Vegan Chefs, Dreaming of Success, Emerge in Miami

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Keith Kalmanowicz is a busy guy.

In the past two hours, he's petted a black emu, chatted up a Jamaican medicine man, shown me a composting toilet, and confessed that he's fed a chubby pig named Shuffles perhaps too much brioche. Sitting on a bench at Earth N' Us Farm in Little Haiti on a sultry Wednesday afternoon, Kalmanowicz has talked for an hour nonstop. Splashes of sweat soak his pink bandanna, which he wears beneath a Panama hat.

"A lot of people cook vegan food that isn't made for flavor," he says, petting his long blond beard like a cat. "So when I go out to eat at those restaurants, I'm just like, 'This food sucks, man. There are no good vegan restaurants in Miami.' "

And Kalmano­wicz certainly knows what good food tastes like. He's worked under Sam Gorenstein at BLT Steak in South Beach and Michael Schwartz at Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Design District. After discovering a passion for healthful food, he started applying restaurant techniques to plant-based recipes. In 2012, he quit his day job and launched a vegan pop-up called Love & Vegetables. "I figured that Miami needs it, so I better do it," he says.

He's not the only one who sees opportunity in veganism. In the past year, a smattering of plant-based chefs has emerged in Miami, pulling the city abreast of other metropolises where that lifestyle is more deeply entrenched. These chefs practice inclusive vegan cookery, a cuisine that appeals to omnivores and herbivores alike. Their success hinges on providing the city with something it lacks: chef-driven plant-based food that's actually delicious.

The concept has roots in Miami and beyond. Vegan restaurants run by chefs populate other cities. There's Vedge in Philadelphia and Millennium in San Francisco. In Manhattan, fine-dining restaurants like Thomas Keller's Per Se and Daniel Boulud's Daniel cater to vegans by proffering plant-based tasting menus. Next -- a Chicago restaurant owned by Grant Achatz, one of the most celebrated chefs in the nation -- launched a critically acclaimed vegan tasting menu earlier this year.

In Miami, casual vegan restaurants abound. There's La Vie En Raw, Mi Vida Café, and Choices Café. But in the past few years, chefs have also started offering plant-based items. Giancarla Bodoni at Escopazzo and Mark Zeitouni at the Standard Hotel serve "living" lasagnas made with raw vegetables. In 2005, Michael Schwartz dabbled in veganism with his menu at the South Beach restaurant Afterglo. Schwartz's bill of fare listed sprouts, sun-dried goji berries, and ground raw cacao. But the short-lived eatery, which also cooked meats and fish, closed after Schwartz exited the kitchen.

Afterglo failed because it was too far ahead of its time, according to Valentina Cordero, a pastry cook employed there. "You put Afterglo in Miami now and it would be the best restaurant in town," she says. "People just didn't get it back then."

After the restaurant closed, Cordero jumped town and worked at fine-dining establishments like Étoile and Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in Yountville, California. While living in Yountville, the pastry chef switched to a strict vegan diet. To her, working with butter-filled pastries became unfitting.

So in 2012, Cordero moved back to Miami. She felt the city was ready to embrace a chef-driven vegan venture. Cordero founded the House of V -- a home-based bakery that sells handsome pastries adorned with microgreens and edible flowers. The bakery, which focuses primarily on catering gigs and private events, became popular quickly. Now the pastry chef dreams of opening a vegan storefront, one less traditional than Bouchon and minus all the eggs and cream.

But Cordero's bakery wouldn't be the first of its kind in Miami. Bunnie Cakes, a vegan sweet shop, opened a storefront in Wynwood earlier this year. The heart-spangled café bakes gluten-free guava cupcakes and rich chocolate brownies. It's a resounding success, and Bunnie Cakes' owner, Mariana Cortez, has already expanded her menu to include lunch and savory foods.

What makes the House of V's concept different? Unlike Cordero, Cortez is a self-taught baker. "In the past, vegan cooks in Miami were self-taught people who went into veganism for personal reasons," says Cordero. "This new wave of vegan chefs is different. We are very lucky because we have formal training."

Such luck will soon spread to Miami: A raw food culinary school will open in Wynwood next year. Matthew Kenney ­-- a prominent raw food chef who owns three restaurants nationwide and has written ten cookbooks -- has partnered with Karla Dascal, founder of Space Miami. The partnership will operate the academy alongside the White Lotus, a living-foods restaurant. The ambitious venture will provide aspiring vegan chefs with an education.

It'll also thrust the Magic City's nascent vegan scene to a higher level.

Although these initiatives are important additions to the city, they also cater to an upscale crowd, the kind that can afford beautiful cupcakes and innovative academies. Love & Vegetables serves a different demographic. Kalmanowicz and his partner, Avril Johnnidis, aspire to make vegan food accessible to all.

The duo hosts pay-what-you-can dinners at Earth N' Us Farm, an urban estate populated by chickens, cats, and folks who live in the farm's tree houses. For each six-course meal, the partners request a suggested donation of about $35. Those who can't afford the vegan dinner can help in other ways, like clearing the table or doing the dishes.

"There are times when I have $6 in my pocket, and I've found myself in need of my own pay-what-you-can dinners," says Kalmanowicz. "I live in Little Haiti, where you can get three pieces of fried chicken for two bucks, but an apple at Publix costs $1.70. If you're poor, what are you gonna choose?"

To fund the operation, the partners work as personal chefs. They use the extra cash from their private jobs to buy local greens and organic fruits for Love & Vegetables. After this year's season, which will operate from September to April, they plan to open a permanent pay-what-you-can vegan restaurant. "It's what I see that's needed," Kalmanowicz says. "No one believes that a nonprofit community café can work in Miami, but good, healthy, nutritious food shouldn't be inaccessible."

Kalmanowicz's partner Johnnidis also values affordable vegan fare. She moved to Miami six months ago after traveling the globe. The Harvard graduate, who became a vegetarian after living at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal, practices healing and holistic wellness counseling. Alongside Kalmanowicz, she has mastered vegan recipes that mimic dishes served at fine-dining restaurants, like shiitake mushrooms and leeks smothered in white wine-thyme sauce.

"Miami is young in a lot of different areas, but that's what makes it so exciting for us," says Johnnidis. "There's a desire for good vegan food that's burgeoning. Those are the crowds that keep us moving ahead with it all."

Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.

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