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    Eat & Swig

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    Kristina Addington was raised on hearty Southern staples like chicken and dumplings, biscuits and gravy, meatloaf and mashed potatoes. “And there was always bacon in the green beans,” says Addington, who grew up in Shelby County but spent summers visiting relatives in the tiny Appalachian town of Whitesburg. “There would be family reunions every year, and they always centered around food,” Addington says. “That’s one reason I love feeding people so much. It’s not just about delicious food. It’s about community. You can take care of people with a good meal. It makes them feel loved.”

    Now, though, Addington is a self-described “vegan girl raised in the South.” The moniker reflects a style of cooking — vegan Southern comfort food — that landed Addington on the Food Network and that inspired the name of her food truck, V-Grits. In October, the 36-year-old chef opened a restaurant in collaboration with False Idol Independent Brewers, an operation launched by Shawn Steele, former brewer at Akasha Brewing Co. in NuLu. “You don’t have to have meat and dairy to get a good meal,” Addington says.

    It took nearly a year to overhaul V-Grits' new space — about three times as long as anticipated.

    Over the years, Addington has perfected the art of using plant-based ingredients to create country classics: a cashew-based “Cheddar” is key to her mac and cheese; jackfruit, in lieu of pulled pork, makes for a tangy barbecue; an oyster mushroom replaces chicken in her most popular menu item — a fried “chicken” platter.

    Following the lunch rush at V-Grits on a recent weekday afternoon, Addington and Steele sit down to discuss the brewpub, which is located in the former home to the popular Monkey Wrench bar on Barret Avenue. Sunlight floods the dining room, in stark contrast to the building’s previous incarnation, when black window shades, concert posters and fluorescent beer signs adorned the glass façade.

    It took nearly a year to overhaul the space — about three times as long as anticipated. The result: glossy white subway tile, exposed wood beams, polished concrete floors. A stainless-steel brewing system (carefully selected with the help of Steele’s engineer wife) is on display in the front of the dining room, where one wall is lined with about a dozen 55-pound bags of malt. Keeping with the V-Grits mission, Steele says he sources all grains from animal-free farms, and that False Idol’s spent grains are never redistributed for use as animal feed — only for purposes such as composting.

    When I suggest at the outset of our conversation that vegan food and craft beer are an unlikely combination, the business partners quickly but kindly debunk that assertion. Steele explains that beer is vegan at its core (excluding milk stouts, of course), and Addington says craft beer pairs perfectly with comfort food. Plus, she adds, “Just because you eat vegan doesn’t mean you don’t want to drink beer.”

    V-Grits' raw lasagna.

    Even as a young child, Addington was drawn to the kitchen. “I can remember sitting on the counter with my mom, and she would let me whisk things,” she says. “My mom cooked three meals a day almost every day when I was growing up. Everything revolved around food.” Upon graduating high school, Addington left small-town Shelbyville and moved to Louisville, where she took a job as a mortgage loan officer. Her stint at the bank lasted six years, which was longer than anticipated. “It wasn’t the most exciting thing, but it paid the bills while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life,” she says.

    It’s tough to picture Addington in a suit-and-tie setting: Her current hair color is tangerine orange, and a Rainbow Brite tattoo peeks out the bottom of a sleeve. She also has tattoos of Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, My Little Ponies and Hanson (yes, the brothers behind “MMMBop”). (“In the last 20 years, I’ve seen those guys in concert nearly 100 times,” she says. “Their music is all about following your passion despite the naysayers, something that’s motivated me to follow my dream and run my own business.”)

    Addington’s dream took root when the allure of the kitchen finally prompted her to leave the bank and enroll in Sullivan University’s Culinary Arts program. Around that time, she also became a vegan. “I was online when I just happened upon — accidentally — an undercover investigation into factory farms. I was shocked at first, and I wanted to really understand everything. I started researching where food comes from and looked at everything, from meat to dairy to poultry products, and I thought: I don’t agree with any of this,” she says.

    Sullivan tried to accommodate her desire to cook vegan, but Addington says at the time the school wasn’t really equipped to do so. She learned some essential culinary skills but left after a few semesters, embarking on a quest to teach herself how to not only cook vegan, but to re-create the style of cooking she grew up enjoying. “I wanted to learn how to cook Southern comfort food, because that’s what my family and friends were used to eating. I wanted to show them that being vegan doesn’t mean you’re just eating quinoa and kale salad all the time,” she says. “You can still get really flavorful, hearty meals without using animal products.”

    She spent a lot of time cooking at home, in part because there were few restaurant options for vegans in Louisville a decade ago. Ramsi’s Cafe and the now-shuttered Zen Garden were two exceptions. “At other places, you were basically building something for yourself based on rice,” she says. In her own kitchen, there was a steep learning curve — and her older brother still jokes about the first few meals he tasted, which Addington admits “were just terrible.” But she remained committed to achieving the same flavors found in family recipes — and to proving that “there’s more to vegan than tofu.”

    As she worked toward this goal, her career path took a different direction, albeit one equally inspired by animal welfare. She became a campaign coordinator with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), eventually working her way up to the role of corporate liaison. She spent about two weeks per month traveling across the country, meeting with executives at companies like JCPenney, Puma and Gap in an effort to convince them to enhance their animal-welfare policies. When she wasn’t on the road, Addington was busy building a side business as a private chef and vegan cooking instructor known as the Vegan Temptress.

    On a whim, she applied to appear on the Food Network show Cutthroat Kitchen. In the online questionnaire, she stated her goal was to prove that vegan food can be even better than food made with animal products. A network staffer called the next day, and after a series of Skype interviews, she made the cut. “They flew me out to Burbank (California) within a couple weeks. I got picked up at the airport with my name on a sign and a fancy black car — the whole deal,” says Addington, who describes the show as cooking competition meets American Gladiators. Over the course of two days of filming, she defeated three competitors and took home the grand prize: $18,500. She used the winnings, along with $13,000 raised via Kickstarter, to purchase a bright-orange food truck. V-Grits was born.

    After a few successful years on the local food-truck scene, Addington and her husband Jeff Hennis, co-founder of V-Grits, began searching for a restaurant space. The timing was serendipitous, as Steele was looking for a food partner in his False Idol venture. It was a good fit: The 32-year-old brewer is vegan and from a small Kentucky town where he too was raised on home-cooking.

    “Just because you eat vegan doesn’t mean you don’t want to drink beer.”

    Now that they’re open, Addington estimates that 50 percent of their customer base has been non-vegan. So far, the most popular menu item is the Betty, which pleases Addington: She named it in honor of her mom, who died this past summer. The country-dinner-style platter is a take on fried chicken, just like Mom used to make — except it’s made with an oyster mushroom marinated in vegan buttermilk, then battered and fried. “The texture of it is so chicken-y, it’s almost strange to eat,” Addington says. “You feel like you’re eating fried chicken.” The meal is served with mashed potatoes and gravy, stir-fried veggies and a scratch-made biscuit with sweet butter (made by whipping a store-bought vegan spread with agave and cinnamon). Another menu staple is a vegan Hot Brown, inspired by the meaty version Addington’s mom cooked almost weekly when she was a kid.

    As an omnivore who recently visited V-Grits accompanied by a devout carnivore and two adventuresome kids, I can attest that this spot isn’t just for vegans. We devoured both the Hot Brown and the Betty, along with the Cuban sandwich, made with seitan-based “ham” and “turkey” and topped with mustard, pickles and smoked gouda made from coconut milk. The imitation-meat textures and tastes were noticeably different than the ingredients they were emulating, but the dishes in their entirety evoked the flavors of the real thing. The pimento cheese grits were perfectly spicy for three out of four people at our table (the five-year-old dramatically gulped water after tasting), and we all concurred that the fried mac and cheese balls were deliciously creamy on the inside with a crunchy coating.

    The kids fought over the last half of a biscuit, abandoning all manners to scoop the final schmear of sweet butter out of the ramekin. The adults paid them little mind, enjoying two crisp Kellerbiers, a German pilsner that was one of three False Idol brews on tap.

    My family shared an abundance of food, eating every morsel, and left with uncomfortably full bellies. Just as one would expect at the end of an authentic Southern meal.

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Planted in Comfort Food." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

    Cover photo: The mac and cheese flight at V-Grits.

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