Catching up with Kyleen Keenan

Not just a Not-Your-Sugar-Mama anymore.

Chef Ky Keenan prepares food for a bachelorette party in Edgartown. —Edible Vineyard

I first caught up with Kyleen Keenan on a gray early summer day at 7A Foods in West Tisbury. She is on the phone with the Steamship Authority, trying to get her new zero-emissions food truck to the Island before the Fourth of July. Liz Lemon after Liz Lemon walks out in the hands of customers back at 7A for their first summer sandwich fix. Ky (as everyone calls her) clicks off and sighs, “All they can do is offer me a spot on the waitlist. Better than nothing.” Then she responds to a text about a private chef gig, and as she types a response, she laughs, “I thought I was going to have a slow summer.”

To say Ky has a lot on her plate would be an understatement. She is the co-founder of Not Your Sugar Mamas, co-author of “Chocolate Every Day,” co-owner of Vineyard Haven’s Not Your Sugar Mamas Cafe, a health coach, designing edibles for Patient Centric M.V., and a private chef, and is now launching a new food truck business called Frankie’s, which will offer organic, plant-based flatbreads. She is also mother to Francesca (or Frankie, thus the name of the food truck), who is 4½ years old. 

“We’ll see if we can get the food truck going this summer. It should be wrapped by Monday [this means the logo is on the side of the truck], and I have a spot to park it [behind the Larder in Vineyard Haven], but I still need approval from the board of health. I wasn’t that attached to this project, but then it just came together. I found some incredible investors, including Max Crespo of New York’s Neapolitan Express, and it just worked out that we could do it here. And I really believe it can be done. No cutting corners. I want to offer a high-quality artisanal product at an affordable price. I don’t want to sound preachy, but we need to move toward fewer pesticides, more organic, plant-based diets. Not just for our own health, but for the world.”

Ky is not new to food. She has been on a mission to change the way we eat for more than eight years, and her vision is just getting bigger: “We need to make delicious, organic, nourishing food affordable and accessible to everyone.”

A plant-based spread. —Edible Vineyard

As she tells it, her food journey began when she met her former roommate and Not Your Sugar Mamas cofounder Bennett Coffey. Most fans of Not Your Sugar Mamas know the story of how Ky and Bennett Coffey’s chocolate business began. Both were young twentysomethings whose lives collided on Martha’s Vineyard. Bennett, fresh from her studies at New York City’s Institute for Integrative Health in New York City, arrived on the Vineyard looking for an access point for her food. Ky, who graduated from Bentley for international finance, and had been working in South America, returned to the Vineyard, where she had spent many summers waiting tables at places like Among the Flowers and Alchemy, “working 100 hours a week, making money.” Ky tasted Bennett’s food, felt the incredible effects, and saw a new market: “Basically, she had the recipes, and I had the experience to grow a business.” 

Ky’s entrepreneurial skills may also be genetic. Ky grew up in Southwick— “a small town off Exit 3. My father was one of seven. Six of his siblings have their own businesses.” She laughs. “My dad has three.” By my count, Ky has at least five.

Ky explains more about her food history: “Growing up and in college, I was on the standard American diet. Meat, alcohol, sugar. I was addicted to sweets! When I lived in Argentina, I ate out and snacked on treats like alfajores, dulce de leche, all the time. But my roommate there had celiac disease, and had to cook and eat at home. So she was really the first to teach me how to cook. And then when I lived with Bennett, and here on the Island where there is so much great fresh food, my appreciation for a more conscious way of eating began to happen. It was gradual. But the raw chocolate was an epiphany. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was, and how good it made me feel. I wondered if more food could be like that.” She pauses and then adds, “My mom was a nurse. There is a lot of cancer in my family, so I knew I needed to start paying attention to what I put into my body.” 

Ky looks at her phone to check the time. “Frankie is at school, so I have some time today. I have her Mondays through Thursdays, and then her dad Nacho [Daniel Vignolo] has her on the weekends. He is an amazing father. So steady. I try to do all of my private chef and nutritional coaching work when she is with her dad.” 

Ky shares that this coming weekend she will cook for a bachelorette party and then spend the weekend coaching. “My coaching client will come on Saturday, stay with me. We will walk, cook, talk about plant-based nutrition, and I’m helping her create a business plan. This woman is in her mid-thirties, and wants to start doing what I do, but I want to help her make it hers.” 

The skies are getting dark, and large drops of rain begin to come down. More and more people gather to huddle under 7A Foods’ sheltered portico. Friends and NYSM fans keep stopping and chatting with Ky, asking her how things are going. This reminds her of yet another project:  “Oh, and I can’t wait to do a Supper in the Sanctuary at Felix Neck! August 22nd. And I’ve got several retreats happening. I’m going to Italy in September and next April, and Costa Rica.” Soon it becomes too hard to talk among the crowd. We decide to meet up again when she is cooking for her bachelorette party.

So later in the week, I find Ky stirring oyster mushrooms in a spectacular kitchen in Edgartown. Ky is giddy about the location. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Indeed, the London homeowners have transformed what looks like a simple Cape on the exterior into a streamlined modern marvel of a house inside. Giant glass doors open on to a garden and pool area where 13 women are lounging and chatting. They have come from Los Angeles, Nashville, Cleveland, and New York for the weekend to celebrate their friend AnnMarie, who will be getting married in Sicily in September.  The bride-to-be and several of the women are vegan or primarily vegan. The bride’s sister Amy wanders in from the pool, and explains that she found Ky, “randomly on a realty website, but looking at this food, I’m so glad I did!”

Indeed, Ky’s spread makes the mouth water. For predinner grazing, she has laid out Grey Barn purple asparagus, white bean hummus, champagne grapes, almond ricotta drizzled with olive oil, yellow, purple and orange Morning Glory carrots, fresh herbs from her garden, gluten-free crackers, and a spicy cashew cheddar. Ky says, “I made enough so they could have snacks over the course of the weekend.” 

A few of the sunbathers join Amy and ooh and aah over the food. They chat with Ky about their favorite vegan eateries in New York and Los Angeles. Two women from Cleveland and Nashville shake their heads. Great vegan food is much harder to come by in their towns. When Ky offers them more food, the group begs off, saying they need to shower, but several travel back to the kitchen in towels to have another bite of ricotta and cashew cheddar before getting dressed. 

Ky introduces me to Chanda Decker, who appears bearing a platter of grilled eggplant. Apparently, she was off grilling in a corner of the home’s garden when I first arrived. Ky says, “Chanda is going to be the chef on the Frankie’s truck! I’m thrilled. Chanda is just another crazy magical thing that happened to make Frankie’s possible.” Chanda, a former pastry chef at Rockfish (her husband, Craig Decker, is the executive chef), says, “No, I’m so excited about this. I’ve been working in kitchens for years. I am French-trained, CIA at Greystone. Both the food truck and Patient Centric are super-exciting to me. It’s a whole new way of thinking and cooking. So I just turned all my dessert recipes over to Rockfish, and have decided to jump in and help Ky with organic, plant-based foods.”

They discuss a few items on Frankie’s menu, which features a “bread” that is gluten-free and paleo. It all sounds delicious. A classic marinara has organic tomatoes, cashew cheese, cashew Parmesan, arugula, and olive oil. There’s also avocado toast, and for the more adventurous, a BLT that includes almond ricotta, coconut bacon, basil walnut pesto, arugula, and tomato.  

As the bachelorette party (now dressed in lovely summer frocks) begins to assemble in the kitchen, Ky and Chandra chat with the women as they pull together a lentil salad with snap peas and radishes, dress roasted chickpeas and onions with chimichurri, mix sorghum with a basil vinaigrette, smoked mushrooms, and handfuls of North Tabor Farm kale, and plate grilled vegetables over romesco sauce. No recipes or measuring cups are in sight. Ky tastes as she goes. 

Ky’s blue eyes light up when she discovers the bride knows her investor Max. She trades Instagram accounts with a guest who is a stylist in Los Angeles, and talks celiac with another.  Ky is not preachy about her approach or food philosophy. She is curious to hear about what others think, and to know what their food experience is. But she does pause to espouse the value of Himalayan salt with me: “I like it because it has 72 trace minerals.” 

Excited by my interest, she grabs a small black pouch and opens it. “Smell this.” I smell vanilla. “Incredible, right? Wild vanilla bean powder!” She points to a bottle. “That’s smoked olive oil. Also great. With plant-based cooking, I am always looking for ways to bump up the flavor. Nutritional yeast, lemons, plum vinegar, smoked paprika, other spices I’ve found in Oaxaca.” She points to two shopping bags: “Look in there. That’s what I’m always toting around.” Inside I find cashews, almond butter, Anthony’s Nutritional Yeast Flakes, several vinegars, mustards, almond flour, and coconut sugar. She continues to talk as I peruse her “go-to” items: “With plant-based food, a food processor goes a long way. A Vitamix is key for nut cheeses. I don’t leave home without it. And I often have to travel with one.”

When everyone is ready, table set, and the final tweaks of the meal have been made, the ladies follow Ky and Chandra bearing large family-style bowls and platters to the table for a feast. The vibe is relaxed, easy, and fun. And all the women nearly whoop over the raw chocolate tart in an almond flour crust that Ky artfully places on a round slice of wood. They ask Ky and Chandra to take a picture with them. Ky scrunches her hair, adjusts her apron, and flashes a big, genuine smile. Clearly, she is onto something. 

Grain and gluten free raw chocolate tart with fresh berries and an almond flour crust. Made with raw cacao, coconut oil, maple syrup, pure vanilla bean and Himalayan sea salt. —Edible Vineyard

Chocolate tart with mashed raspberries and pine nut crust 

Makes one 8-inch square tart 

There is something romantic about the pairing of raspberries and chocolate — they’re a match made in heaven. The striking red berries against the dark choco­late ganache make this a beautiful and show-stopping dessert. And the pine nut crust — it’s so rich and buttery, we think it tastes exactly like shortbread. This tart will make anyone feel loved. 

For the crust 

3 Tbs. unrefined virgin coconut oil, plus more for greasing the pan 
2 cups almond flour 
1 ½ cups pine nuts 
¾ cup unsweetened shredded coconut 
3 Tbsp. pure maple syrup 
¾ tsp. pure vanilla extract or powder 
¾ tsp. sea salt

For the raspberry layer

2 cups fresh red raspberries

For the dark chocolate ganache

1 cup pure maple syrup 
½ cup unrefined virgin coconut oil
1 cup raw cacao powder 
1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract or powder (optional) 
½ tsp. sea salt (optional) 
1 cup fresh red raspberries for serving

Make the crust: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350°F. Grease an 8 x 8 in. square tart pan with a removable bottom and set aside. Combine the coconut oil, almond flour, pine nuts, coconut, maple syrup, vanilla, and salt in a food processor and run until a dough forms. Press dough evenly onto the bottom and up the sides of the prepared tart pan. Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork. 

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until lightly golden. Let the crust cool completely in the pan, about 1 hour. 

Make the raspberry layer: Add the raspberries to a medium bowl and mash gently with a fork. Spread the mashed berries over the cooled crust and set aside. 

Make the dark chocolate ganache: In a blender, purée the maple syrup and coconut oil until combined. Add the cacao powder, vanilla, and salt, if using, and blend again until smooth. 

Pour the filling evenly over the mashed raspberry layer. Chill the tart in the refrigerator until firm, about 30 minutes. Artfully arrange the remaining 1 cup of raspberries over the ganache layer before serving. Store the tart covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.