Miami is no longer a terrible place to be a vegan

Until recently, if you were a vegan or vegetarian in Miami, you were basically SOL, especially when it came to fine dining.  In a town where pork is not considered the “other” white meat, and even rice and beans usually contain meat products, scoring food without animal ingredients was a serious long shot.

But in the past few years, healthy living and animal-free offerings have surged.  When JugoFresh, the organic, cold-pressed juice company, became an immediate sensation in 2012, business owners realized there was, in fact, an audience of California-style, healthy Miami eaters.

From there, vegan and vegetarian cafes and take-out spots quickly “sprouted” around town.  Choices Café, the vegan hot spot with offerings like tofu scramble and chickpea tuna, quickly grew from one location to three.

Carrot Express in South Beach, which serves mostly vegetarian sandwiches and salads, is a mainstay for the SoBe fitness and lunch crowd.  Additional spots like Eden in Eden (vegetarian French cuisine), Manna Life Food (specializing in superfoods and “Life Bowls”) and Coral Gables’ Veganaroma were hits as soon as they opened. Full Bloom, a waterfront, vegan restaurant in Miami Beach’s Belle Isle area, opened in 2015 and now has a serious cult following.

When well-known chef and Michelle Bernstein protégé Nicole Votano left hotspot Fooqs to open the vegan fast casual DIRT in 2015 (she has since left), many were perplexed. But the immediate popularity of the eatery (David Beckham is a huge fan), showed the power behind this movement.

And when Della Heiman moved to Miami and opened Wynwood Yard, the outdoor hub of food, drink, music and more, she saved her own personal corner for della test kitchen, which serves healthy, mostly vegan bowls.

“What really motivated me was what I learned about chronic illness in this country and about how many people lack steady access to healthy, nourishing food. It seemed like a plant-based, fast casual restaurant could be a potential solution for a huge issue. While researching possible locations, I was inspired by Miami’s amazing energy and entrepreneurial ecosystem and decided to launch the concept here,” Heiman says.

But a hole in the market remained – that of a plant-based, fine-dining establishment with a big name chef (the way most Miami restaurants become successful). Enter PLANT Food + Wine from award-winning plant-based food legend, cookbook author, and national restaurateur Matthew Kenney. The Wynwood vegan and mostly raw restaurant and adjacent culinary academy, located inside the larger new venue of The Sacred Space, opened in February 2016. The restaurant quickly received a four-star review from the Miami Herald.

PLANT, which serves dishes like kimchi dumplings, cauliflower steak, banana leaf tamale, and white truffle cashew flora “cheese,” immediately became a massive hit.

Kenney’s trick was not to create less flavorful copies of traditional meat-based meals. He composes new (sometimes better than the original), creative dishes using plant ingredients.  Cacio e Pepe is a classic pasta dish that usually includes Pecorino-Romano cheese, butter, and pepper.  PLANT serves theirs raw, using Kelp noodles and a cashew cream. The kelp noodles and green olive puree mirror the salty sensation of cheese, the lemony cashew cream offers a similarly satisfying (maybe better?) flavor than the typical buttery topping, and the black pepper adds its usual spice.

Now, Kenney has announced the opening of a second, more casual vegan location in Miami: Plnthouse, the Good Kitchen, inside 1 Hotel & Homes South Beach. He calls it the “dressed-down, beachy” version of Plant.

The menu will include salads, wraps and sandwiches, bowls, and smoothies.  Highlighted dishes include One Salad (shaved vegetables, hemp seeds, sunflower sprouts, spicy macadamia nuts and avocado in a chili-lime vinaigrette), the Bahn Mi Wrap (featuring ginger roasted eggplant, lentil pate, smoked jalapeño cream, carrots, radish, herbs and collards), the One Bowl (sprouted lentils, roasted broccoli crowns, massaged kale, nori and sprouts served over brown rice in a turmeric dressing), and a  mango cheesecake.

Kenney spoke to us about Miami’s fast-growing vegan movement, his upcoming second restaurant here, and his plans for the future.

We lightly edited this interview for clarity and length.

PLANT Food + Wine was in the works for about two years in Miami – you began plans when the vegan scene was barely happening here.  What made you think it could work?

Well, I think it was kind of like what happened in New York and Los Angeles.  There was a very active wellness community – fitness, movement, yoga, the climate of course, and the fashion sense of the city – and to me, plant-based is a natural part of that evolution. I saw it happen in New York and I saw it happen in Los Angeles and other parts of the world, and really felt that Miami was already there, it just didn’t have that many options.

And were you seeing any changes here during those two years of building?

In my mind, I didn’t see a huge vegan scene here, what I did see were a lot of people interested in it.  Tons of people would be in my Los Angeles restaurant talking about how they were excited we were coming to Miami. Of course, you have a lot of really cool companies around here producing KOMBUCHA, then Jugofresh started to expand, and then more products became available in the stores, so all the things were there. I think the scene was here, it just wasn’t here in an upscale restaurant way.

Why open the culinary school here as well?

Well, actually, our school business is a little easier – my first culinary school was in Oklahoma. We were able to draw students there from Tokyo, Paris and all over the world. That’s when I realized we could put the culinary school anywhere – but here especially made sense because we have so many students from South America and Central America. It’s harder for to get to them from LA, and they usually have friends or relatives they can stay with here, so it seemed like a natural extension.

Speaking of South America, were you at all worried by the Latin American culinary emphasis on meat?

You know, I haven’t seen that – I’ve seen people quite open minded, actually. Again, we try to bridge to the mainstream, that’s why I do places that are cool environments and serve wine and everything. But at the same time, there is such a vacuum for the small audience that is already passionate about this. We can always start momentum with that and expand on it.  I didn’t see a lot of resistance.  To be really frank, I was expecting a lot more resistance and challenge in Miami than what we had.

Tell us more about what the response has been like in Miami vs. what you expected?

The response to the restaurant has been far superior to what I expected. Because we are kind of an outlier, doing something that’s contrary to what the majority of society does, I’m used to pushback and criticism and doubters and so forth. Even before we opened, the two years while we were building it – we were able to do the SEED Festival, the SOBE Wine & Food Festival. People were just so nice in Miami.

I wasn’t expecting it, because everybody had told me and warned me what a tough market it would be.  But my experience wasn’t that. People have been really open- minded. I think people wanted to be able to enjoy food and still feel good.

Tell us about Plnthhouse. Was it the positive response to PLANT that made you decide there is room for two?

There might be room for three (laughs), but we like hubs – because it allows us to operate in a better way if we have more resources. In L.A. we have four restaurants. Here, we now will have two and a school.  When we have a bigger infrastructure, it allows us to have team leaders than can really inspire the staff, so it’s a natural – in any city it has room for expansion.  Los Angeles, New York, Miami – in the U.S., those are our cities. It might take two, three or four years before we fill out all of our vision for what we can do here, but it’s natural, and it’s a completely different concept, and a different location, so it doesn’t create any competition.  But, I think it complements and it validates the growth of plant based and the need for it.

Anything else you want to add?

We are just really inspired by the community here and by the growing availability of good ingredients.  The climate is really perfect for this food.