Getting to the root of Gabe Kennedy, cofounder of Plant People
Meet the chef who’s changing the future of how food makes us feel, one mushroom at a time
Saturday 4 June 2022 By Laura Bolt Photography by Grant Puckett
The legend goes like this: during a fruitful hike, chef Gabe Kennedy and his friend Hudson Gaines-Ross (cofounder of RISE Brewing Co.) bonded over mutual back injuries, the limits of pharmaceutical interventions, and the potential of plant-based and CBD treatments. Lo and behold, a new company was born: enter Plant People, the duo’s ever-growing line of regenerative plant and mushroom supplements that includes tinctures, mushroom cacao mix, gummies, and herbal supplements.
Rewind to Kennedy’s formative years, and the entrepreneur has always seen food a little differently. Born in Boulder, Colorado to acupuncturist and chiropractor parents, his childhood kitchen table extended into clinics, the wilderness, and across the world. Recalling his upbringing, Kennedy has ‘a lot of really fond memories. As a kid, I’d just sit and listen, and absorb all the stuff that they had going on in their healing.’ After a peripatetic youth spent in far-flung places like Indonesia, Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand, his love of food (and Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential) took him to the Culinary Institute of America. There, he tried his hand at fine dining, eventually working brutal 21-day work stretches for minuscule paychecks in high-end kitchens that exposed him to the dark side of the food industry.
Next in Kennedy’s ‘choose your own adventure’ style career, he enrolled in Cornell University Hotel School, after which he found catering gigs in the Hamptons and throughout New York City. Eventually, he became involved in the CPG space, where he worked with a private equity firm to oversee product development of organic food brands. Here, he realised it was ‘a tremendous opportunity to get products into people’s hands that actually have an impact through the supply chain on a really large scale. Working with 15,000 marginalised farmers across the Indonesian landscape, we’re changing people’s livelihoods and creating more sustainable systems and certified regenerative, organic land.’
In 2015, his early fascination with Bourdain turned out to be a fortuitous inspiration when a friend recommended that Kennedy audition for a new reality show that Bourdain (along with celebrity chefs Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre and Marcus Samuelsson) was judging. And before he knew it, Kennedy found himself holed up in a hotel near the Santa Monica Airport cooking under the watchful eye of ABC’s television cameras. He won the competition and found himself thrust into a new kind of spotlight. ‘That changed my life,’ he says. ‘I was put on a national stage at 23. I was having a blast.’
More high-profile work followed, including restaurant consulting gigs and a stint at Bon Appetit as visiting executive chef. ‘I felt like I was learning so much and really immersed in doing exactly what I wanted,’ he recalls. ‘So, at that point I said, OK, I want to put my craft into practice because it’s fun to do consulting things or be travelling around, but I want to put my food into the world in a more profound way’ – which brings us back to Plant People.
‘There are so many things that are out of our control, but I can always show up, cook a meal, and nourish someone’
For Kennedy, it wasn’t just about creating effective products, but building a sustainable backbone, from supply chain to consumption. The company, a certified B-Corp, focuses on reducing carbon emissions, supporting small farmers, and a style of regenerative agriculture, guided by a belief that what happens in the soil ends up in your microbiome.
‘One of the reasons it was so profound for me is that it took all of the stuff that I’d been doing and wrapped it up into one vision,’ he remembers. ‘People were just starting to learn about adaptogens and CBD, but they didn’t know how to access them. After growing up with an acupuncturist, going through multiple spinal surgeries and having worked with food, it just seemed like a no-brainer. I thought, “oh my God, this is what I’m supposed to be doing”.’
As he’s done throughout his career, Kennedy took the opportunity to develop Plant People as a chance to test himself, stimulate his curiosity, and try and share some of his knowledge, rather than drop in and cash out.
‘We really bootstrapped Plant People,’ he says of the early days of the company. ‘It came from a very pure place; here’s something that I know about, that I absolutely love that has changed my life. We did a lot with a little – I mean, we fulfilled $150,000 of orders from our couch,’ he laughs. Now, the line includes products for immunity, stress, sleep and focus, with an expansion into Whole Foods on the horizon.
In a culinary landscape of chefs as brands, Kennedy is working against a system that forces him into a singular definition. To define himself (or maybe undefine himself) as a leader seems to be a bit of a misnomer, as Kennedy is trying to create the same kind of harmonious balance in his role as entrepreneur as he does for the food he creates. ‘You know, it’s “Plant People”, not “Plant Person”,’ he says. ‘I’m not asking people to follow me, but instead to rally around this vision of connecting with your food and eating sustainably, and being a shepherd of that.’
Whether he’s wearing the hat of chef, cofounder, product developer, sustainability expert, or culinary influencer, Kennedy’s ultimate goal is to create a community around connection and joy with food as the catalyst. ‘I just try to draw a line from how we feel when we eat,’ he says. ‘It’s not just what you’re eating, but who you eat with and the context of how you’re eating. It all comes back to simplicity. There are so many things that are out of our control, but I can always show up, cook a meal, and nourish someone. No matter what I’m working on, I’ll always have a deep love for being able to conjure joy in people’s lives.’