With all the alarming facts about catastrophic climate change at our fingertips, most of us know by now that every day needs to be Earth Day. And one of the easiest ways to start minimizing environmental impact is by considering what goes into our own mouths. Here in New York, Broadway East, a new “plant-based” (but not strictly vegetarian) restaurant, has made sustainability a top priority.
Tables in the elegantly designed eatery are made from redwood reclaimed from a water tower on East Broadway; almost all the food and beverages are organic, seasonal, and sourced within 500 miles; environmental service companies collect the waste cooking oil and compost; and in the back a 240-square foot vertical green wall of fresh air plants creates a fitting backdrop for the silver travertine bar. Oh, and the food, prepared by chef Lee Gross, is as fresh as it is environmentally correct.
The menu at Broadway East is 90% vegetarian or vegan, with some seafood and poultry. But there is no pork or red meat. Why is that? Well, it has a lot to do with the tastes and the preferences of the owners. They feel that pork and beef sort of cross a line. I kind of see it as running a spectrum from vegan to poultry. We don’t do a lot of raw which would be the extreme on one side and we don’t get into the red meats on the other end. It’s a limited but widely explored spectrum of ingredients that we use.
How does the restaurant try to reduce its impact on the ecosystem? We have an amazing water filtration system; we bottle our own still water and carbonated water. We use eco-friendly cleaning products, and we’re composting as much as we can now; it’s going up to McEnroe Organic Farm through Action Carting. And because the menu is focused on vegetables and grains, it has a low carbon footprint.
Is it more expensive or less expensive to run a restaurant this way? From a menu perspective it’s interesting because your food costs are generally lower because you’re dealing with more vegetables and whole grains than meat products. On the other hand we’re sourcing very high quality so there’s a lot of organic produce and that drives costs back up. Ultimately what drives up costs on vegetarian and vegan food is that the labor is very intensive. It’s very easy to throw a chicken breast in a pan, add a few vegetables and garnishes to the plate and you’re done. Vegetarian cooking takes a lot of work. It’s all from scratch and labor costs are very difficult to manage.
As far as the eco-friendly choices in the more general sense, well, first of all you’re not making money selling bottles of water. And the cleaning supplies are absolutely more expensive. But we’d like to think the long-term costs are much less, in terms of the big picture.
You were a chef who worked with more traditional fare for years before you dramatically changed your focus to vegetarian and vegan cooking. Well, macrobiotic. I graduated from culinary school with a bachelor’s degree and I learned more from Philippe Jeanty at Domaine Chandon than I did at culinary school. I was climbing the ladder and doing quite well and I kind of had a twenty-something crisis. I was becoming more conscious of the world and understanding the global predicament and understanding that people didn’t have food and I was essentially playing with it.
So I decided to join the Peace Corps, but I realized that I wasn’t qualified to do that. Instead I went up to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, following my then-girlfriend, now wife. There I came out as Sous Chef under Julie Jordan, who turned me onto macrobiotics. It was a way for me to mesh my ideals with my culinary abilities. I learned that food had an ability to heal and that we can really sort of change society through this because what we take in really determines who we are. A lot of the mania and compulsions and ills of the world are the result of poor quality food and chemically treated commercial food. A remedy to that is to eat simpler, clean, seasonal food.
This was all before the whole farm-to-table movement had really swept the nation. And I came out of macrobiotics with that sensibility back into a culinary world that was moving toward that. It’s interesting that I arrived at the same exact place through macrobiotics. So that’s the reason why my cooking’s inflected with a lot of traditional Japanese cooking, because a Japanese man, Michio Kushi, is largely responsible for bringing macrobiotics into widespread use in America.
So you do eat some meat? Well, I was pretty strict macrobiotics for a good three years. It totally changed my constitution; it completely cleaned my palate and made me a lot more sensitive to pure and simple flavors, having come out of a very rich background. When I took the job to open M Café Chaya, which was the first restaurant in the U.S. to assimilate macrobiotics into a modern, more approachable style, it was a perfect fit for me. I had just been working for Gwyneth Paltrow, which is where I developed my own hybrid style of macrobiotics and traditional classical cooking. At that point I sort of re-assimilated into the world with my diet. Now I eat everything, but based on my macrobiotic training I always know where to go to regain balance. I think at this point I really could use a lot simpler macro diet, which is really tough if you’re not living a monastic life in Becket Massachusetts at the Kushi Institute.
Peter Berley was initially hired as chef at Broadway East and wrote the influential Flexitarian Table cookbook. How much is his influence seen in the menu? I did come in under Peter Berley as Chef de Cuisine. There were differences between him and the ownership; they were looking for a vegetarian menu that was a little more progressive and interesting. And he wasn’t able to provide that for them. I had suggested that perhaps I could and when I showed them a menu and did some dishes it was exactly what they were looking for. I was very happy working with Peter and I was inspired by what he does. He’s a great guy and I was excited with what we were going to do. Things change and the vision became more mine. It’s interesting because there was a chef before Peter too, and they all sort of contributed their vision and the owners liked bits and pieces of all of them, which ultimately made it more difficult for me to clearly express what I do. I’m still struggling with that and I’m hoping the next menu will be a much more pure expression of me.
Have any items on the menu carried over from Peter? Zero.
What have the most popular dishes been so far? The Fennel and Blood Orange Salad, the Crispy Coconut Tempeh, the Portobello e Noce Nero, and the Red Beet Tataki and Golden Beet Tartare. I think the fennel salad speaks a lot to what we’re doing with vegetarian cooking. It’s an interesting dish because even if it was straight chorizo instead of seitan it would still be a great salad with the contrast in temperature, texture and flavor. The vinaigrette adds a lot of sprightliness. And the rich drizzle of chorizo underneath keeps it “more-ish.” But it happens to be seitan instead of chorizo and the cheese is made from cashews that are compressed into a block of cheese and aged for six months by a gentleman from Brooklyn. I think it’s absolutely unique in the vegan world and achieves a level of interest in flavor you don’t often find in vegan cooking.
So that dish is kind of like a microcosm of what you’re doing at Broadway East. Yeah, that’s a good example off the winter menu.
Is the spring menu in effect now? No, because of the timing of the opening I’m a little behind on that, but it’s in development.
Where did the idea for a chowder with sea vegetables come from? Well, it just seemed logical. We were dealing with two guys who go out every morning in a rowboat off the coast of Maine and harvest these vegetables. And sea vegetables are certainly under-appreciated and under-utilized and it’s a local food crop that people sort of avoid, despite the fact that in terms of nutrients they’re through the roof. So what better way to use them? The typical dish tosses them in a sort of false seaweed salad, which usually uses a lot of artificially processed sea-type vegetables. We like to smoke things as well, so we get some smokiness in there. It’s built like a typical New England chowder would be, except we’re not starting by rendering fatback. The sea vegetables add their salinity and oyster mushrooms add a little more body and, smoked dulse in the finish adds a bit more smokiness and salinity.
The restaurant’s crudités includes warm olives, which are delicious. Is that more common than I’m aware of? I’m not sure how common it is. We do marinate them with citrus spices to bring out some of the flavor.
Tell us about the business cards. That was the owners’ idea, to give out business cards with seed packets. It speaks to the values of the restaurant and is a better giveaway than a book of matches. It’s kind of fun because you really can plant them and grow them.
What other restaurants do you like to go to in New York? I haven’t had a chance to eat out much lately but I love Soba-Ya for a comforting bowl of soba noodles in a fabulous dashi; I think they make one of the best dashis in the city. I’ve been exploring the neighborhood, which I don’t leave as much as I should. I have an apartment by the restaurant now. I like Little Giant down there; it’s a fine restaurant I’ve been to once or twice.