|Written by Harriette Yahr - Special to the BT, Photos by Sylvia Ros|
A culinary experiment is under way in Miami: Can a talented and passionate chef survive on donations?
There was once a time, not long ago, when tracking down a vegetarian meal in Miami meant heading to hole-in-the-wall health-food stores or breaking out your frayed Moosewood Cookbook for a go at your own tofu sloppy joes. Today, to the delight of veggie lovers and foodies alike, meatless options are literally popping up all over town.
There are fast-food options and haute cuisine -- and then there’s Love and Vegetables, a pop-up café that showcases fresh, local produce with a fresh economic twist.
Love and Vegetables is the culinary child of Pennsylvania transplants Keith Kalmanowicz and Melisa Phifer. But before delving into the characters, let’s set today’s scene.
“Local” and “organic” have made their way into mainstream culture, and going vegetarian, even vegan (no animal products whatsoever), is not just for hippies or the old-school Coconut Grove crowd anymore. Financial and environmental concerns have given rise to folks foraging from home gardens and frequenting farmers markets.
Interest in fair-trade practices, factory farming, and “carbon footprint” are no longer relegated to the domain of flaming liberals, except maybe in the minds of the Rush Limbaugh crowd. Miami is still no Portland, Oregon, when it comes to green lifestyle -- the city’s not picking up compost along with recyclables and it’s the exception not the rule to find, say, mung bean bolognaise. Yet, whether born of trend or consciousness, it’s a great time to veg-out in Miami.
In fact, it’s a great time to eat across the culinary spectrum. Miami’s food scene has exploded the past few years. We’ve gone from a wannabe foodie town to a bona-fide, Zagat-rated destination. Top chefs are not only breezing through town for the South Florida Wine and Food Festival (held this month), they’re setting up additional shops.
Take José Andrés (The Bazaar), Andrew Carmellini (The Dutch), and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (J&G Grill), who now have locations here. As for chefs/owners who call Miami home, along the Biscayne Corridor, the legendary Norman Van Aken launched Tuyo (sitting atop Miami-Dade College’s new Miami Culinary Institute) and this past year Daniel Serfer’s Blue Collar touched down squarely. Meanwhile perennials from Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s) and Michael Schwartz (Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink) continue to thrive as freshly minted eateries from the Design District (MC Kitchen) to Wynwood (Bloom) trend solidly. Add to this the food-truck scene, which persists beyond fad.
It would fit perfectly if Keith relocated here to stake his claim in the crowd: “Young upstart chef sets eyes on South Florida for new vegan venture.” But that’s not true. Keith’s not even a vegan. And Miami was initially meant as a stopover. Yet here he is, busting out roasted beet salad (with orange vinaigrette and crushed pecans) and papaya star fruit chutney (with pickled mustard seeds, cumin, and fennel seeds) at what have now become twice-monthly (at minimum) gatherings.
Even if you don’t have money, you’re welcome to join in. Everybody can eat at Love and Vegetables. Keith’s mission, as he puts it: “To feed as many people -- regardless of means -- healthy, farm-fresh, yummy and delicious vegan food.” He follows standards set forth by the One World Everybody Eats Foundation, a nonprofit “pay-what-you-can” restaurant model, adding his own pop-up twist.
He describes fleeing to Arizona for college and bouncing from major to major until, after seven years, at around age 26, he dropped out and headed to San Francisco. That was in 2005, when start-ups were booming. Keith says he thrived in sales and marketing, building and building his résumé, until one day, on the heels of a six-figure salary offer, he realized something was missing. “You get to this place of success,” he recalls, “and you ask, ‘Is this all there is?’”
It hit him that he hadn’t seen his family in four years. So he scrapped his life in San Francisco and headed back East. He took something important home with him. “I tasted food for the first time in San Francisco,” he says. “Mission-style burritos, fusion food, Asian fusion, French-Vietnamese. I didn’t even know that combination of food existed. There was just every style of food. It was a mixture of flavors I never experienced, food cooked delicately and properly, with great technique. It just opened up my palate.”
Back in Pennsylvania, Keith got a job in sales for an online company. At night he cooked meals with his dad. He began eating more vegetables. And he took up yoga to relieve persistent back pain.
Yoga changed his life. “Before yoga, I was scattered,” he explains. “I thought a thousand different ideas a minute and I was proud of that, but I was living in the clouds. I had no structure, no grounding. I was an instant-gratification kid. Yoga taught me patience. It taught me that it was okay where I am, and through regular practice, I’ll get to be where I want to be.”
Keith says yoga gave him goals to work toward and a method to get there. He started living so “in the moment” that he quit his sales job, which he hated, and enrolled in culinary school. By this time, Kalmanowicz’s deli and grocery had been sold, so it was too late to carry on the family tradition. But he found his passion, what he wanted to do in life: cook.
The end of this chapter in Keith’s story owes a lot to his girlfriend at the time, Melisa Phifer, whom he met on eHarmony in his epiphanic yoga days. She wanted to move to Costa Rica. Keith signed on. They figured they’d stop in Miami to save up money, learn un poquito de español, then be on their way.
Time, as they say, moves slowly in South Florida.
For three years now, Miami has been Keith’s home. He’s been fortunate to learn from some of Miami’s best chefs: Sam Gorenstein (My Ceviche), Daniel Ganem (the Raleigh), and powerhouse Michael Schwartz. It’s Gorenstein whom he credits as being his “first real chef” and the pro who gave him his first break, hiring him at BLT Steak, even when his knife skills “sucked” and he was “ridiculously unqualified” to work in a high-end kitchen. (“I dropped out after one semester of culinary school, in northeastern Pennsylvania, where people’s highest ambitions are to work at Applebee’s,” Keith jokes.)
It was Keith’s ambition and willingness to learn that impressed Gorenstein. “He came to the interview very humble regarding his kitchen skills,” Gorenstein recounts. “I knew right away that he needed the opportunity. I could see the smile on his face the first day in the kitchen.”
Keith recalls cutting “a lot of beets” and sharpening his knife skills under executive sous chef Daniel Ganem. “He wanted to learn something new every single day,” remembers Ganem. “I think that’s what made him grow.”
During a break in Costa Rica (Keith and Melisa finally made it down there), Keith’s zeal for farm-fresh food got hold of him, and he returned to Miami with the ambition of working for Michael Schwartz, the prince of local and know-your-source cooking.
By this time Keith’s résumé had some heft -- he knew how to slice, dice, and brunoise. He got a gig working the oven at Harry’s Pizzeria in the Design District (a Michael Schwartz restaurant named after his son), and a few months later he was in the kitchen at Michael’s Genuine, working the hot line and contributing soup and sandwich specials. “Keith was very creative and passionate,” says Schwartz. “He was always interested in using the freshest ingredients, many of which he foraged himself locally.”
About the foraging, most prescient was the day chef de cuisine Bradley Herron offered Keith a job as produce buyer. Ellie Groden, Michael Schwartz’s assistant, soon dubbed Keith their “in-house cook/neighborhood farmer/goat whisperer/produce forager.”
Here’s a guy who jokes he hadn’t eaten a vegetable until age 30, and now he was out at 5:30 a.m. sourcing produce, getting to know vendors, and being schooled in produce quality. Keith says he owes an enormous amount to the exacting standards at Michael’s Genuine. “I had to buy two to three bushels of brussel sprouts a day during peak season, and if I walked in the door with the wrong size, they were thrown at my head from across the kitchen,” he says. Then getting serious: “Working at Michael’s, I learned the South Florida growing season. I learned what to purchase to upkeep production. I now know what to buy based on umpteen criteria of shape, size, color, taste, smell, and touch.”
Then one day in January 2012, in what will later be seen as a turning point, Matrice Jackson, a guy who fixes bicycles for kids in Little Haiti, needed parts for his makeshift bike shop. Keith and Melisa decided to throw a fundraiser, and Love and Vegetables was born.
It’s an educational and residential inner-city marvel spanning three acres, complete with indoor and outdoor kitchens and a multi-level tree house, all designed with the aim -- now going on 35 years -- of modeling how to “peacefully co-exist and care for the earth and each other.”
Earth-n-Us is the kind of place a guy might set up a makeshift bike co-op for local kids who otherwise would have no way to get their wheels rolling, and it’s the kind of place some other folks might transform into a magical, candlelit wonderland for a pop-up dinner.
For Matrice’s fundraiser, Melisa took on general management, they got the word out via Facebook and by knocking on doors (to reach those not into the Internet), and friend/colleague/tree house resident Chantelle Sookram joined Keith to cook up a gourmet vegan meal that included calalou soup and raw zucchini pasta with purple basil pesto, sourced from Allapattah Market (NW 12th Avenue and 22nd Street) and Earth-n-Us. Then they watched the donations pour in.
“It was very successful,” says Melisa. “Friends of the farm brought out grown children’s bikes and parts, and donated money for the purchase of tools and necessary parts.” The response made Keith and Melisa think: Why not throw more events incorporating produce from local gardens to raise money for other worthy causes?
That was just over a year ago. To date, Love and Vegetables has fed hundreds and negotiated its share of growing pains. There are monthly dinners at Earth-n-Us (7630 NE 1st Ave.) and at Lagniappe House (3425 NE 2nd Ave.), a chilled-out venue near Midtown Miami. They’ve run pop-ups in Wynwood for the monthly art walks, collaborations at Teena’s Pride and Robert Borek Farms (Homestead) and Bee Heaven Farm (the Redland), and they’ve served up privately catered meals.
It’s juncture time for Keith. As with any start-up, it’s time to take stock. What’s working and what’s not? What modifications need to be made? What about long-term goals? Back in November, Keith cut his hours at Michael’s Genuine, leaving the kitchen to concentrate on buying produce. Soon after, he stopped altogether to focus his efforts on Love and Vegetables -- and his goal of opening a nonprofit community café.
Last month Keith was off to Brunswick, New Jersey, to attend the One World Everybody Eats Foundation annual summit, a powwow for activists and restaurateurs committed to the pay-what-you-can business -- and life -- model. Keith was a featured speaker, sharing his pop-up process. Everyone compared notes on how they can, and do, feed people regardless of means. And it’s possible, not just idealistic.
On a corporate level, you can read about Panera Bread, which now has four pay-what-you-can Panera Cares community cafés in operation around the nation. And rocker John Bon Jovi joined the humanitarian effort, opening a JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey. There are plenty of skeptics who say a restaurant can’t possibly survive on what amounts to gift-economics, but haven’t oddsmakers and visionaries always butted paradigms?
Keith may be the rare pay-what-you-can entrepreneur in town, but he doesn’t pretend to be the Big Kahuna of the vegan movement. In fact there is not a lot of ego in his motivation. He registers as a self-avowed idea man with a desire to be of service to others through his exuberant love of food. This guy just loves vegetables. He’ll even make you excited about the flowers on a tomato plant or the worms on a basil leaf.
And he admits he has a lot to learn, especially when it comes to organization. When Melisa and Keith parted romantic ways, Melisa’s management skills left the project. They’re both still living at Earth-n-Us Farm, though separately. Melisa is currently farm director.
There have been bumps in the road for Love and Vegetables as Keith adjusts to life and business without Melisa. You can read all about it on his blog. Transparency -- a quality close to the heart of the local food movement -- is also his personal mantra. “Some people say I’m too open and I share too much,” he muses. “Other people gravitate toward that. It creates this atmosphere of vulnerability to put yourself out there. But that’s just me, I don’t want to pretend.” From his emotional struggles to his own try at veganism to the Instagrams of local Kohlrabi and heirloom tomatoes -- stuff he gets so hyped up about it’s hard to imagine it took him so long to find his calling, which seems embedded in his DNA -- everything is on the table.
Transparency has served Keith well. There’s an honesty that permeates Love and Vegetables, from the actual honor system (you are in charge of paying) to mea culpas about running late, not having an extra tarp in place when it rained, or realizing there wasn’t a freezer at Lagniappe House, so the tremblique -- a coconut custard dessert (with Keith’s local strawberry spin) -- wasn’t going to get plated that night.
These pop-up happenings have a charming air of improvisation. You never know far in advance what dishes will be served; Keith hand-picks whatever produce is ripe and available as close to the event as possible. Recipes rarely have been tested, a notable exception was the sold-out coconut corn chowder that Keith developed at Michael’s Genuine. Usually dishes hit (the eggplant with dal and the lemon-basil green beans were two of tastiest vegan dishes I’ve ever had) but sometimes they miss (raw-food night comes to mind, minus the excellent raw potato latke with apple papaya chutney, and the chocolate avocado pudding).
Beyond the food is the positive feeling at Love and Vegetables events. Pretense is at a low. Imagine you’re hanging out with friends in your own backyard, and it’s catered, and you don’t have to do the dishes. Unless you want. In the spirit of pay-what-you-can, you’re free to trade what you can. Want to work for your meal? Helping out in the kitchen is always an option. It’s also a necessity.
Key main ingredients in Love and Vegetables are the volunteers, the community of people who prop it up from the front to the back of the house. Keith points out Alison Krochina, Gloria O’Byrne, and Maurice Pierre as vital. Craig Simon, Diego Luis Feliciano-Lopez, and Chantelle Sookram have served as co-chefs. Chantelle was a mainstay of Love and Vegetables until very recently, offering a yin to Keith’s yang -- and cooking up a standout kale and chickpea soup.
The people turning up for the dinners, for the most part, can afford to pay. But he also wants to attract people who can’t. “I walk a few blocks in any direction of a dinner, and there are people who could benefit from a good meal, and I have to find a way to get them in here.”
Writing this, I wondered if critics of the vegan lifestyle might ready their pens. I’ve been on this vegetarian/vegan path for a chunk of time, more than 30 years, and I’ve dug into heaps of perspectives. “Going vegan” definitely can inspire ferocity. Check, for example, comments on the New York Times website whenever meatless recipes are innocently offered and you can feel the judgments waft off your screen.
It cuts all ways. Surely there are gluten-free advocates, lacto-vegetarians (eats dairy), ovo-vegetarians (eats eggs), raw foodists, vegans, seagans (vegans who eat seafood), as well as steak lovers and Miamiterians (just seeing if you’re reading) who think their way is the best way.
The great news is Love and Vegetables offers a white flag, better yet a multi-colored flag, to all. This is not a self-righteous, proselytizing group. Love and Vegetables is about celebration. These are chefs, after all. They love to cook and share their food with everyone.
That’s not to say there isn’t a point of view Love and Vegetables embodies. There is. It’s an agenda, in a way, of their two main ingredients: love and vegetables. Keith prioritizes seasonal, local, and sustainable produce. He supports the benefits of fresh, plant-based food, and wants everyone to have access, regardless of means. Think of it as low-impact dining.
If it’s a good idea to choose actions that cause the least harm, that consume the least energy and maximize care of self and others, including animals and the environment -- all the while being tasty and fun and free-form enough to be inspiring -- Love and Vegetables comes close to the ideal.
In terms of the Zeitgeist, Keith seems to be right on cue. Even U.S. News & World Report, about as mainstream as you can get, is now pushing the value of plant-based diets. It used to be that Dennis Kucinich was the freaky vegetarian politician, but today former President Bill Clinton is championing the health benefits of a vegan diet -- and Harvard is backing up claims with data.
Pop culture has embraced meatless eating, from best-sellers like Skinny Bitch to documentaries like Forks Over Knives and Food, Inc., shining a light on industrial agriculture and meat production. In our Biscayne Corridor neighborhoods, even a few fast-food joints -- a good indicator of reach -- like Chipotle, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, Pasha’s, and Sakaya Kitchen incorporate some form of local or ethically raised products.
And there are more veggie-centric, independent restaurants along the Corridor than ever before, among them Mi Vida Café, Garden of Eatin’, Namaste, Here Comes the Sun, Shing Wang Vegetarian, Green House Organic, Vegetarian Restaurant by Hakin, and newcomer Guarapo Organic Juice Bar.
There are also farms where you can pick your own. Keith’s mainstays nearby include Little Haiti Community Garden (5804 NE 2nd Ave.) and farmer Muriel Olivares’s Little River Market Garden, in addition to his own backyard. (The Urban Oasis Project, which bolsters local gardens and farmers markets, is also worth checking out.) For a rundown of veg-centric offerings, visit MeatlessMiami.com (operated by Lauren “Lolo” Reskin of indie record store and vegan coffee shop Sweat Records) and VegSouthFlorida.com. For the adventurous, Earth-n-Us hosts a vegan potluck every Thursday.
So there’s a burgeoning vegetarian/vegan scene in Miami, and it has been keeping Keith busy. January included a “Taco Night” at Lagniappe House and a “Love and Tomatoes” fundraiser at Teena’s Pride. As part of his share-the-vegetable-love ethos, Chef Keith took time out to be Farmer Keith for students at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School in Overtown, assisting Ellie Groden with maintaining a school garden as part of Michael Schwartz’s “Chefs Move to Schools” community outreach, an outgrowth of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign.
Keith was energetically journeying along this path -- planning his future, refining his goals, deepening his commitment -- when all of a sudden an obstacle appeared. The story took a turn, and his “go with the flow” philosophy for Love and Vegetables was put to the test.
Chantelle Sookram stepped away from the project.
She says she’s grateful that Keith introduced her to world of vegan cooking, but it’s time to move on. Love and Vegetables is a huge commitment, she says, and “it’s way too stressful to continue doing for something that’s not yours.” She’s now working at My Ceviche and is excited about finding her own culinary style (she’s only 22 years old).
Keith adapted quickly. “I’m all about happiness and outrageous joy,” he says, “and if Chantelle’s not feeling it, that’s okay.”
How would he get to New Jersey? And in four days?
He talked about cobbling together some cash to take a bus, asking friends, but everyone he knew was broke. I asked him if he ever thought of sponsors -- that’s something he plans to investigate. I asked him how he feels about asking others for help -- that’s not something he’s very comfortable doing. We talk about the idea that, sometimes, people like to help others, and that others may even want to support him and his aim to do good in the world.
About an hour later, I received an e-mail linking to Rally.org, a crowd-funding website. There I see a page titled, “Living on a Prayer: New Jersey or Bust!” It’s Keith. “I need help to travel to this amazing conference. In exchange for your donations, I will cook one meal made with love to everyone who donates.”
It was stunning to watch the support pour in. Fourteen hours later, Keith reached his goal of $500 for transportation to the event.
“I love what you are doing for this community! Delicious, nutritious, and full of love. It’s a beautiful thing,” wrote supporter Chira Cassel. “I hope you get well over your goal, you deserve it.” And people kept giving. Keith did top over his goal. “Bring home more vegetable wisdom for our Miami family,” added Nicole Davis. A day later Keith booked his ticket. He was off to New Jersey.
Chef Sam Gorenstein says Keith has come a long way in the past three years: “He doesn’t lose his focus easily. He drew a path that he wants to pursue and follow, and personally that’s very respectable.” Gorenstein believes Love and Vegetables is a great project. “It’s based on his beliefs,” he says. “The way he sees and feels his cooking -- it speaks very highly of him and what he wants to accomplish one day.”
Chef Daniel Ganem concurs: “He puts so much love into the project. Whenever you see cooks like that, you see them grow because of going through their own path. You get really proud of them.”
Keith certainly has a lot of people rooting for him and an infectious, unwavering belief in his quest. “He’s going to do great, either at Love and Vegetables or in his future,” says Ganem. “He has the passion and drive to be better and better.”
So what does the future hold? Will he reach his goal of opening a nonprofit pay-what-you-can Love and Vegetables Community Café in Miami? “I’ve surrendered to the belief in altruism,” says Keith, “and that by doing so, everything will be okay, and abundance will flow.”
Learn more about Love and Vegetables, and be part of the next chapter, at www.LoveandVeggies.com. Upcoming events include a Valentine’s dinner on February 16 and a Super Bowl Sunday bash.
Volume 12, Issue 1, March 2014
A local couple share their love -- and collection -- of visual poetry
Sales, special events, and more from the people who make Biscayne Times possible