DON’T HAVE A COW: Candle Cafe Proves Vegan Can Be Gourmet

New York City's Candle Cafe West, Candle Cafe, and Candle 79 have earned rave reviews for their organic, vegan, and locally sourced cuisine.

New York City’s Candle Cafe West, Candle Cafe, and Candle 79 have earned rave reviews for their organic, vegan, and locally sourced cuisine.

New York City’s famed  Candle Cafe and its sister restaurants—Candle Cafe West and Candle 79—helped prove to the country that vegan food can be delicious, upscale, and gourmet. These pioneering green restaurants have also been members of  of Green America’s Green Business Network® for nearly two decades. Below, our former editorial intern Sierra Schellenberg tells their amazing story.

(This article first appeared in the 2014 edition of Green America’s National Green Pages®.) 

On Friday the 13th, 1993, New York City natives Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson flouted the 13th’s reputation for bad luck and won the lottery. Their $53,000 prize was small by lottery standards, but it was enough for the couple to launch their dream—what was likely the country’s first upscale organic and vegan restaurant, the Candle Cafe. At the time, vegan food was pretty much synonymous with “tasteless” and “boring” in many people’s minds, but Potenza and Pierson again managed to fly in the face of expectation.

Determined to prove that vegan food should be known as “delicious” and “high class,” they began serving local, organic, and seasonal vegan gourmet cuisine that soon won an eager following on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Pierson, who had served as the in-house nutritionist of the couple’s pre-lottery juice bar and health food shop, Healthy Candle, says that when she and Potenza discovered the health benefits of a vegan diet, it became their passion in life to share it with others—primarily by making it look and taste as good as non-vegan cuisine.

“When I felt the impact of good food on my body, mind, and spirit, I got inspired. I learned that a vegan diet has such a profound effect on people’s health and the environment. This really created the lifestyle choice for me, and I ended up turning it into my full-time passion and career,” she told Planet Green.

Two years after Candle Cafe opened its doors, New York food critique Eric Asimov gave the restaurant a boost when he gave it a favorable review, calling its grilled tempeh and portobello burger “pleasantly savory” and its French toast “excellent.” Business started to pick up as word spread, and
by 2003, Potenza and Pierson had launched Candle 79, a more upscale cousin of Candle Cafe.

“This sort of thing had never been done. Nowhere in the US was there a restaurant solely dedicated to fine, gourmet vegan food,” says Mark Doskow, executive director of the Candle restaurants. The trailblazing has paid off for Potenza and Pierson, who have seen so much demand for their food that they opened up a third restaurant called Candle Cafe West about a year ago.

Health-conscious celebrities have been vocally singing the cafe’s praises almost since the beginning. Radio talk host Howard Stern has been known to order Candle Cafe takeout while on the air. Actress Alicia Silverstone appeared on local NYC talk show LX New York to teach the city how to
make Candle 79’s Seitan Piccata in 2009 to celebrate the release of her vegan nutrition book The Kind Diet. And actor David Duchovny told The Gothamist in 2013 that while he isn’t actually vegan, Candle Cafe and Candle Cafe West are two of his favorite restaurants.

Candle chefs have also been featured on The Today Show and Good Morning America. And Candle 79 was the first vegan restaurant to be reviewed
by famed New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, who wrote in 2008, “I, like most of my restaurant-critic kin, haven’t given vegan cuisine its due. Candle 79, which has prospered for five years without benefit of major reviews, showed me the light.”

In addition to serving vegan and mostly organic and locally sourced food, the Candle franchise has a firm commitment to keeping GMOs (genetically modified organisms) out of its restaurants. Pierson and Potenza pursue greenness down to the very last detail. It is company policy to use recycled materials, eco-friendly décor, energy-saving equipment, and nontoxic cleaning supplies in the restaurant and offices. The company also invests in wind power to offset its environmental impacts.

For the folks at the Candle restaurants, the increased interest in vegan dining is more than just another food trend. “Not only is veganism better for us and the planet, but veganism can hold its own as a genre of cuisine,” says Doskow. “When I was a kid, you’d go out for Chinese food. Now I think people go out and want vegan food. All of us at the Candle restaurants look forward to moving the process along and being on the forefront.”

—Sierra Schellenberg

Pier_Vegan-Holiday-Cooking (2)The Candle restaurants are located in New York City, but if you want a taste of Candle Cafe at home, check out the Candle Cafe Cookbook and the Candle 79 Cookbook, as well as the upcoming Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Cafe.  For a delicious recipe from the Candle Cafe Cookbook for Tofu Scramble with Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Fries, check out the Epicurious website.  And watch for the Winter 2014 Green American, coming in late November, which will feature tips and recipes from Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Cafe. 

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