As a long-time regular of Angelica Kitchen restaurant in New York City, I’ve come to consider it a “second kitchen,” a place I feel good about supporting because it shares the values I keep in my own kitchen: High quality ingredients that provide a fair income to farmers who are working to protect the environment–and which provide nutrition without sacrificing any of the flavor–all for the reasonable cost afforded by buying direct.
And I am not alone. Since it opened its door in 1976, Angelica Kitchen has cultivated a loyal following, and their sustainable business model–maintained without serving alcohol (you can BYOB)–is a case study for success outside of the mainstream restaurant industry. Angelica’s is also one of the most popular vegetarian restaurants in New York City, precisely because it attracts a clientele that includes many non-vegetarians. In honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, I spoke with owner Leslie McEachern–who is being awarded for her long-time advocacy of small, local farms by the Northeast Organic Farming Association this month–about running a restaurant built on relationships.
With over thirty years in New York City, why do you think Angelica Kitchen has been such a success?
We’ve earned the trust of people who are seeking out a plant-based diet. I think people have experienced the satisfaction of eating really fresh organic ingredients and having their body respond well to that, because we’ve really focused on a balanced, nutritional whole foods diet at Angelica. All of the thought that has gone into providing a balanced, whole food meal, especially with the quality of the ingredients from the farmers, I think people just respond well to it sometimes without even knowing why.
Why did Angelica Kitchen decide to be vegan from the outset?
The three guys who started the restaurant were very much into the whole macrobiotic scene. And even though macrobiotic is not vegan, I think they were interested in as clean a diet as possible, and a plant-based diet to them was the way to go.
Why did you decide to maintain Angelica’s as a vegan restaurant?
I had been a vegetarian for over 10 years at that time, and actually, I’d been living out of the woods in North Carolina for six years, out of a little hut with no electricity, no plumbing or anything. I’d been living on a very straight-forward plant-based diet, just living very close to the land. Then I moved to New York all of a sudden because I fell in love with a guy–the guy who owned Angelica’s. So it never even occurred to me to shift away from what was going on because philosophically I was already aligned, not only with seeking out the farmers which was happening when I got involved, but also because I felt it was an intelligent approach to having a restaurant in that neighborhood.
Who do you think Angelica Kitchen’s audience is?
I don’t try to appeal to anyone in specific. We don’t advertise, we’ve always been word-of-mouth. Back in the early 1980s, it was very much the neighborhood coming to the restaurant. When I built the restaurant on 12th Street, where we opened in 1988, there was a lot of education going on about “you are what you eat.” Now, people come from all over the world because there is such an interest in eating clean. And that has continued to grow. We don’t approach or make our menu to meet a certain need. We have our passion, which is really about whole foods, about supporting the local farmers–we support 24 different artisans and farmers year-round–and using their products to show off the plant-based menu.
Do you think there is more awareness now about food than there was when Angelica Kitchen opened in the 1970s?
There is a tremendous amount of awareness. I see people really making intelligent choices now about what they’re putting into their bodies. That’s a broad statement and I’m certainly not including all of western culture. Just the numbers of people that are coming into Angelica’s Kitchen, the number of people who are going to farmers’ markets, the number of books that are available about eating clean and eating well. Like my friend Marion Nestle, she’s written these great books, like Food Politics, What to Eat, and Safe Food–Marion has sold so many books. And I just don’t know that that would have been possible 20 years ago.
What made you decide to focus on organic food when you first got involved with Angelica’s?
My soul responds to nature. When I started reading Wendell Berry in the early 1970s, I found a voice for that. And once I’d found that voice, not only through his philosophical writings, his agricultural writings, his poetry and his novels, I was very inspired. Frank, the owner at the time [I got involved], had already been ordering from local, organic growers. I had always been in the natural foods business, and I had worked with a lot of organic ingredients before, and I knew where my heart stood on that matter. So I had the opportunity to get on my soapbox through my actions once I got involved with Angelica’s and say that this is what I feel is the best way to feed people. And so I continued to network to find the ingredients from local growers–organic, diversified, small, independent family farms.
Are there farmers that you’ve kept ties with since the beginning, that you’ve worked with for the past two decades?
Definitely. There are farmers who didn’t even have children then, whose children are now graduated from college. It’s very rewarding having long-term relationships with Guy Jones at Blooming Hill Farm, Mark Denau from Martin Dell Farm, and Lou Harris Farm up in the Finger Lakes. Getting to see the farmers when they bring their produce in on deliveries is a terrific bonus as far as doing this kind of business. In fact, those relationships are the very thing that keeps me inspired to keep going.
What is the most popular dish at the restaurant?
Through the years its definitely been the Dragon Bowl [steamed vegetables, sea vegetables, beans, rice and tofu with a choice of dressing], I think because we’re so close to NYU and its such a complete meal, and lots of times people eat half of it and take the other half home. And [the Wee Dragon] is under $10, and its a well-balanced meal when you are hungry.
You have been asked over the years to expand the restaurant to other locations–why have you said no?
Wendell Berry talks about having a sense of place. In a certain way I would love to see more people doing whole foods, fresh from farms. But the way I’m made up personally, I don’t want another restaurant. It’s really a lot of work to do it well. One of the problems that I came across was that most people who I’ve had this kind of conversation with were concerned only about the bottom line. You can’t do a restaurant like Angelica Kitchen if you are concerned just about the bottom line. Because you’re going to start cutting corners, you’re going to start paying staff less. We deliberately keep our prices low, and this is a point of contingence with people who would be interested in opening more Angelica Kitchens. Its a philosophical conflict for me to undo what I’ve tried to put out there as an example of what is possible to be done: a whole foods restaurant, without alcohol, that is serving the farmer, that is serving the public.
You’ve called yourself a “reluctant restaurateur.” What do you mean?
(Laughs) I think the best way that everyone could eat is to be at home and cook and eat with your friends and family. Ideally–again, how ideal is this world?–there wouldn’t be a need for a restaurant.
Below is a recipe from The Angelica Home Kitchen cookbook, which is available at the restaurant or through the Angelica Kitchen Web site. This stew is just right for the fall, features root vegetables and the fundamental ingredients of Japanese cuisine such as kombu, shoyu, ginger and rice wine (mirin). Enjoy!
Oden (Asian root vegetable stew)
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cups diced onions
6 cups water
1 cup burdock, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cups carrots, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup daikon, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup rutabagas, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup parsnips, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 to 6dry shiitake mushrooms
1 (3-inch) piece dried kombu
5 slices ginger, each the size of a quarter
1/2 cup shoyu or tamari
2 tablespoons mirin
1/4 cup kuzu
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons sliced scallions for garnish
In a heavy saucepan, sauté the onions and burdock in the olive oil over medium heat for 10 minutes. Add six cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the carrots, daikon, rutabagas, parsnips, shiitake mushrooms, kombu, ginger, mirin and tamari. Lower the flame and simmer covered for 30 to 40 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Remove ginger and discard. Remove kombu and shiitake mushrooms, slice into bite-size pieces, and return to the pot. Dissolve the kuzu in 1/4 cup cold water; stir into the stew and simmer for 1 or 2 minutes longer. stir in the sesame oil. NOTE: You should never cook with toasted sesame oil because high heat will release free radicals in the oil, making it toxic. Use toasted sesame oil as a last-minute addition; treat like a flavor enhancer such as salt or vinager. Serve with noodles or rice, accompanied by baked, marinated tofu, kimchee, and scallion garnish.
Photo: jwrkc via Flickr