Call me biased, but there’s something inherently fun about vegan food. There’s a cheekiness that goes along with subverting expectations—serving a big, fat carrot spiced like pastrami on a plate dusted with pumpernickel “soil,” as they do at Vedge in Philadelphia, or making a Sloppy Dave with tofu and frizzled onions, like the East Village’s Superiority Burger—and a sense of camaraderie built around deciding not to take the historically easier route to a satisfying meal via meat, butter and cheese.
That’s why I’m always hesitant to have a fancy vegan meal. Something about the whole thing tends to feel off and unfulfilling, contextually discordant. When so many people write off a vegan diet as expensive and difficult to pull off, why not make it as cheap as possible and easy to love?
To expand and grow, though, vegan cuisine needs to take its rightful place among the rest of the culinary world. In service of that idea, the James Beard House has initiated a vegan dinner series, complete with an extensive selection of forks and a new glass for each course’s wine pairing. This is their way, as head of programming Izabela Wojcik put it in her intro to the first dinner, of bringing everyone to the table regardless of their diet. The lactose intolerant, the egg allergic, the longtime straight-edge ethical vegan: No special accommodations necessary.
And the launch dinner, on January 14, brought playfulness and a deep appreciation of vegetables to the West Village townhouse. The evening was headlined by Brooks Headley, of Sloppy Dave fame. His hors d’ouevre, an unadorned sticky rice snow cone, was served in an actual paper cup. Becca Hegarty of Pittsburgh’s Bitter Ends Garden and Luncheonette served an everything pretzel chip with bean dip—the kind of bite one might eat on the couch, here an unpretentious nosh reconstructed to suit a Prosecco pairing.
That spirit continued into the main courses, where Hegarty’s warm chicory toast was served with a salad made from greens grown at their farm. The bread itself had a balance of airy, crunchy and soft—a feat, especially considering the dough was mixed in her hotel room. (A DIY ethos is also inherent to veganism.) It was paired with a Domaine Laroche La Réserve de l’Obédience Chablis Grand Cru 2015 that had just the right dry earthiness to complement the bitterness of the salad. Sheryl Heefner of Superiority Burger was in charge of the pairings, which all showed a more rigorous understanding of how to make wine and vegetables work together than one might get at a non-vegan meal. So far, so very, very good.
From there, Mark Ladner of Pasta Flyer served a whole-grain rigatoni with a rich Italian vegetable ragù that was recognizable and homey, yet which heightened expectations around what can sometimes be a go-to for chefs who have to create a meatless meal. Headley followed with “second place chili,” a spicy, soupy mix of beans and tofu in which a square of Anson Mills polenta sat—a hearty portion that showed how a dish made of the simplest ingredients, through presentation and setting, can come to signal “fine dining.”
Jessica Koslow of L.A.’s Sqirl next served a chopped salad with pastrami-style celeriac and dehydrated kraut powder, a smart nod to New York flavor. For dessert, Camille Cogswell of Philadelphia’s Zahav made a sundae with mandarin orange and coconut, finishing up the meal with bright citrus and something satisfyingly fatty. Vegans are always served sorbet, but like Ladner’s pasta and Koslow’s salad, this exploded the clichés. I left the dinner full, a bit tipsy, and with a mind more amenable to vegan cuisine getting the highbrow treatment. At least in this case, veganism’s sense of fun and ability to subvert culinary expectation was intact.
The Beard House will keep their vegan series going through June, with the next dinner on February 4 featuring Brian Loiacono of Bistrot Leo doing French dishes and abcV’s chef Neal Harden following up on March 24 with “New York City Glamour.”
Photos by Jeffrey Gurwin, courtesy of the James Beard Foundation.