Read an excerpt from the anthology: PlantHero, an interview with Charles McCoy.
Brotha Vegan: Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in plants?
Charles McCoy: My name is Charles McCoy, and I’m affectionately known as the PlantHero. I’m a certified plant-based nutritionist and vegan chef, and I have been a consultant and spokesman for a range of organizations and products.
I have a college degree in horticulture and landscape design, which is what my true background is. I was doing landscaping, initially, and people would ask me whether I could help out with their garden. Because of my passion for horticulture and dealing with plants, I gravitated toward gardening. However, at that stage I was not paying attention to permaculture, the health of the soil, but rather was concerned with just getting things growing. I didn’t care what I used: the herbicide Roundup, anything! As long as it killed the weeds and helped me to make things grow, I used it.
About ten years ago, I visited a school for Career Day. I’d brought along a bunch of gargantuan vegetables for the kids to try and to take home. When I went to give one of the tomatoes to a little kid, he said, “My dad told me that anything that’s big like that is a GMO.” Now, I’d heard the term, but I didn’t know what it meant, and I just said, “Oh.” I was kind of ashamed. In fact, this kid was adamant about not taking the tomato, and the other kids didn’t either, because of him. This little kid sent me back to school and taught me an important lesson: you can learn a lot from people if you just pay attention.
I had to relearn about permaculture and GMOs and became more concerned about what I was planting and putting into the soil. I went online to the College of Herbal Medicine, which was easier for me than sitting in a classroom, especially since I was very busy. A schoolroom was also difficult for me because I think I have a form of ADHD. Labels are problematic, because it’s sad to stigmatize someone—especially when they’re a child. There’s no telling what they could do when they grow older, if their mind is allowed to flow and they can be active and creative.
I chose the College of Herbal Medicine because I was interested in what herbs could do, and felt they offered solutions to a lot of health concerns. What I then discovered was that what you eat can be your medicine; and if you don’t eat properly, then you can end up eating medicine for food. I received a nutritional health certificate from Cornell University in 2013 and was certified as a nutritionist with the College of Herbal Medicine that same year.
BV: When did you go vegan?
CM: I went vegan four years ago, at the age of 62. I’m not really comfortable with the word vegan, because for me veganism is not an issue of food; it’s a way of life. I always had a concern for animals, the environment, and human rights.
BV: How did you get your nickname, PlantHero?
CM: I was the green roof engineer for the Hyatt Hotel in Connecticut. The management sent me down to The Big Show, which is what they called the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, where they were going to institute a green roof program. It was during the recession, just after Obama was elected, and so the company had cut back a lot on expenditures and had put the green roof program on hold. Every year, they promised to bring it back and didn’t. Finally, they laid me off, and I was miserable. I’m a doer; I wanted to be out doing stuff, even if it wasn’t work I wanted to do.
Since I was out of work, I began to spend more time with my children, including my youngest daughter, who was in first or second grade at the time. One day, she was stung in the eye by a bee and became incredibly scared of anything that flies. I felt it was my job to let her know why bees are valuable. I began to read all kinds of books to her while she was at home, with her eye swollen. For a week to ten days, I read and talked to her, and we went on nature walks. I tried to teach her to stay calm around insects, to recognize that when we humans go outside and in nature, we’re in their world. I told her that if they were in the house, I could understand if she wanted to get rid of them, but that she could open a window and let them go, because they were probably trapped. They didn’t want to be inside, any more than she wanted them to be inside.
Finally, my daughter went back to school. Three or four days later, I was dropping her off at school, and the teacher came running up behind me. Now, my daughter is feisty; she don’t take mess from nobody; and I started thinking that somebody had bothered my daughter about her eye and she’d socked them. So, with the teacher yelling “Mr. McCoy! Mr. McCoy!” at me as I’m walking away from the school, I’m thinking, What did my daughter do?!
Finally, she caught up with me, and said, “Would you mind coming to the school to read some of the books you’ve been reading to your daughter?” (I did not see that coming!)
And I said, “How did you know that I’m reading to my daughter? And what made you want to track me down and ask me to come to the school?”
The teacher said, “Well, she’s been explaining how you’ve been telling her about the birds and the bees.” The look on my face must have been something, because she explained what she meant, and we had a good laugh over that.
“You know,” I replied, “I’m not working right now, and I’ll be more than glad to do that. How soon?”
“As soon as you can,” she said. “Because everybody’s really excited.” She raised her arm. “The class is really up to here with what you’ve got to say and what you know.”
The next day, I took some of the books I’d been reading and sat on the floor and talked to the kids. I’m a very expressive, dramatic reader, and the kids listened and laughed and had fun. I even did a little improv, and they loved that.
The next thing I know is that the school asked me to come to some other classes. And so I thought, OK, now I’ve gotta up my game. And because I’m creative, I created this character called PlantHero.
That’s how the name came about: because I wanted the kids to know about the pollinators and how the plants need them. That bee sting changed my daughter’s and my life.
BV: And how did you get the costume?
CM: I went to one of the caricaturists on 42nd Street in Manhattan and told him that I wanted a picture of me happy, standing on top of a building like a superhero. Then I created a superhero costume: green bodysuit and a yellow cape, with a marijuana plant headdress and goggles. And the kids loved it!
As fate would have it, a week later I was called back to work. And I wasn’t happy at all: I had no tolerance for anybody, and I just wasn’t there. Then a friend of mind in the healthcare industry told me there was money available for companies to start a horticultural therapy program, and thought I’d be a great fit for it and that I should interview for a position.
I was unsure, but I put on my suit and tie, and went for an interview at a well-known healthcare company. There were about twenty or thirty others there to be interviewed also, who looked way more qualified to be horticultural therapists than I did.
BV: How so?
CM: Well, I felt that I didn’t have what it takes. I was sitting, waiting for the interviewers to call my name, and I saw these guys coming in and out and they looked really sharp: younger, better dressed. I thought to myself, I’ve gotta do something to surprise these people when I go in there. I returned to my car, where I had my PlantHero costume. I put it on and walked back in. The woman at the front desk thought I was in the wrong part of the building, and said, “You’re supposed to be down the hall.” (I didn’t even know what she was saying—or what was going on down that hall!)
“No, I’m here to interview,” I said, and told her my name.
She gave me a look. “And you’re going to go to an interview like that, sir?” (All the other people waiting to be interviewed were looking at me like, Look at this cat! What is wrong with this guy?)
I was meant to be third on the list, but the woman said, “Look, I’m going to have you go in right now.” I think she wanted to get rid of me because she thought I was a knucklehead or something was wrong with me.
Anyway, I walked into the interviewing room, and they went berserk. I think they were shocked I’d had the nerve to do it. But they told me I’d been the highlight, because everyone else looked the same. They wanted to know what I could offer, and I told them. And you know what? They asked me how much I wanted per hour and hired me on the spot.
BV: How much did you ask for?
CM: $200 an hour. Honestly, I was getting so much money with them at one time that I used to feel legitimately bad. I worked four or five hours a day, four or five days a week. We moved, I bought a new car—all because of that costume.
BV: Tell us about your career as a chef.
CM: I actually started cooking when I was seven or eight years old. I was a troublesome kid coming up—getting punished all the time and made to stay in my room. So I gravitated to my grandmother, who did most of the cooking. And she let me be in the kitchen with her, and I would learn through touching and preparing the food with her. You see, my grandmother was a live-in maid, and sometimes we wouldn’t see her for a couple of months. In her absence, I found myself in the kitchen, which (along with the bathroom) were the only places I was allowed to go when I was being punished.
I went to New York Restaurant School purely because I happened to be on 34th Street in Manhattan. (The school subsequently moved to the Village.) I was walking on 34th Street when someone stopped me. The school was trying to get people to fill out forms so the school could get funding via enrollment, and I went in—without any intention of actually signing up for a class, especially as it was clear I would be the only Black person there. Nonetheless, I filled out the forms, and was denied funding. However, the administration liked how I handled myself in the test kitchen and that I came out of Harlem. They wanted a little bit more color in the classroom, I guess [laughing], and I didn’t mind being the token Black guy. So they gave me a shot, and I did well enough. I ended up taking up an internship at Sylvia’s [the legendary Harlem restaurant], but I was fired because they had a thing for char. You know what char is?
BV: It’s like the goop that’s been cooked for a long time on the grill.
CM: Exactly. I was scraping and cleaning the grill all the time, and they were upset with me. “What are you doing?” they would say. “You can’t take the seasoning off.” That’s what they called it: “the seasoning”! But it was unsanitary. So they gave me menial work, and I left.
I’d befriended a man who ate at Sylvia’s who owned a building, and we made a deal to open a restaurant I called Chewy’s. “Chewy” was the nickname I gave my son Charles Jr. because he ate everything. Charles Jr. was interesting because he used to eat all his vegetables, and the meat would be the last; and when he wanted seconds, it would always be more vegetables. Whatever the vegetable, he wanted more of it! Chewy’s was a lot of work. Unfortunately, I got sidetracked and neglected the business—staying out late and calling other people in to open it up. I eventually turned the restaurant over to my brother Jimmy, a.k.a. “Pop.”
BV: You’re a vegan chef. What’s the difference between a cook and a chef?
CM: The difference is that you can be taught to be a cook, but you can’t be taught to be a chef. A cook will know the basics for different things: the herbs, the seasonings, and the temperature and so forth. But when you’re a chef, you’re not out to satisfy everybody. In fact, you’re gonna dissatisfy a lot of people before you get the dish right. The chef is the creative side of the cook—an artist with the stove as his easel. You’re using different thicknesses of brush to paint on the canvas: a little red or blue, and you see the shapes forming. You use saffron or green onions or shallots, instead of scallions.
And sometimes you fail in your experiment: you’ll give a dish to ten people, and eight people will hate it, and two will offer suggestions—things to add, or ways to prepare it. And you’ll go back to the lab and try again. For instance, the first person who thought to take an artichoke, take the guts out, and stuff it with breadcrumbs and herbs was a chef. It takes creativity. You have to take what’s normal to people, and put a whole new spin on it.
A chef is also an explorer. People shouldn’t limit themselves to the supermarket or even the green market; they need to go to other cultural places—such as a Chinese supermarket. You ask questions there: “How did you fix it? What do you do with it?” And then you think to yourself, “My culture might not like it like that, but how about if I did
this to it?” So, you adapt it and you present it, always risking the fact that people might say, “What the heck is this?” and not eat it.
That’s what qualifies me to be a chef: because all chefs are self-taught at that point of creativity. The more you teach yourself and learn from experience, the higher up the scale you go. Now, being a cook can be very boring, and some people don’t want to be a chef, because it’s intimidating to be thrown a bunch of stuff and have to create a dish.
BV: Tell us about the time you appeared on Shark Tank.
CM: Well, as you know, I’m a horticulturist, and I’ve had a couple of horticultural businesses. I used to live in Connecticut, where I was the head horticulturist and a designer for a landscape company that handled the estates of Luther Vandross, Donna Summer, Keith Richards, Michael Bolton, and Diana Ross. One of my biggest contracts was for Martha Stewart’s property.
I grew up on the Harlem streets, and I was a hustler. I always made money, but I found out that when you chase the money, you’ll end up out of breath. I never had a problem making money, and I made a lot of it with this horticultural business. I’m always looking for the home run and either avoiding the difficult stuff or hoping it goes away, and I stay away from the haters. Because all that stuff is a distraction, and you have to get rid of it or reduce it—or at least not worry about it. Because of this background, I bought cars—Range Rovers—and neglected what I should have been doing, such as paying taxes. And I ended up owing a lot in back taxes.
I had been in communication for a number of years with Duncan Burns, the inventor of VeggiDome, who used to work for ABC and on a number of feature films. He’d always respected what I was trying to do with PlantHero, and was very concerned about health and trying to make sure that people eat whole foods and cut down on waste. Duncan presented me with his idea, and I helped him tweak the concept.
I told Duncan that his idea was so good that he should think about going on Shark Tank with it. He told me that he had connections with folks on the set and that he’d reached out to them. The producers were impressed with the idea and they wanted Duncan to come out to California for the three auditions. Well, Duncan wanted me to be the promoter of it because I’m gregarious and he’s not. He was the numbers guy, but I own thirty-two different costumes, and I can make a sale! I turned myself into a big carrot for Shark Tank.
So I went for the first audition, and passed. For the second one, I had to fill out a lot of forms to say I wasn’t a pedophile or an axe murderer. I skipped the question about the tax issues, not because I was trying to be nefarious but because I didn’t think that was their business. Now, this was the winter of 2017, and Southern California was experiencing mudslides because they’d had a lot of fires in the summer, and then winter had been very rainy. As it turned out, they ended up giving us the seed money but not taping us, because the mudslides slowed up production.
BV: Tell us about VeggiDome.
CM: The VeggiDome is a glass container that minimizes waste. When people buy vegetables they often put them in the crisper, which is the container at the bottom of the fridge, and forget about them, because “Out of sight, out of mind,” right? The VeggiDome keeps vegetables fresh and, because it is in front of you, it makes you remember to eat fresh vegetables.
The dome itself is made of glass and not plastic, which is fine, but it can mean they break in the shipping and they’re heavy. I told my partners that I thought we needed to find something lighter, and make a bigger version as well. The problems with plastic were Bisphenol A (or BPA), which is a proven carcinogen, and Bisphenol S and F (BPS and BPF), which replaced BPA, but are also unsafe. So, there is no safe plastic, and it is everywhere. This is especially true for those still eating fish, because there’s so much plastic in the water. So, the VeggiDome is made of glass.
BV: What are you working on now?
CM: I’m currently a community nutritionist at a few adult day care and senior centers, and I’m the senior culinary specialist at PS 150. I continue as the founding director and CEO of Plant Harmony Health Center, which I started in 2014, and really helped me with my prostate cancer and shingles. I still do events. For instance, I did a big, three-hour event in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2019 on making your own milk. I did a blind taste test: dairy milk, cashew, walnut, and soy. It was framed as a competition, with prizes—but the event was really educating about health, comparing dairy milk versus nut milk. I hope to do more shows like this in the future.
Health is very important to me, for my family and for others. All I want to do is educate others to start making better choices about what they eat, and then encourage them to share all that they have learned with everyone they care about. Sort of like: Each one, teach one!