Don’t call it a vegan restaurant

Chef Phillip Lee talks about his new “veggie-centric” venture The Gadarene Swine in Los Angeles and why “seasonal” cooking in Southern California is an oxymoron.

September 17, 2014 ● 3 min read

Chef Phillip Lee of Scratch Bar talks about his new “veggie-centric” venture The Gadarene Swine in Los Angeles and why “seasonal” cooking in Southern California is an oxymoron.

Chefs Feed: How’d The Gadarene Swine’s opening go last week?

Chef Phillip Lee: It was great. Everything went fantastic.

Your other restaurant Scratch Bar seems to celebrate meat—it’s featured all over the menu. So what made you decide to open a (mostly) vegan restaurant?

I don’t say vegan because that’s a political statement not a lifestyle. I’m not vegetarian or vegan. This restaurant is more about eating healthy food. Food should make you feel good—not make you go into a food coma. If the gas in your car made it run sluggishly, you'd probably never buy that gas again. The idea is to still have the entertainment and wow factor, and not just sustain life but enhance vitality.

Are you appealing primarily to vegans and vegetarians, or can carnivores enjoy the offerings at The Gadarene Swine, too?

It’s not necessarily for vegans. It’s more of a casual fine dining restaurant and we just chose to focus on cooking vegetarian. The majority of our clients have been regular meat eating people. It’s only been the vegans who are asking, ‘where’s the garden burger?’ I think that type of vegan diet where you're eating a lot of fake meat made with soy and gluten isn’t healthy.

Ultimately, it's not about taking a political stance against consuming animals. I’m against mass produced meat but this is a restaurant to get your average vegan to eat more healthy AND to get the average meat eater to eat more vegetables.

Do you think it’s confusing to have a pork reference in the name of a “vegan” restaurant?

People can get confused about everything but I’m not worried about that.

There was a guy who came in asking for the pork. He saw a review of The Gadarene Swine that started, “If you’re looking for the best pig you’ve ever tasted…” And that’s where he stopped reading. So he thought we served pork. He ended up staying anyways and said he was “pleasantly surprised.” 80 percent of our clientele is not vegetarian or vegan.

Can you briefly explain the Gadarene Swine fallacy that the restaurant is named for?

There’s a fallacy that we're all used to. The American way is that you’re supposed to go to school, then go to college, then marry someone of the opposite gender and then retire. Look at people who have hit those landmarks and you have no idea about whether they’ve done it right or wrong, but you assume they did it the right way. But if you veer off that path, people assume you’re doing something wrong.

I left school at 15, so on paper I looked like a bad kid. But look at everything I’ve done. When you start to break away from the past, you start to create a new way. I’m 27. I eat meat. My second restaurant shouldn’t be vegetarian, and I should be doing molecular gastronomy.

Jonathan Gold at the LA Times described the dishes at Scratch Bar as “whimsical” and “comic relief” from “hyper-intellectual” cuisine. Do you agree with that assessment?

Yeah, kind of. The first time I read it, I thought it was an insult but I think it’s funny.

I’m not trying to put flowers on shit and use centrifuges or forage for lettuce. I’m trying to cook old school and make it good. My focus is on nutrition, but you can make nutrition appeal. You don’t just have to serve wheatgrass.

What fall ingredients are you looking forward to using the most?

We only have two seasons in LA: spring and awards. We have better produce here than anywhere else. We always have amazing vegetables. And I can always tell when a chef isn’t from LA because they’re trying to sell “seasonal.” I don’t use pumpkin in the spring because people associate it with fall but I can get it year-round.

How did you develop The Gadarene Swine’s menu?

I had ideas. I wrote them down. Then tried them out. It wasn’t months and months of figuring it out. The problem with most vegan restaurants is that they’re operated by vegan chefs, who learn from vegan chefs, who learn from vegan chefs… It’s incestuous. I’m not aware of any Michelin-rated vegan restaurants.

What specific techniques do you plan on using to bring out the different flavors, textures and nutrients in your dishes at The Gadarene Swine?

We do a lot of dehydrating, a lot of reductions and purees to intensify flavors. It’s old school cooking. No fancy machines. I have one four burner stove and an oven and other traditional appliances like blenders.

-Interview by Sara Bloomberg