New Orleans is known for its jazz, its eclectic cultural milieu and its gumbo, a thick stew usually anchored by beef stock and crowded with shrimp, chicken and sausage. So what the heck would vegan gumbo look and taste like? Your guess is as good as vegan chef Keith Kalmanowicz's, but he'll work it out before Sunday, when his monthly plant-based smorgasbord takes over a new venue: the new New Orleans-inspired Lagniappe (pronounced "Lan-yap") in Midtown.
Kalmanowicz is the creator and head chef of Love & Vegetables, a by-donation vegan dinner event that usually pops up at Earth N Us urban farm in Little Haiti the third Saturday of the month. His last two dinners --- a nine-course chakra-balancing feast characterized by dishes like beet-red quinoa and blueberry polenta; and a Thanksgiving-inspired meal featuring vegan green bean casserole and lentil loaf --- were so popular that he and his co-organizers were inspired to expand the reach of their plant-fueled parties. The event at Lagniappe in Midtown on Sunday will mark the first time the gentle chefs will venture off the farm.
A few weeks ago, Kalmanowicz attended a jazz night at the casual new wine, charcuterie, and barbecue joint. It was one of the first evenings the two-week old venue opened its doors, and Kalmanowicz was blown away by the experience. "I had to ask myself, 'New Orleans in Miami? Is this real?' And I badly wanted to do an event there." Kalmanowicz spoke to the owner, David Tunnell, who also owns Metro Organic Bistro on Miami's Upper Eastside. The restaurateur liked the idea of transforming the cheese and barbecue joint into a vegan haven for a night. "So I said, let's do this sooner rather than later," said Kalmanowicz, and within days, the event was on the calendar.
This week, the chef, a recent vegan convert himself, has been making the rounds to local farms, gathering fresh mustard greens from the Little Haiti Community Garden and herbs from Bee Heaven Farm in Homestead in preparation for the al fresco feast. "I want to make this event as locally-based as possible," he said. The ultimate goal of all Love & Vegetables events is to fund the opening of a non-profit vegan restaurant, the chef said. "I'm filing the initial paperwork now," he added.
Veggie gumbo and other Cajun-style dishes will be doled out from a full-service buffet to a backdrop of live jazz music in the open air yard at Lagniappe House, a space the owner has peppered with homey recycled furniture and decor, lending to the laid-back, comfortable vibe. Julia Onnie-Hay, Earth N Us' resident kombucha expert, will offer her home-brewed fermented teas to accompany the vegan eats.
Tunnell said he hopes this event will be just the first of many guest chef takeovers; he eventually aspires to invite a new local kitchen whiz every Sunday. "Just as we invite musicians to come express themselves, we want to invite local chefs to come express themselves in ways they may not be able to at their normal gigs," Tunnell said.
Tunnell said he doesn't charge a cover for the nightly live music and his objective is to make a good time affordable and accessible for all who are looking for a "breath of fresh air" in the Miami nightlife scene. Lagniappe is so authentically New Orleans, the venue even has a four-bedroom bed and breakfast-style space upstairs to lodge traveling musicians or others staying in town for the short-term.
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"We're equally focused on wine, live music, and having a good time," said Tunnell, who has another connection to the Earth N Us Farm; his girlfriend lives on the premises of the cooperative community. As during normal nights at Lagniappe, the restaurant will offer 150 wines by the reasonably priced glass or bottle and 60 beers - mostly craft brews - ranging from $4 to $7 a pop. The price of the meal, in the Love & Vegetables tradition, is whatever the diner can afford, even if that means washing dishes or clearing tables at the event.
Dinner will be served from 7 to 9 p.m. You can RSVP via the Love & Vegetables Facebook page, or "Just show up," said Kalmanowicz, in true Big Easy style.