Worshiping at the Alter of Althea

Guru. Pioneer. Celebrity. Savant. God.

Matthew Kenney is many things to his multitude of fervent followers, but one thing cannot be denied: The man knows how to cook. Well, more accurately, he knows how to treat his vegetables right, heat need not be applied. He is not just a chef, but a brand in and of himself. Commanding the table at over two dozen fine dining establishments worldwide, he’s arguably the trailblazer at the head of the raw food movement. These days, his formal education from the French Culinary Institute manifests in less rigid preparations, mandating minimal processing, rather than a complete abstinence of heat.

Three Beet Carpaccio

As a prominent figure in the plant-based movement from the days before it was cool, his name hit my radar sporadically, but my experience with his food has been limited. Only once before, over a decade ago, was I fortune enough to dine at Pure Food and Wine before its scandalous closure. Thankfully, the man is unflappable, soldiering on with new projects seemingly sprouting up everyday. Althea in Chicago offers a compact menu of re-imagined classic dishes spanning numerous global cuisines, along with Kenney’s own fusion creations. The only knock against the place is location. Completely hidden away on the 7th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, you must navigate through racks of stiff men’s suits and deftly dodge the perfume counter to earn your meal.

Kimchi Dumplings

Stemming from the Greek name that can be applied to either a woman or a man, Althea means “wholesome,” from the verb althos, meaning ‘to heal’. Fittingly, the mission statement of the eponymous restaurant is to meld plant-based culinary art and ultimate nutrition.

Mightyvine Tomato + Zucchini Lasagna

Most raw approaches treat food only as fuel, leaching out all the joy and whimsy from the act of eating. This was one of the rare instances I can look back on the concept and it has the potential to compete with any Michelin-starred cooking.

Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe

Truly alive in more ways that old-school “uncookery” would imply, colors vibrate off immaculately plated dishes, flavors explode with incomparable intensity; the full essence of each vegetable is celebrated. You won’t find dehydrated planks of flaxen juicer pulp here. This menu is designed from a place of joy and abundance, from a creative food lover unleashed from traditional culinary boundaries. Defying easy explanation, this is an experience that you simply must enjoy firsthand to properly grasp. Book your table, book your tickets, get yourself out there; it’s worth traveling any distance to enjoy.

Althea
700 N Michigan Avenue
7th Floor
Chicago, IL 60611

Fresh Starts

Strapped for cash, struggling to make ends meet as the year winds down, the time had come to sacrifice some of my extraneous toys. I finally bid adieu to an old friend, and sold my juicer. The behemoth had flown with me from Connecticut to California made the drive from Oakland to Austin, surviving both treacherous journeys without so much as a scratch. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the masticating monster. It just never found a stable place in my daily routine. Peering out from the cabinet periodically, it would catch my eye as the light glinted off its stainless steel facade, only to return to the darkness untouched.

It deserved better. A machine should be used, not just stored. Helping to kick-start a neighbor’s newfound fervor for juicing, it’s a relief to see the old gal find a loving new home, as hard as it is to let go. Before that fateful day, we gave it one last whirl, squeezing the last drops of joy from our time together.

Releasing a golden wave of liquid sunshine into my glass, tropical notes of pineapple spiked with the bright acidity of fresh lemon flowed freely in this last hurrah. Naturally sweet without any sugar, the blend was tart, tangy, bright and bold. It glistened with vitality, fresh and invigorating. That would be enough for a morning wake up call, but to celebrate the occasion, a splash of sparkling white wine felt like an appropriate final touch.

As I raise this glass, to friendship and new beginnings, my heart swells with hope for the future. May 2021 be better for all of us.

Cheers!

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A Eulogy for Eateries, 2020

Like so many poor souls infected with COVID-19, a staggering number of restaurants met their untimely demise this year. Well-established eateries and fledgling startups alike were afflicted. Mom-and-pops, national chains, dive bars, bastions of fine dining; none were spared the wrath of this indiscriminate virus. No one could have predicted the devastating impact on business across the board, let alone prepare for it. Restaurants which already operate on razor-thin margins took the first hit, and keep taking the abuse, even as many other sectors begin to show signs of recovery. It comes as no surprise that we have excessive losses to mourn this year, but still, it’s no less sad.

The fatalities, like the number of cases, continue to rise unabated. At the time of this writing, approximately 1 in 6 establishments have turned the tables for the last time. To put that in perspective, that’s over 100,000 individual restaurants, touching countless lives. Their loss is felt profoundly by owners of course, but also employees, devoted regulars, and adjacent businesses that thrive on their success as well.

In the eye of the storm now, between holidays and stifled festivities, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just a few of these losses. 2020 has been a turbulent for me personally as well, beginning in the Bay Area, and ending in central Texas, so this particular restaurant obituary will follow that same winding path. My deepest condolences to all those mourning these losses.

Before the virus truly sunk its claws into the world and began the first wave of widespread shutdowns, Analog quietly slipped away in February, going gentle into that good night. Lining the walls with records, VHS cassettes, and old school video games, entering through the narrow doorway felt like returning to my ideal 90’s childhood library. Hosting popups for many fledgling vegan chefs, I remember spending one of my earliest nights in Oakland there, tasting Hella Vegan Eats for the first time. Their house menu of thick sandwiches stacked high with all manner of classic deli fare was the real attraction, though. Seitan Reubens, bahn mi, meatless corned beef; they were slinging these thick stacks before it was cool, true to character. With another strong supporter gone, the future of the analog medium itself hangs in the balance.

Crispy, tender, and well-seasoned falafel has been strangely difficult to come by in San Francisco, which is why the arrival of Liba Falafel was such a venerable establishment of Middle Eastern delights. Beginning life as a mobile truck and eventually taking root in Oakland as a brick-and-mortar, their fried chickpea balls were as famous as the rainbow of accoutrements that came with them. Arrayed like the salad bar of dreams, the purchase of one box would allow the voracious eater to fill it with as much Israeli salad, schug, onions, roasted peppers, and pickles as would fit. Clearly, this self-serve approach couldn’t survive such stringent coronavirus measures, and has become a thing of the past. After 11 years on the streets, they leave a gaping falafel-sized hole in SoCal.

Originally unleashed upon the world as Republic of V, Animal Place’s Vegan Republic has undergone quite a few struggles to stay afloat despite widespread support. COVID-19 was just the final nail in the coffin. Opened in 2014 as the first all-vegan store in Berkeley, there’s still nothing that’s equivalent to their selection of specialty plant-based goods in the area. From home goods to clothing to groceries, it was a paradise where everything on the menu was vegan, not limited to purely edible entrees. It also served as an event space, sharing the floor with vegan authors like myself on special occasions, becoming a meeting place for the community at large.

Nick’s Kitchen, once booming with three distinct outposts, turned belly-up seemingly overnight. All street-facing locations have closed, but this story isn’t a complete tragedy; this incomparable plant-based Filipino food has been reborn as a special order delivery service directly from Chef Reina. Rumor has it that nationwide shipping will soon be an option for more widespread access than ever. I’m holding out hope for this exciting development, because at about the same time as this announcement was made, I had reached the end of my time in California, too.

Heading down south to Austin, TX, it breaks my heart to have just barely missed experiencing the legend that is Veggie Heaven. Most Chinese restaurants have a token tofu dish or serviceable vegetable plate in a pinch, but now, none exist with a 100% vegetarian menu. Where does one go for sizzling mock meats, eggless hot and sour-style soup, or teriyaki cauliflower wings now? Seriously, I’m asking for myself here. There seems to be no equivalent establishment to reasonably pick up the slack.

Sending shock waves through the community, Mother’s Cafe called it quits after 40 years in Hyde Park. A bastion of old-school, nostalgic vegetarian and vegan dishes with a Tex-Mex twist, the owners attempted to survive on takeout only during these uncertain times, but found it entirely unsustainable. At least, as small consolation, they plan to eventually offer some of the restaurant’s best sellers as packaged food, as they currently do with their widely acclaimed cashew-tamari salad dressing. There’s no replacement for a mother’s love, though. For generations of locals that grew up in this dining room, this loss truly feels like a death in the family.

Best known for moist cupcakes, tender scones, and chewy cookies, Happy Vegan Baker also had a legendary Chick Un Salad along with more satisfying savory delights. Carrying the torch at farmers markets and events year round, their treats would also fill the deli cases at Fresh Plus, Natural Grocers, Tom’s Market, Dias Market, and Rabbit Food Grocery. Though they never had a static outpost, these snacks and staples were always close at hand. I personally regret not loading up my own fridge while I still had the chance.

All that glitters isn’t gold, and Austin will have a bit less of a shine now that Curcuma is no longer serving golden lattes directly to the public, alongside their renowned raw, healing cuisine. The trailer is no more, but the golden paste lives on for homemade turmeric treats. There’s no replacement for their distinctive pecan tacos though, made with spiced pecan “meat” on crisp jicama “tortillas.”

Open in Austin for less than a year, Cosmos Kitchen was taken from us before its time. Though well-liked and highly reviewed, accolades could not save it from the pitfalls of social distancing, with the reduced volume and revenue. Filling tacos with meatless al pastor, chorizo, picadillo, and more, the flavors transcended all dietary boundaries. The absence of this colorful food truck will be mourned by eaters across the city.

To all those that have left us this year: Thank you for all the delicious memories. You will not be forgotten. Your struggles, successes, and inspiration will live on, within us all.

Takeout Take Away

Chinese food is one of the most popular worldwide simply because it boasts such incredible breadth and depth. There are eight primary styles of cuisine that fall under this umbrella term, each with its own flavor affinities and specialties.

Even if you only eat “Chinese food” every day of the week, you would never run out of options. Certainly, you’d never get bored.

Cantonese is one of the most common styles found in America, blending a delicate interplay between sweet and sour, with more braises, heavy sauces, and mild seasonings. This is where you find the usual staples like Kung Pao and General Tso’s.

Sichuan and Hunan lean more heavily into fiery hot spices, with a touch of ma la (mouth-numbing) peppercorns adding a distinct sensory experience. Think of blazing hot mapo tofu and dandan noodles.

Shandong cuisine hails from northeastern China, which explains the strong oceanic influence with much more seafood and salty flavors. Sea cucumbers are a particular specialty (though they’re not related to the vegetable you’re thinking of, and certainly not vegan) along with shark fin soup, now banned in most countries.

Anhui and Fujian both come from more mountainous regions, incorporating more earthy notes, wild foraged foods, and simple, sweet tastes. These styles are rarely found in the United States, sadly. “Hairy” tofu, fermented and pungent, is an acquired taste but highly memorable.

Similarly, Zhejiang and Jiangsu foods are almost impossible to find overseas; a sad omission from mainstream restaurants, as these dishes are lighter, fresher, or even entirely raw. Seasonality is exceptionally important, emphasizing the beauty in simplicity. Ginger-braised or -steamed proteins are popular, often paired with delicate white tea.

When you start craving Chinese food, which is your favorite style?

Pepper-Upper

More than fresh produce, or lack thereof, warming spices define seasonal treats as we enter the winter months. Crystallized ginger dances in soft cookies sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, while nutmeg frosts the top of frothy eggnog glasses. Clove and allspice infuse warm pumpkin pies, but what about a flavor that will really spice things up? Sichuan peppercorns aren’t exactly a typical taste for the holidays, but considering their zest and uncanny ability to lift the spirits, they deserve a place of honor at your next fête.

Still a somewhat obscure ingredient in the US that may not feature prominently at your mainstream supermarket, both green and red peppercorns have become much more widely available in recent years. Up until 2005, they were actually banned from import into the US, so unless you had access to the black market, you were out of luck. Now, like everything else it seems, they’re easy to find online, if local specialty stores can’t keep the shelves stocked.

Green Sichuan peppercorns are simply unripe berries harvested from the same vine that produces red pepper berries. They bear the same pungency found in the other peppercorns, with hints of citrus and a more earthy aroma. True red peppercorns are left much longer to ripen and dry in the sun. Their real claim to fame, however, is less about their flavor, and more about their effect. The distinctive tingling, mouth-numbing experience is unmistakable, transcending the normal understanding of what constitutes spice. It’s not exactly hot in the conventional sense, but certainly not bland in the least.

Why not apply that unique taste to more festive treats? For something that will take the bite out of winter’s chill and reinvigorate the weary spirit, go ahead and throw a pinch of this secret ingredient into any dish, really. Use it instead of that boring old black pepper and watch your cooking come to life.

If you’d prefer a more measured integration, consider the classic candied almond. Perfect for last-minute gifts, host/ess presents, easy appetizers, or late night snacks, there’s nothing a lovely lacquered nut can’t do. Crisply toasted with caramelized brown sugar, infused with a touch of molasses sweetness, you could stop right there and have a delightful, if basic, little morsel. Add in orange zest and the punch of Sichuan peppercorns to elevate each crunchy nut to a whole new level. Soy sauce instead of pure sodium lends a savory, lightly salty hit at the end.

Bask in the culinary glow of warming spices, and consider adding Sichuan peppercorns into your permanent seasoning lineup. A little pinch goes a long way.

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