Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

Throughout October, OpenTable is celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month by spotlighting chefs, restaurateurs, trends and innovations in the world of plant-based dining. Follow along here.

When it comes to vegetarian dining, few restaurants have been as influential as Moosewood, the Ithaca, New York restaurant that led the way with creative plant-based cooking. Even those who haven’t visited have likely flipped through the pages of the 12 iconic Moosewood cookbooks celebrating the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

Now more than 40 years old, Moosewood has seen decades of evolution in vegetarian dining — and shows no signs of slowing down (a 13th cookbook, The Moosewood Restaurant Table, is in the works). Run by a collective of 19 members, the restaurant pioneered a movement toward natural ingredients, conscious cooking and collaboration that has inspired change in the industry as a whole.

To learn more, we talked to David Hirsch, a collective member since 1976 who’s cooked in the restaurant kitchen and authored a number of Moosewood cookbooks. Here, he tells us the story behind Moosewood’s approach to vegetarian cuisine, the changes and innovations he’s seen in the vegan and vegetarian movement over the years, and the trends he is most excited about today.

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

Tell me about your background and your role within the collective.

I started working at Moosewood in the fall of 1976 — that was 39 years ago. I moved to Ithaca as part of the back-to-the-land movement and built a house here with some other people. I was always interested in food, and I had a neighbor who worked [at Moosewood].

How did the restaurant and collective start?

There were seven original owners, and by the time I started there were only two left who were still working there. Within a couple of years we bought out the original seven owners and formed it as more of a philosophical collective, because it wasn’t a true cooperative economically. We would have meetings and try for consensus on different decisions that were important. We didn’t have a hierarchical leadership; it was more horizontal. 

I started cooking within a couple of months. You know, the scale was on the small side so it wasn’t all that daunting. We didn’t have the kind of huge business that emerged later on. At some point in the ‘80s we started noticing all these people coming, and a lot of our fame was due to the cookbook.

We were really a very small place until ‘93. In ‘93 we expanded, and then we expanded again in ‘96 or ‘97, so it became a bigger restaurant. Then we published our first cookbook around ‘86 or so. 

How did the cookbook catch on?

I think the cookbook was the right time at the right place. A lot of people were already thinking about different ways to eat. The macrobiotic movement had some degree of influence, but it was more limited than what we were doing. A lot of us at Moosewood didn’t feel that our diet needed to be that strict. 

Ithaca was a good place for us to start. Even though our business was modest those first few years, there were a lot of people in this town who supported us and appreciated the kind of food that we were making. We liked it, too! For us it was a real adventure. 

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

Was the emphasis on natural food and plant-based cooking always the focus, or did that evolve over the years?

It definitely evolved more towards plant-based cooking. At the beginning a lot of people were insecure about protein and thinking they needed a certain amount, and there actually wasn’t much information out there about plant-based foods. 

Also, the dependence on dairy might have also had something to do with the fact that the restaurant as a commercial entity needed to have some crowd-pleasers on the menu. Things like these vegetables cheese strudels we did, and lasagnas. We never did French fries; we didn’t have a deep fryer. We always provided a salad with every meal for many years. It was very much a plant-based diet.

In terms of how you messaged this to customers, was it more about celebrating plants, about being healthy, or about serving delicious food? What was the angle?

Our angle was always about delicious first. That’s how we felt it should be celebrated.

Later on, after we started thinking more about what our mission was, we started thinking about the incredible difference between how much land you need to feed X number of people on plant-based food and how much land you would need — including resources like water — to feed people on meat.

Early on we knew that it was a healthier way to eat, but our focus was on taking traditional international cuisines that were vegetarian already — like Latin America or India or most of Asia — and then doing our version of that. That was really a lot of the fun of the job, thinking of different recipes. We had this thing for many years, Sunday Ethnic Night. You would pick some country or part of the world or ethnicity, and you would devote the menu to that. 

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

You were on the forefront of plant-based, locally sourced food movement, and it’s grown tremendously. What’s your take on the changes you’ve seen? Anything you’re excited about?

I’m most excited about the whole locavore thing. Why should we be shipping organic broccoli from China? That’s just crazy. People can grow things in a lot of this country, even though we have a short growing season. Lots of things will last, and there’s a lot more research now into ways to extend your harvest. There’s also a lot more interest now in pickling, which turns out to be a fairly healthy way to preserve food.

One of my other passions is gardening, so when I read things like, there are all these rooftops in Brooklyn now where people are growing food — I get a lot of pleasure out of that. You should be connected to this. 

Also, it cuts out our dependency on these giant corporations that are wanting to control things in an economic way that I probably don’t agree with. I don’t have a lot of trust in genetically modified ingredients.

I’m also heartened by the fact that when I go to a lot of restaurants now, they’ll have a list of who their suppliers are. That’s nice, because the fact is the U.S. government doesn’t do a lot to help small organic farmers. Most of their economic assistance is to giant agro-businesses. I have a lot of questions, like, why is it that a good friend of mine can eat bread in Europe, but when she eats bread in this country she gets sick? It’s disturbing…

You know, I would have been surprised if you had told me in 1978 that I’d still be connected to Moosewood in 2015.

Why have you stayed for so long?

Because it remained fun for a long time. You could make something different every night, and I liked the people I worked with. And when we started doing the cookbooks early on in the ‘80s that was a new way for me to be creative. I discovered I like writing, I like putting the recipes together, I like testing.

By sometime in the ‘90s we started exploring food products, and that turned out to be a little more complex. The publishing world was very gentlemanly, and they treated you with respect. But you go into the supermarkets, and it’s all about promotions. It wasn’t as gentlemanly.

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

In the restaurant, how have your customers changed over the years? Have you seen a change in education on the side of guests?

Starting in the mid-’70s when the restaurant first opened, it was definitely more of an alternative crowd — people say Ithaca is a very crunchy granola town. Now, that’s not true at all. A lot of people who are not making any commitment to calling themselves vegetarian or anything, they’ve read about it and they want to experience it.

It’s definitely a broader base than it was 25 years ago. We’re happy about that, because we always felt like the message we were putting out there was, this food can be really delicious, it’s better for you, it’s better for the planet in a lot of ways — but come and taste it. We never really said “better for you” in a way that was from a high horse.

We always felt like you have to educate people by example and not by preaching, because preaching can sometimes have the opposite effect. People think, that’s going to be too healthy. It’s going to be like your mother forcing you to eat spinach or something. [Laughs.]

It seems like the human, collaborative part of your business is as important as the culinary part. How do they holistically come together to create the culture of the restaurant?

That has always been a part of our history. There’s been an attempt to relate to things in a more human fashion, meaning you care about the people you work with so you don’t want to base your decisions solely on profit. We provided health insurance for people who worked a certain number of hours every week. That reduced our profits pretty significantly, but we felt like that was something the employers should provide if nobody else is providing it.

Moosewood Restaurant on the Evolution of Vegetarian Dining

Thinking forward, what is the future of plant-based food, and how do you see it continuing to evolve?

I think this trend that includes the whole locavore movement is going to continue for some time. I remember reading that Amy’s has a drive-in. That would be my interest: to see that moving more into the world of people who aren’t going to be necessarily buying cookbooks. There are a lot of people who don’t have an affinity to cooking.

There could be a need for people to get things in an easier way without having to go to a sit-down restaurant. We are actually hoping to do something along the lines of a fast-casual place. This is in a very elementary stage; I can’t give you a locale or a time or anything like that, but we’re thinking about it. I like the idea of bringing it to a wider clientele base.

I would like to see plant-based diets going out in a way that isn’t so exclusive. It wouldn’t compromise any of the quality or healthiness; I would want it still to be something that we’d be proud to serve.

Photos courtesy of Moosewood.