By Whitney Pipkin, photography by Jennifer Chase
For the plant-based power couple behind H Street’s Fancy Radish, the holidays are another occasion to give vegetables their due. As if Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau of Philadelphia’s Vedge, V Street and Wiz Kid—lauded among the country’s best vegan restaurants—haven’t done enough for the food pyramid’s humblest roots, they can’t help but pay tribute through vividly seasonal dishes this time of year.
The pair has spent the year demonstrating in the District what they’ve already shown The City of Brotherly Love: how to make the most of the produce aisle. And it starts with dispelling the myth that every vegetable, particularly at the holiday table, needs to be basted with butter and cream.
“When you really think about the natural flavor of what’s harvested seasonally—when you know how to cook it right—you don’t need to cover it up with anything,” says Landau. “If you’re going to eat a piece of cardboard, yeah, cover that up. But why not taste the vegetables?”
Landau started cooking vegetable-centric meals at the bar of a health food store in the Philadelphia suburbs back in 1994, when rejecting animal products to eat vegan was still more of a punchline than a trendy lifestyle. Jacoby joined him there in 2001, and caught a vision for sharing his approach to food more broadly.
“We had this second-level motivation to get this in front of people so they might think about their food in a different way. We wanted to offer a delicious version of vegan food,” Jacoby recalls. “Then it became, ‘How far can we take this?’”
The pair brought their upscale vegetable-centric dining to the District with the opening of Fancy Radish in March. Phone numbers with a 202 area code had been filling their reservations books at Vedge in Philly, and regular patrons had taken to begging: “We need you down here” in DC, they said.
Jacoby, who went to Georgetown University, and Landau, who has family in the area, said the city has been a perfect fit, welcoming them at a time when vegetables are shining on more and more menus around town.
At home, the couple and their son, Rio, who turns 11 this Thanksgiving, keep vegetables from getting sidelined at the holiday table, even if it means doing things a bit differently. Neither of them comes from a long line of vegans. They understand firsthand the conflicts that can surround the mixed traditions and dietary restrictions of a large family meal.
But Jacoby and Landau tend to skirt most of those tensions by hosting the meals (something that’s expected when you run a growing fleet of restaurants) and upping the vegetable ante until even the most devoted carnivores don’t miss the meat.
One year, a gigantic roast squash stuffed with a vibrant cabbage slaw starred as the centerpiece. Another, grilled tofu rubbed with dried sage and drizzled with black pepper gravy left guests with plenty to carve and cut. Landau says the goal isn’t so much to mimic meat as it is to present a picture of abundance on the table.
“Thanksgiving, for one, was never about the turkey,” says Landau. “It’s about the harvest, about all these incredible flavors and textures we have coming out of the ground, ready to be eaten before winter comes.”
For those still squeamish about the idea of a vegan holiday—what, no butter?—Landau points to a killer Christmas party the family hosts one Sunday in December almost every year. Jacoby says she always wanted a big family gathering like the ones her grandmother remembered and this event, which draws 50 to 60 friends and family members, helps her scratch that itch.
For Landau, it’s a chance to show that “vegans know how to live.”
Christmas music from the 1940s plays in the background, alcohol flows—and a spread of food that goes well beyond vegetable crudités leaves guests satisfied. Brilliantly colored vegetable dishes fan out on the table to replace “all the brown, beige and tan” typical of holiday feasts, Jacoby says. To drive the point home one year, the couple’s Christmas party featured a carving station with white bread, horseradish and hunks of seasoned seitan for slicing. (Made from wheat gluten, seitan can closely mimic the look and flavor of roast meat).
“Some people who see us as ‘the vegans’ think, ‘We better eat first, because if we go over there they’re gonna make us eat grass,’” Landau says with a grin. “But we’re not chanting Kumbaya in our underwear out back. We’re living life and celebrating it with food, and we’re not missing out on anything.”
That said, Landau and Jacoby don’t insist that anyone else adopt their dietary preferences—though they do try to make them more tempting to the masses. They both cheered the way veganism, which could come off as cult-like in its earlier days, has opened the door to those dabbling in meatless meals, whether once a week or just once in a while.
That means there’s never been a better time to be the one bringing a vegetable dish to the holiday table.