New York’s famous Michelin Masters are opening a plant-based restaurant in the city
By: Shriya Swaminathan
“Chefs have a great virtue in shifting the public focus to what they consider delicious food. It doesn’t have to be a four-legged animal. “These are the mighty worlds of Michelin-starred restaurateur Justin Bazdarich. In this insightful interview with VEGWORLD, he shares his journey away from academic classes, finds his calling in the restaurant business and the inspiration for his new plant-based restaurant – Xilonen, along with chef Alan Delgado. Nestled in Brooklyn’s bustling Greenpoint neighborhood, Xilonen aims to offer mouth-watering dishes that pay homage to the humble but revered corn harvest of Aztec cuisine!
VW: You had great experiences traveling around the world with your mentor Jean-Georges Vongerichten and opening reputable restaurants in the city! How did this journey get you to start a plant-based restaurant?
JB: The restaurants I’ve worked at and opened usually reflect the foods I want to eat. Accessibility and taste were the main drivers. When my wife became pregnant with our son, she was averse to eating meat. I joined her and we started eating more plant-based meals, which I saw as a creative challenge. Most chefs find it easy to simply pick a protein and place a plate around it. Why not do the same thing but with plants? In doing so, I began to learn about the devastation that eating animals is causing on our planet. From an ethical point of view, I didn’t want to contribute to the destruction of the rainforests in order to create an inefficient source of food. We went from a household that ate animal protein every day to eating meat barely once a week. I referred to this experience and found that most vegan restaurants in town serve either salads and quinoa bowls or “vegan junk foods”. There were inaccessible spots advocating whole plants in better known, more desirable dishes like tacos. Since I am in the habit of creating the types of restaurants I would like to dine in, Xilonen came to fruition! I’ve also re-enrolled as a sustainability student at Arizona State University and hope to incorporate what I’m learning into my restaurants.
Vibrant Braised Carrot Tostada
VW: How do you feel in the cooking school for training chefs in vegan cuisine?
JB: I feel that larger culinary institutes may not put as much emphasis on vegan cooking as they should. Perhaps they could indicate that times are changing. When I was trained, animal protein was always the focus of the dish. Plants were either side dishes or sides. Serving vegetarians during my early dining days was usually viewed as a hassle, but trends are changing. I’m sure there are smaller specialty courses that focus on vegan and vegetarian cuisine. However, I believe that for the future of our planet and from a sustainability perspective, chefs need to be trained not to rely solely on animal products to demonstrate their skills. In my experience, translating these techniques into plant-based foods can work wonders!
VW: When you got into vegetarian cooking, did you feel discouraged by the learning curve or was the process unexpectedly easy?
JB: There was definitely a learning curve to get used to the different flavor profiles. Figuring out how to recreate the flavors and textures of common products like cheese and smoky meat using just plants took quite a bit of trial and error. At the end of the day, plants are no longer referred to appetizers and side dishes. Instead, we wondered how a potato or a carrot can be the star of the dish. Take Xilonen, for example – we want to center plants in Mexican cuisine while recognizing the restaurant’s inspiration – the Aztec goddess of young corn. Our aromatic corn tortillas become the vehicle to deliver the delicious, complex flavors of whole plants and a host of innovative culinary techniques. If anything, it was a fun, creative endeavor and we learned a lot!
VW: In your opinion, how do you see restaurant demand for vegan options?
JB: I can speak from my experiences in my restaurants. I would say that after “What are your hours of operation?”, Our next frequently asked question is “Do you have a lot of vegan options?”. There are more people who eat this way, and if we don’t offer these options, it’s difficult for companies to keep groups happy. If there is a group of six and two are vegan, they don’t come if there are no options for them. From a purely business perspective, it is only advisable to offer your customers a wide variety of vegan options. Personally, I see the trend towards plant-based cuisine as positive, which more and more companies are becoming aware of.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with these decadent churros with Aztec cocoa!
VW: What do you think of France’s first vegan Michelin star? Is this recognition important in the food industry?
JB: It’s exciting that vegan restaurants are getting positive attention. There really is no denying that veganism is the future. As one who has dramatically changed their eating habits from mostly animal-based to plant-rich products, I think others shouldn’t be far behind! We shouldn’t have to rely on animals and their by-products to prepare good food. In fact, treating vegetables in similar ways can do the same things – texture and taste. Michelin also recognizes restaurants for their sustainability efforts. A sustainability nod from Michelin in the future would be great for Xilonen!
VW: We love how company-oriented the business model is! Do you possibly also include the aspect of animal ethics?
JB: For sure! I think about it a lot and think we can definitely do it. I would say we’re almost there at Xilonen. Dinner is 100% vegan and we are also planning a vegan tasting menu. There are only a few lunch dishes that contain egg. Maybe we can experiment with the new vegan egg substitutes and see how they work in our recipes!
Always a good time for tacos with a vegan upgrade
VW: Some chefs with “traditional” training may not be so willing to prefer vegan cooking. How would you advise changing this mindset?
JB: I think as more people realize how moving away from animals to a plant-rich lifestyle will benefit their health and the planet, the demand for animal protein in restaurants will decrease. When chefs are unwilling to respond to the changing demand, they are left behind. There will be more people going vegan than the other way around, and with this metric alone, we have to embrace change in order to stay relevant in business.
That being said, this year I’m planning to work on a Chef Collaborative Initiative that enables and empowers other chefs to come together and work on a plant-rich menu metric. This means gradually moving away from a livestock-based menu and setting a set percentage of options as vegan and vegetarian. If I could get more restaurants to accept this decline in meat consumption, it would be an outstanding step in the right direction for the well-being of our planet!
VW: This is a wonderful initiative and we hope that more chefs will come on board! When you move on to the remarkable food you create, which menu item are you most proud of?
JB: We’re making some chorizos in which we’ve tried to restore the “ground beef” texture. We tried a mix of ground tofu, pecans and mushrooms that we cooked together in some spices. We perfected the crispy texture and amazing flavors of the kitchen! Now we are using it in our crispy tacos. We also make a great chorizo quesadilla with cheese made from Numu cheese – a local vegan cheese company. The cheese melts very well and tastes great with many of our dishes! We round off our perfectly grilled quesadilla with a salsa made from black beans and avocados. Definitely a favorite of mine and our customers! It is important to me that these creations are not viewed as “fake meat” or as a “meat alternative”. Rather, they are your own dish with the familiar flavors and textures that we love. The popular chorizo quesadilla might be worth a trip to Brooklyn!
VW: Is there an ingredient that you loved and that you would not have noticed without your foray into vegan cuisine?
JB: That is a difficult question! I have to say that it is the maize that we get from Mexico from an importer called “TAMOA”. We have made it our business to source our products from their cultural origins and to support companies that pay their employees fair wages. I think this is reflected in the quality of the corn we receive, and so does our fair trade coffee and chocolate suppliers. Sustainable and ethical ingredients contribute to what makes our food so special!
VW: That sounds divine and we can’t wait to visit one day! Finally, one last question: if you had to invite a Michelin-starred or celebrity chef to dine at Xilonen and open a purely vegan restaurant, who would you choose?
JB: I would probably choose my mentor boss Jean-Georges. Granted, he has ABCV, which while not entirely vegan, is still plant-based. He’s always been an inspiration and I’d love to see what he can do with a purely vegan menu. That would be great!
Chef Alan Delgado shares his plant-driven wisdom
We hope that Justin’s passion to transform our current food system for a healthier future on this planet inspires more chefs to use their creativity and celebrate whole plant-based foods in their dishes. When in NYC, be sure to dine at Xilonen and check out Justin’s other restaurants – Speedy Romeo and the Michelin-starred Oxomoco!