Where does your motivation come from? Why is plant-forward eating—and thinking—important to you?
From kindergarten I declared I would not eat anything with a face, and I still stand by that. As someone who spent many years as a vegetarian before becoming vegan, for me, shock or scare tactics – such as slaughterhouse exposés – weren’t something I could stomach so I didn’t pay attention to them.
Our approach at the Pantry is in some ways informed by a resistance to scare tactics. Insead, showing people how good a truly plant-based meal can be is a way to pave a path to veganism. It’s a softer approach, it’s gentle, and everyone eats! A fine dining experience tastes good, and doesn’t hurt or cause pain.
And for me, growing up in a Jewish family, food is love. “Let me share something lovely for you to eat” can be a version of how we enact our values when the food is plant-based.
A lot of people who come to the restaurant are not vegan. It’s often that one half of a couple is vegan and brings their omnivore partner. We get a lot of comments along the lines of “I’m a big carnivore, but this was awesome” and that is a win. We want people to know that this kind of vegan world exists, and it’s really good.
In your view, how does the food we serve on our plates reflect our cultural norms?
We are a global community and we learn from each other. A recent example—we had a big quinoa boom in the US where all of a sudden, everyone is eating quinoa but people aren’t making quinoa as a nod to the places it comes from, mostly in South America. It’s very important that we learn and grow and borrow ingredients in ways that pay homage to their roots without appropriating.
That said, it would be a very boring world if only Italian people cooked Italian food. We can learn from one another and I think there’s a right way to do it. Vegan food in particular is so inventive and creative, and leaning on new and exciting spices or marinades from various cultures is an opportunity to create something new. When I’m looking for inspiration, I might explore the aisles of our local Asian grocery store and think, “Hmm. I respect this culture, I like the food they make, and lemongrass might really complement what I’m making right now so I’m going to incorporate that because it’s accessible to me here.”
There’s a line to toe to be respectful of other cultures. And honestly, Jewish food is not the best starting point from which to craft a five course menu, so to me it’s imperative to branch out! Borrowing flavors and influencing each other culinarily is a great thing. One of my go-to spots in Philadelphia is called Bing Bing Dim Sum, and they do a fusion that includes Thai, Vietnamese, and even a Jewish influence. It’s really cool that cultures can come together to create food we haven’t had before but still have familiar flavors. I love a riff on a classic, too.
What norms, myths, or stereotypes are you challenging at the Pantry?
Vegan food has long had a perception of being “crunchy granola,” and we’re moving away from that. Not just the food itself, but the way that food is presented.
We take a more gentle approach to presenting our restaurant as vegan. It’s not in your face—there are no air quotes around menu items suggesting a dish is meant to be “pulled pork”—for example, and nothing on the menu even says the word vegan or plant-based even though you know that’s what you’re getting.
We really put a lot of thought and care into this approach, and are here to make a nice time for our guests. It certainly challenges stereotypes to prove that you don’t need to have animal protein to have a fine dining experience. It’s simply nice food in a nice atmosphere where people feel taken care of.