at a game,” Steele says.

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Konscious Kuisine has also provided personal chef services for many celebrities, including NBA all-star Chris Paul, two-times NBA champion Lamar Odom, comedian Tony Baker, celebrity hair stylist Derek J., Cleveland Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and more.

“Being able to provide meals for legends like them was a great experience. Anytime I get to share my passion, it’s an honor, and whether it’s a high-profile client or a family of six, any opportunity I have to provide meals that I like to say will give you a hug with every bite is special and my overall goal,” Steele says. “I cook with love and I put that on every plate.”

What’s next for Steele? “My plans for the future include collaborations with some plant-based companies [and] continue creating contemporary plant-forward meals and experiences for any palettes that want to have it,” she says, adding. “Let’s go!” 

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