Last week, in honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, we unveiled the 52 Best Restaurants for Vegetarians in America. No conversation about plant-based dining could be complete without talking about chefs Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau or, rather, talking to them. So, that’s what we did! Read on for a look inside their restaurants Vedge and V Street, with photos from Simon Lewis, and learn about their honest, feel-good #vegforward food that you can believe in.
In the 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid, after eating a humble Midwestern dinner, Charles Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow, rather absurdly, declares, “There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in that cauliflower. This is a totally honest meal. You don’t know what a pleasure it is to sit down in this day and age and eat food you can believe in.”
Flash forward 40-plus years, and the same words might be uttered by anyone who has ever had the pleasure of dining at Vedge (hold the side of absurdity, even from a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker like Lenny). The award-winning Philadelphia restaurant from chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby has captured the nation’s attention since opening its doors in 2011 with its animal product-free menu that celebrates vegetables in ways both evocative and original.
The seemingly sudden success of Vedge and its brand of food diners can – and do – believe in, be they omnivores or vegans, is actually a story decades in the making. Philadelphia vegetable lovers are long-familiar with the couple’s popular Horizons restaurant, which had a devoted, cultish following, since it opened, first as Horizons Café inside a health food store, in 1994.
In the subsequent 20-odd years, appetites have evolved alongside Landau’s cuisine. Jacoby, who teamed up with Landau personally and professionally in 2001, said of their earliest menus, “It was a lot of tofu and seitan — mock meats, mock tuna salad, faux chicken salad. A lot of these playful ‘isms around protein-centric dishes. But that’s what it was back then. You had to start somewhere, and you had to start with something that was familiar to people.”
As Horizons steadily grew in popularity, there were a few significant culinary climate changes occurring in the U.S. She notes, “In the mid-2000s, people started to really think about where their food was coming from. They wanted to know its origins — who makes it, how organic it is, how local it is. People started to value that.”
At the same time, tapas and small plates began to captivate diners’ imaginations. “People became much more casual and social with their dining. They wanted to graze and have lots of plates in front of them and lots of variety.” These shifts allowed the couple to then shift their attention away from “a giant piece of vegan protein on a plate” and highlight a single vegetable at a time. They also allowed Jacoby and Landau to fully realize their vision for focusing on and celebrating vegetables, shuttering Horizons to open Vedge.
“It’s been this kind of beautiful story because everybody loves vegetables. Very few people refuse to eat them. There’s so much diversity in how you prepare them, the colors, the textures, the flavors. And there’s just so much to do when you get your hands on them. It’s really exciting territory.”
Landau, a self-taught chef who was nominated for a James Beard Award just this year, concurs. “We’re having a pinch-me moment. When people say that Vedge has made a splash on a national level, it’s hard to wrap my head around it. I just go to work and make sure everyone’s good and the food tastes amazing.”
Speaking of food, Vedge’s menu, and that of the newish restaurant V Street, is modest – and efficient (four guests could easily sample every one of Vedge’s offerings in a single sitting). “We keep our menu small because we like to be really focused on what we’re doing and do it really well,” he says.
With 18 dishes, diners can choose from six options at the veg bar, all of which are cold vegetable charcuterie selections. There are six hot, bigger-than-an-appetizer-yet-smaller-than-an-entrée kitchen plates, and their signature dirt list, a collection of freshly sown, at-the-moment farm vegetables. “We try to turn them into these whacky side dishes, doing things people haven’t done with them before. That’s our motto: Do something that hasn’t been done.”
One of his favorite vegetables to cook with is rutabaga, something he revealed when pressed to share what he thinks will be the next “it” vegetable of the year. “When we opened Vedge, I really wanted to make sure we’d use every vegetable we could — and especially the ones that people hated as kids.” Landau points out that most people only associate rutabaga with the bag of stock vegetables ubiquitous in supermarket produce sections. But there’s so much more to them than soup.
“They’re starchy. They have a lot of flavor in them. Rutabaga is just so creamy. And it’s just got the most incredible color. It’s looks like Cheez Whiz when cooked.” And while you can go deep and prepare it in elaborate recipes, he suggests, “Cook it down simply, sauté it with some garlic and onion, add some vegetables and stock and even a vegan cream base – maybe some tofu or cream cheese or even some vegan mayo — blend it in a blender, and it’s like this luxurious hollandaise sauce. It’s incredible! I’m a big fan if you can’t tell.”
Whatever the vegetable he is showcasing, Landau, who, along with Jacoby, is the author of the Vedge cookbook, always aims for people to leave feeling truly satisfied. “I like to hit diners on all levels. Yes, your belly should be full, but that’s not just what eating is all about. Mentally, you should be enlightened. ‘Wow, I ate a whole meal full of vegetables!’ We like to get to people on that soulful level. We’re not selling health food. We’re selling really deep, roasted, caramelized, and spiced flavors of food and showing people it’s not really about the meat when you have a great meal. It’s about the seasoning and the technique.” (see sauce, luxurious hollandaise).
Both vegans since late adolescence, Landau and Jacoby find inspiration for their vegetable creations through gourmet globe-trotting. Jacoby says, “We love to travel, and when we do, all we do is eat and drink. And we feel bad about that, like we should go to a museum or two, but it’s what we do.”
She continues, “I studied sociology in college, and I feel like this is what I should be paying attention to. Some of the best food experiences that we have had haven’t been in high-end restaurants where all the food seems the same, whether we’re in Hong Kong or Lisbon. The street food is what really defines a food culture. It’s a great way to meet a new culture.”
This delicious research and development sparked the opening of V Street, which started serving internationally influenced street eats a year ago. “We have a lot of small- and medium-sized plates that are inspired not necessarily by a certain vegetable, but by a street food dish. It’s our interpretation of it – prepared with an arsenal of different vegetables we like to use.”
One of their most popular dishes is the langosh. “It’s a Hungarian fried potato bread that you could liken to a savory doughnut. We top ours with a sauerkraut remoulade and Chioggia beets. Typically, you might get this in Budapest on the street with chopped ham on top. But, we’re not trying to take veggie meat and just chop it up and put it on top. We’re working with something a little different. The pink Chioggia beet looks beautiful. You get smoky flavors and different textures. For us, that’s a great way to experience a street food culture in our little street food bar.”
Vedge, unlike its forebears, is a decidedly fine dining restaurant. Housed in the Frank Furness-designed Tiger Building, the restaurant is stately and warm, appointed with fireplaces and stained glass windows that generously filter in the dusky evening sky and the gentle glow of streetlamps. Upon entry, diners can sidle up to the spacious marble-top bar and sample inventive cocktails and an impressive array of natural wines.
Three cozy dining rooms are served by an airy, open kitchen that hosts the pastry and veg bar prep areas. There’s also an adjacent and impossibly diminutive hot kitchen. With its au courant philosophy and physical feel, Vedge has shattered people’s outdated ideas about plant-based restaurants.
Similarly, V Street, Vedge’s precocious little sister, fresh off backpacking the continents, has a vibe that’s more hip cocktail bar than wicker-chair café, with its artfully graffitied walls and airy counter seating areas.
There’s nothing accidental about either restaurant’s identity or design. “The goal from day one was to redefine this. You have to keep in mind that we were very cognizant of the preconceived notions – hippies are waiting on you, they smell like patchouli. Everyone’s high, and the Grateful Dead is playing. People did not take this kind of food seriously. They thought it was a bunch of bean sprouts and wheat germ,” Landau admits.
“When I first became a vegetarian,” he says, “that’s all there was to eat, and that’s why I taught myself to cook. I was like, ‘I can’t eat this crap!’ I’ve got to get some great flavors in my food.’ So, with Vedge, and then V Street, we really set out to redefine what this way of eating looks like.“
As other vegetable-focused restaurants have, ahem, sprouted up in the past few years (seven of our 52 Best Restaurants for Vegetarians have opened in 2015 alone), and an open 8PM reservation at Vedge on a Saturday night is as rare as a sasquatch sighting, it’s clear the reimagining of this kind of dining experience is a resounding success.
And that success transcends the vegan lifestyle. Landau gushes, “There are people who have set foot in Vedge who would never, ever go to a vegan restaurant. You’d be amazed at some of the meat eaters we get in here. They’ll say, ‘You know, I’m going out for a steak after this.’ And I say, ‘Dude, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that….’ And, on the way out they’re shaking my hand, and that just makes my night.”
Jacoby and Landau both follow a plant-based diet for a number of reasons. Jacoby shares, “A lot of different things led me here, from an animal rights, ethical standpoint to concerns for my own health, having had a father with heart disease, and also the environmental impact.”
However, they both talk about their cuisine as a perspective. “This is a great way to look at eating, and it’s a very relevant conversation in today’s food scene,” Landau says. He adds, “I think what people are realizing is that there’s no one with a ‘meat is murder’ sign dressed up in a cow suit outside these places. There’s no message. There’s no preaching. There’s no literature. It’s just great food. And it’s a huge compliment. People can go anywhere for dinner, so when they come here, it’s so rewarding.”
It’s so rewarding for us, too. Honest.
Have you eaten at either of these #vegforward restaurants? Let us know here. And, be sure to follow us here and on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter for delicious #vegforward posts and pictures as we celebrate all month long.