For Gabrielle Reyes, the energy she feels while eating plant-based foods is something to sing about.
Reyes, who shares recipes and offers virtual vegan cooking classes on her website, One Great Vegan, became a viral TikTok sensation during the pandemic due to her vibrant videos showcasing her recipes — always accompanied by a song.
"I wake up every day and we just cook and experiment with every kind of food we want to eat and record the videos," Reyes said of herself and husband Ace Anderson, who encouraged Reyes to learn to film her musical cooking TikToks. "I sing a song and Ace adds on his beat box: It is all so silly but it brings my heart so much joy."
But Reyes didn't always feel joy about her relationship with food: After her father died when she was a teen, she began struggling with an eating disorder.
"I could not get a grip on how to nourish myself and how to feel the way I wanted to feel," said Reyes, who was battling bulimia throughout her teens and early 20s, while grieving her father’s death.
"I remember I was at a precipice where I thought I could either live a life of being basic, or I could chase my dreams and be Gabrielle Reyes," she recalled.
A childhood memory of visiting a vegan restaurant with her dad returned to her, and while binge-eating junk food at a college tailgate party, Reyes said she decided to change her life.
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"Literally something spoke to me," she said. "I don’t know what it was. I think it was my father or the spirit of my father or God, but something was like, 'No girl, go vegan. You don’t have to do this anymore. You don’t have to hate yourself. You don’t have to eat horrible things and feel horrible afterward.'"
Reyes said she knew nothing about cooking vegan food, but leaned on the Haitian, Puerto Rican and soul-food recipes her parents cooked when she was growing up and began putting a vegan spin on them.
"Food has four elements: a carb, a meaty, a fresh and a creamy element," she said. "Everything you love to eat has those elements, so I started creating meals every day and feeding my friends."
Among those who tried Reyes cooking was Anderson, who encouraged her to delve deeper into her culinary training. Reyes began teaching vegan cooking classes and running a vegan catering business.
Anderson, who Reyes married in 2019, helped her set up a website and, after the couple watched a documentary about TikTok, encouraged her to shoot cooking videos to share on the social media app.
Today, millions have viewed Reyes' vivacious videos, where she dances and whips up recipes like vegan pizza bagels and Jamaican "beef" patties, singing songs about each dish.
Reyes said she's most proud of the joy her videos bring others.
"I have so much fun just creating songs and watching kids duet them and do dances to them or lip-sync or make the food," she said. "It is the cutest thing to watch these little girls do their TikTok dances to me singing about cinnamon spice churros."
Kids also message Reyes on the app, sharing how her videos have changed the health and diet of their families: something Reyes loves to hear, but isn't necessarily surprised by.
"This food tastes so bomb but also is helping your body and healing your body," Reyes explained. "The songs just bring it joy and add that positive, healing, not-negative feel."
So, what advice does Reyes give to those looking to explore vegan cooking?
First, don't feel overwhelmed.
"I think cooking vegan food is easier and it’s also cheaper," she said. "Ingredients like beans, grains and seeds — those kinds of things are way cheaper than dairy or meat products."
Second, add lots of color.
"Fill your grocery cart up with the rainbow," Reyes said. "Go to the reds, go to the orange and yellow, then the green — grab all these things and ask what you can create with these ingredients."
Third, use mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms.
"Any time I want to replace a pork or chicken or fish, I love to use mushrooms because they can take on and soak in the flavor that you need," she said. "I make a vegan pizza bagel with 'pepperoni' mushrooms, and you just add in whatever seasoning you feel goes into your pepperoni and they will soak in all of that flavor."
Just like her beloved mushrooms, Reyes hopes her followers will soak in all of the joy and positivity she tries to pack into each TikTok.
"If anything, I want people to see the food and hear the songs and take away from it that they need to sing their song, do their dance, live their truth and be unapologetic about who they are," she said. "My dad would dance when nobody else was dancing and he would groove when nobody else asked him to. It's cool to see that in myself and to be able to hopefully help other people do that so they can live a little bit lighter."