Falafel-fueled dominance from the Madcapra team, and more produce power as they open project number two.

December 15, 2016 ● 4 min read

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In the spirit of vegetables embracing the spotlight, we’re speaking with chefs who have long endorsed their particular dynamism.

The teenaged Sara Kramer — who would grow up to co-create falafel paradise Madcapra — was incensed by the world, as teenagers usually are. In revolt, she flung herself headlong into veganism.

In what she calls the ultimate “classic hipster irony,” she found herself working in a local whole-animal butcher shop only five years later. Time may soften the rebellious, but Kramer and her kitchen-partner-in-crime of today, Sarah Hymanson, are more committed than ever to giving vegetables their proper due.

It’s been just over a year and a half since Madcapra (catchphrase: "Because vegetables!") landed in Los Angeles’s Grand Central Market, hawking flatbread-wrapped sunshine to the masses. Sandwiches at the little shop are color-coded by the smattering of produce that accompanies the falafel within: “green” means pickled fennel, and labneh spiked with bright cilantro and mint; “orange” incorporates carrots and hot peppers. Choose “red,” and you’ll get tomatoes and cabbage; “yellow” mingles harissa with pickled sweet peppers and cucumber. Vegetables are a visual tour de force on this menu.

Of course, every day someone approaches the counter, realizes there is no shawarma and backs away in disbelief. “Constantly, all the time, a never-ending stream of people,” Kramer laughs. “When they realize we don't have it, they're like, ‘No, no, no, I need meat.’ It happens all the time.”

So while some people are still not willing to consider something a meal without meat, plenty of people will: you’ve got to make the in-roads wherever you can, she says sagely. Madcapra is, in fact, a vegetarian restaurant, but the word isn’t splashed over any signage or mission statements that you’ll find. This is deliberate; Kramer is of a generation of chefs cooking now who would rather get their message across by enticing those who simply seek delicious food — vegetarian or not — instead of appealing to a certain niche. Niche comes with expectations both good and bad, she explains, and it’s harder to turn a ship full of people who believe a meal without meat is a side salad.

“I just feel better when I'm eating more vegetables. I enjoy that eating experience better. It's always been really important to me, from an environmental and a health perspective, to eat in a more balanced way,” she says.

In a few weeks, Kramer and Hymanson open the doors of Kismet, a largely vegetable-focused restaurant inspired by the cuisine of the Middle East. It will be a huge step up for the duo, in terms of scope and level of food, but a logical one as well (the chefs previously cooked together at Glasserie in Brooklyn, a contemporary spot with a similar Middle Eastern bent). And while there will be meat on the menu, don’t expect it to be ordinary.

“We don't want to gratuitously throw commodity meat everywhere. Meat is the kind of thing that we should celebrate and source really well. It should be expensive,” Kramer says. “It would weigh too heavily on our conscience. In order to balance a menu that we feel represents us, it only makes sense to serve a lot less animal protein.” It’s a small distinction — incorporating meat that complements the full spectrum of seasonal vegetables, rather than the reverse — but this new harmony is fast becoming the norm. It’s less about convincing people they don’t need meat, and opening their mind to the versatility of everything else.

The trick to making vegetables sing, she says, comes down to three things: texture, technique, and flavor. “I think if you have delicious food and great service and a lovely room, and you take care of people and they feel welcome and they like the way the menu is worded and the way the food looks on the plate…it's all of those things that get your message across without having to state it so explicitly.”

A big win at Kismet would be diners not even noticing that they were having a mostly meat-free meal, she adds. The food should be delicious and fun and vibrant and exciting — then it should communicate the message that drives its chefs.
“We do consider [showcasing vegetables] to be a political choice and a statement, but we're not trying to bash anybody over the head with it,” she says. “It comes back to how we like to eat and the way we feel best eating. It's a choice that both of us have made over the course of time, and it's really played into how we cook.”

Most chefs with this kind of devotional power over vegetables can be traced to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill universe, and Kramer is no exception. She’s seen what good can come of speaking on behalf of stunning produce.  

“We're living in a political moment. It can't be escaped anymore. I feel a little less inclined to keep the diplomacy I may have had before in discussing the subject, because of where we're at,” she says. “A lack of speaking up, or apathy, can lead to disastrous consequences.”
She continues, “I think anybody that's doing any work that has an effect on other people has some responsibility. We could feed more people if we focus more on growing food rather than raising it. It is very much at the center of how I have driven my entire food career.”

While the fate of the world may not lay entirely upon the shoulders of chefs, it’s places like Madcapra and Kismet and the countless others that have the capacity to revolutionize our palates and our preferences. “I think we can do our part,” Kramer says, the sounds of a lunchtime rush filling the phone. “We can all contribute in a positive way.”

By eating your vegetables, for example.  

Cassandra Landry | Original photo via Mel Melcon for the LA Times