Why did you decide to go all vegan for the winter menu?
There are a couple of factors that played into our decision. Typically, January and February are pretty slow months in Chicago, so we thought a vegan menu would be an interesting way to draw people to the restaurant. Another reason is that we had a lot of people request vegan options. Still, we’re such a small team right now—it’s literally myself and four other cooks in the kitchen—it’s really hard for us to accommodate vegan requests during our regular menu. We want to be able to offer vegan dishes that are just as exciting as our other dishes. So we decided to do a completely vegan menu for two months.
Eleven Madison Park in New York made headlines last year by going completely vegan. Were you inspired by their example?
I wouldn’t say that was a factor in my decision-making process. Still, I think the current restaurant industry landscape made it easier to do, compared to, say, three years ago when no one was serving a vegan tasting menu. Now, more people are willing to accept the vegan food movement in the fine-dining realm. In that sense, I think Eleven Madison Park helped with that transition.
“We’re all ’90s babies here, and we like to use a lot of influences from our childhood.”
Do many guests come because they’ve made a New Year’s resolution to go vegan?
No, it seems like a lot of our guests have been vegan for a long time. But guests have told me they haven’t been able to have a cool fine-dining experience based around an all plant-based menu. I don’t think Chicago offers anything quite like what we’re doing right now.
Do people have misconceptions about vegan menus?
Yes, I think they do. People expected our food to be similar to fake meat products like Beyond Meat. But we’re doing our best to stay away from that. We are really focused on vegetables, really cool produce from the sea, and good sauce work. We are also doing a lot of fermentation and preservations. I think people are surprised at how we are showcasing the beauty of these vegetables.
Tell me about one dish you’re excited about serving.
We serve a celery-root al pastor taco. We make tepache, which is a fermented Mexican beverage, and then ferment celery root in it. After a couple of days, we take out the celery root, rub it with a traditional al pastor marinade, and then roast it. We cover it with a lightly preserved pineapple salsa. We serve them in taco shells made from yuba, which is dried tofu skin that we shape into tiny little taco shells before frying them.
The menu also seems to have lots of playful touches. The menu lists carrot pastrami as well as something called a “funion.” Was that your take on a Funyun?
We definitely like to have a little fun with the menu. The funion was something we had wanted to create way before this vegan menu; we just never had time. It’s essentially a tapioca cracker seasoned with garlic oil and a little bit of roasted-onion powder. We just dehydrate it and fry it. For the carrot pastrami, we make pastrami-flavored brine using garlic, coriander, and black pepper. We ferment the carrots in that brine for about five-to-seven days. After that, we braise and smoke them. Then we slice them really thin and dehydrate them. This whole process gives the carrots an interesting, meaty texture. But it’s not fake corned beef; you hold on to the integrity of the carrot.
You also make an upscale version of an Uncrustable. How did that come about?
We’re all ’90s babies here, and we like to use a lot of influences from our childhood. A couple of months ago, we had some extra foie gras available, so we did a foie gras version of an Uncrustable. We decided to create a vegan version with cashew butter, which we make in-house, and red-pepper pate de fruit. The bread on the outside is a house-made vegan brioche that uses sweet potatoes as the emulsifier for the egg replacement in the brioche.
Will you offer the vegan menu beyond February?
This was only a trial run, but we will want to dedicate two months every year to an entirely vegan menu if it goes well. I’ve always been big on vegetables. I think they’re as good as specific proteins, so I will always have two-to-three dishes on the menu that are vegetarian.
Was it intimidating to take the reins from Iliana Regan?
I think I got kind of lucky. When I came in, Elizabeth was just doing takeout because of COVID. It was easy for me to move in and get the flow. There were only two other cooks when I was hired, making it easier to manage and implement my ideas. So when we reopened the dining room, we were already established.
How did you initially meet Iliana?
I was a chef de cuisine at her [now closed] restaurant Kitsune, where I really gained a lot of respect for her. She has a great work ethic. She’s one of the hardest-working chefs I have ever met. And I fell in love with her whole ethos, such as her focus on foraging.
Any big lessons that you’ve learned during the last year?
I wouldn’t say any big lessons. Just a lot of little ones. I’ve never really opened a restaurant before, so this was a little bit of an eye-opening experience about what it actually takes to open and run a restaurant.