Greens Damon Brasch wants to bring vegan comfort food to the masses
If Morgan Spurlock, the guy who made Super Size Me, ever decides to do a sequel, I've got the restaurant for him.
A month of splurging on s'mores sundaes, spicy buffalo wings, burgers, and fries would surely expand his waistline as quickly as a diet of Big Macs and Egg McMuffins.
Spurlock would have a lot more options here than at McDonald's. The menu at this place reads like a round-the-world trip in guilty pleasures, from flatbread pizzas to kung pao chicken to a Texas po-boy oozing with luscious espresso barbecue sauce.
While eating this food constantly would likely pack on some pounds and, perhaps, push up your cholesterol levels, you'd still be on one of the strictest food regimens around. At Green, a funky two-year-old bistro tucked in the corner of a north Tempe strip mall, the sundae is soy, and the buffalo wings are mushrooms. The burger is ground oats and barley. The fries are still fries, though, because no animals are harmed in the deep-frying of a potato.
Everything Green serves is vegan — meaning it's not only meatless, but also free of milk, eggs, cheese, gelatin, or any other edible animal product.
Comfort food may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you say the word "vegan," but this eatery aims to change that.
I'd eat there all the time if I lived a little closer — and didn't care about squeezing into my jeans. But, hey, if I'm gonna blow my diet, this place gives me plenty of reasons to splurge.
Green is the brainchild of 34-year-old chef Damon Brasch.
He also owns That's A Wrap, a sandwich and salad shop in Central Phoenix, and he created the menu for the recently launched The Center Bistro, an organic eatery housed inside a yoga center off Mill Avenue in Tempe.
Those two other restaurants are popular in their own right, with smart, appealing offerings — healthful salads and wraps in the case of That's A Wrap, and organic cuisine for The Center Bistro. But Green is a tour de force, one of those so-simple-yet-so-clever-I-wish-I'd-thought-of-it-myself concepts that comes along once in a lifetime, and makes a guy a millionaire. Brasch has made vegan food downright tasty.
Though the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group estimates that vegetarians make up only 2.3 percent of the total U.S. population — with vegans accounting for up to half of that — an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the population "seeks vegetarian options at least some of the time." According to a Mintel market research report, the U.S. vegetarian food market is expected to grow to more than $1.7 billion by 2010. And thanks to the influence of the Slow Food Movement, there's a growing demand for organic local produce.
But let's face it. There's a reason our nation is still the world's fattest. McDonald's sales were up almost 10 percent in February, and although the company recently launched a lower-calorie Smart Choice Program, Mickey D's isn't raking in billions by pushing apple slices and grilled chicken salads. It's the Big Mac that keeps them coming back. And someone's still ordering fries with that.
Brasch knows it. So he took his desire to cook good food, promote his own philosophies, and run a successful business — and he came up with Green.
Instead of going the light, health-conscious route with piles of rabbit food (although you can get a salad to go along with your deep-fried tofu and sweet peanut sauce), Green's menu capitalizes on our insatiable lust for fast food.
Apparently, omnivores aren't the only ones who get hungry for pepperoni pizzas, burgers, and deep-fried snacks, and the vegan versions don't seem to be much more healthful.
"A vegan who eats lots of fried foods, even if fried in what people refer to as 'healthy oil,' is still getting a lot of calories and fat," says Sharon Salomon, a registered dietician from Phoenix asked to study Green's menu. "Balance and moderation are key to any kind of diet."
There's actually an upside to frying foods in canola oil, as they do at Green; it's considered the most healthful edible oil, with high levels of unsaturated fats, very little saturated fat, and no cholesterol. (Cholesterol is found only in animal products, says Salomon. However, blood cholesterol levels can also be raised by certain kinds of saturated fat.)
But that doesn't mean you can gorge yourself with no consequence.
Maybe the pleasure centers in our brains are hard-wired for crispy and crunchy and gooey indulgences, no matter what the treats are made of. Last year, the results of a study at Tufts University suggested that it's common for people to crave foods that are high in calories.
Brasch is no dummy. If fried pita chips and chocolate chip cookies get people eating vegan, even on occasion, then so be it. He's more interested in saving animals than calories.
"Americans need to be stroked into it," he says of the vegan diet. "I want to eat healthy, too, but I'm not gonna go out of my way to eat sprouts if it doesn't taste good."
From the faux chicken in my noodle dish to the meaty, shredded mushrooms in my barbecue, there's no animal flesh in anything here. The cheese on the pizza, the soft-serve ice cream — all soy. No egg in the stir-fry. No animal products in anything.
Brasch wrote the business plan for Green 10 years ago but didn't open the restaurant 'til 2006. Nestled in a sleepy strip mall on Scottsdale Road, the place is so inconspicuous that it's easy to miss, even if you've been there before. But it's destination dining in its own quirky way, frequented by a mostly young, arty crowd.
Service is fast-casual — order and pay at the counter, snag one of the funky tables (painted with jagged tree and plant silhouettes), and somebody will bring out your food when it's ready. In the meantime, there's plenty of atmosphere to soak up. A colorful row of old car doors and framed pieces of art fill opposite sides of the room, while tiny white Christmas lights and glowing paper lanterns brighten the green and orange dining room.
The bohemian cafe vibe isn't particularly unusual, but the vegan comfort food is unlike anything else in town.
"Basically, I just wanted to take the taboo out of the word 'vegan,'" Brasch says, "so the average Joe would think of it as just another kind of cuisine."
For now, that's a work in progress. To many, veganism still connotes a strict diet that's more about philosophy than flavor, so even though Green is technically vegan, the restaurant bills itself as "New American Vegetarian."
At first, Brasch considered leaving the word "vegetarian" out of it, too. He's tried to keep the vegan message subtle, staying focused on cooking up craveable dishes, like jerk tofu salad, or drunken mushroom "chicken," with noodles bathed in a heady mix of mushrooms, green onions, rice wine, and dark mushroom soy sauce.
"About 30 percent of the people who come into Green have no interest in vegetarianism — they just want a reasonably priced meal," he says.
Ironically, if anyone's given him any flack, it's other vegetarians who want more healthful versions of Green's food.
"It's not necessarily the healthiest thing around," Brasch admits. "A lot of stuff is fried here. And that whole aspect of it has kind of blown up in our face. Most vegans are health-minded, though some live on fries and smoke cigars."
He's already working on a new menu that will include more light alternatives, as well as some gluten-free offerings.
But don't expect Brasch to stop serving vegan chili fries or chocolate-peanut butter Tsoynamis, his answer to the Dairy Queen Blizzard. Treats like those get meat-eaters in the door.
"When omnivores come in and say it tastes really awesome," he says, "that's the biggest compliment."
Vegan" might not be a household word just yet, but it's getting close.
The term was coined in 1944, when the newly founded Vegan Society created its name from the first three and last two letters of "vegetarian."
Now it's in vogue. Celebrities are clamoring for vegan luxury goods from fashion designer Stella McCartney. Pleather has a whole new cachet.
Cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz is giving vegan food an enticing new image with books like Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin's bestselling vegan diet book, Skinny Bitch, has spawned a bestselling cookbook, too: Skinny Bitch in the Kitch.
And if there's any doubt that veganism is sexy these days, get this: Portland, Oregon, now boasts the world's first vegan strip club.
Chefs are in on the trend, as well. In the National Restaurant Association's 2007 "What's Hot & What's Not" survey of nearly 1,300 American Culinary Federation members, meatless/vegetarian dishes and vegan dishes are ranked "hot" by more than half of the respondents. Vegan and vegetarian options are de rigueur on menus, and exclusively vegetarian fine-dining establishments are cropping up around the country.
Certainly, veganism gets a boost in attention every time there's another mad cow scare or large-scale beef recall; February's USDA recall of 143 millions pounds of frozen beef from a California slaughterhouse was the biggest in U.S. history. If people think there's a chance that eating meat might kill them, they're quick to put down their knives and forks, even if it's temporary.
Consumers also worry about things that might kill them slowly, like obesity, heart disease, and cancer. There's a laundry list of health problems that have been linked not only to the cholesterol in animal flesh, but also to drugs and synthetic hormones found in industrial meat.
Advocates of veganism suggest that eschewing animal products altogether can prevent illness, although Damon Brasch doesn't make any health claims about his deep-fried vegan delicacies.
But beyond the headlines, there are moral and ethical reasons for abstaining from meat that go back to ancient times.
Until the word "vegetarianism" came into use in the mid-19th century, the avoidance of meat was called The Pythagorean Diet, after the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who was born around 580 BC. His belief in the transmigration of souls — that souls could inhabit any living thing — is considered a major influence on Plato and other philosophers who continued the debate about whether eating animals is ethical.
Similar beliefs about the nature of the soul perpetuated vegetarianism in various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In more recent times, a branch of fundamentalist Christians was behind the 1847 debut of the Vegetarian Society in England, while Seventh-day Adventists are among the most prominent contemporary advocates of vegetarianism.
Lately, the environmental and political arguments in favor of veganism and vegetarianism have been bolstered by the Green Movement, as consumers learn about how many resources are consumed and how much pollution is generated by factory farming.
Even among the general meat-eating population, there's a trend of supporting sustainable agriculture — grass-fed beef is showing up on more menus, and restaurants are eager to promote their local, organic ingredients.
Brasch says he didn't name his restaurant Green because of the Green Movement, though — he had the idea before the trend really took off.
"All these green people who change their light bulbs and drive hybrid cars . . . If they're not eating a vegetarian diet, then they're contributing to one of the biggest environmental problems," he says.
That, and "creating a living, conscious being just to eat it is wrong," he adds.
His reasons for being vegan?
"For me personally, it's 100 percent about factory farming. It's completely out of control," he says. "But if you're going to quote me on that, I'm a hypocrite, because I'm involved with two restaurants that serve meat."
Well, he is an entrepreneur, after all. As it turns out, if it weren't for all the omnivores patronizing That's A Wrap, that business wouldn't have been able to keep Green afloat in the beginning.
Nowadays, though, Green's clearly in the black.
Brasch, who grew up in Chicago and moved to the Valley in 1992, says being in a big Italian family led to his love of cooking.
"Cooking was the nucleus of our family," he says. "My grandmother threw these massive parties, but she had this tiny little kitchen. From a kid's perspective, it was just magical."
Brasch and his mother and sister had moved in with his grandparents after his parents got divorced, so he spent a lot of time in the kitchen with his grandmother.
"Instead of going out and playing baseball, I was inside with the women," Brasch says of his childhood.
As it turns out, there's a reason he was a homebody. It's something Brasch says he's never really talked about with people, but he's compelled to tell me: He's missing his left leg up to the hip, and was born that way. When he was a baby, doctors told his mother he'd never walk.
He later shows me a tattoo of a femur — that is, the thigh bone — which runs the length of his right shin. He got it when he was 18, after going through a period of self-reflection.
"It made me feel like a whole person," he says.
Considering how much time chefs spend on their feet, it's incredible that Brasch has pursued such a physically demanding career, but he's always been active. He started walking with a brace as a toddler, and then had an operation at age 6 to be fitted for a prosthetic leg. He always took regular gym class in school. And eventually, he even got into skateboarding and racing BMX bikes.
"I give my mom a lot of kudos because she never coddled me in that sense," he says. "She never let me use it as an excuse."
Brasch recalls an experience in first grade when kids were teasing him about his disability. He went home and told his mom what happened.
"She told me, 'The next time someone does that, punch him in the nose.' And the next day, I did. Nobody bothered me after that, but every year, it would be the same thing all over again."
By high school, Brasch admits, he was known as a bully. To see him now — with his warm brown eyes, long beard, and mellow demeanor — it's hard to believe he was ever aggro.
"I was full of a lot of rage when I was younger," he explains matter-of-factly.
Not surprisingly, Brasch was drawn to the hardcore music scene in Chicago. That's where he was introduced to vegetarianism. (Straight-edge hardcore, an offshoot of punk, started in the early '80s as a clean-living subculture that rejected drinking and smoking, but it also became associated with animal rights by the end of the decade.) He's been a strict vegetarian for 16 years now, a vegan off and on.
Around the same time, he began working in restaurants. His first job, at age 14, was as a dishwasher at a pizza place. Brasch continued to work his way up the kitchen hierarchy through high school, missing a lot of classes. He dropped out of college and continued working in the restaurant business.
When Brasch's father moved to Arizona for a job, Brasch decided to come along for a change of scenery. He worked at different restaurants around Phoenix — "random places," he says — including Tom's BBQ, where he met his future wife, Kathy, who's a nurse. (Even though he doesn't eat meat, as a chef, he still enjoys cooking it.)
His big break came in the late '90s, when he met Phoenix entrepreneur Randy Smith, who'd opened That's A Wrap, on Seventh Street, north of McDowell, in 1998. Smith brought on Brasch to revamp the menu, to much success.
The following year, Smith started a restaurant and bar management company called Bottomline Hospitality Group, and recruited Brasch to be the chef at two new nightspots he was planning to open in Old Town Scottsdale: Mickey's Hangover, in October 2000, and SIX Lounge & Restaurant, in April 2001.
"It was hard, but I was able to learn quickly because my friend's ass was on the line," Brasch says.
Shortly after that, Smith entered both restaurants in the Scottsdale Culinary Festival, promoting Brasch as an up-and-coming new chef. People were wondering who Brasch was, but he must've made a good impression — SIX won the festival's People's Choice Award for Best New Restaurant.
"Damon's as talented as they come," says Smith. "We were blessed to have him."
Things went well until 9/11. Like many restaurants and bars, Mickey's Hangover saw a drop in business after that. Smith was looking to shore things up by unloading That's A Wrap, and coincidentally, Brasch was eager for a different work environment — he was an "unhealthy smoker" at the time, and working at a bar didn't help. He took over as the new owner of That's A Wrap in 2003, and he quit smoking, too.
Ironically, Brasch has the Atkins diet to thank for his initial success as a restaurateur.
The timing of the purchase of a wrap/salad shop was uncanny.
"I was gonna re-concept it, do something more edgy with it," Brasch says. "But as soon as I bought That's A Wrap, the low-carb thing hit. It was just a stroke of luck."
Business started picking up as the Atkins diet fad swept the country, and customers sought out wraps and salads. Brasch figured, if it's not broken, don't fix it.
Most items contain meat, like the Prince of Thai's wrap (spicy peanut chicken with spinach) or the BBQ chicken bowl, although there are vegetarian options like the Mexican-style Señorita-No-Meata. Tofu can be substituted for meat in any of the wraps. Even now, with Atkins a fading memory, That's A Wrap is packed at lunchtime.
Brasch finally opened Green in 2006. In just two years, the innovative eatery has carved its own niche in the local dining scene. And you're just as likely to hear about it on Chowhound as on a vegetarian message board, thanks to Brasch's accessible menu.
"We were very, very pleasantly surprised," wrote one Chowhounder, a self-proclaimed carnivore. "We did Mandala Tearoom [a vegan restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale] about a month ago and for vegan food, the flavors for Green far surpassed Mandala."
But Brasch doesn't want to take too much credit.
"I think some of it has to do with luck," he says. "I just let life happen."
Just talking with Brasch, it's clear that he's more than just an idea guy. He actually gets things done.
How he manages to pull it all off, I'll never understand.
"Right now, I'm tired," he confesses.
It's a mellow weekday afternoon at Green, with just a few tables of customers eating a late lunch. Brasch sits down to chat over a plate of buffalo wings, clad in baggy pants and a mermaid T-shirt that says "We are animal" (designed for Green by local artist Dave Quan, a.k.a. Luster Kaboom, as a fundraiser for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection program).
He says he's been spending a lot of time in the office lately, working on a lot of different things. I could've guessed as much from his full beard, which might get in the way in the kitchen.
Along with running his businesses and staying involved with The Center Bistro, a new organic restaurant owned by Robert Black and Austin Vickers, Brasch does restaurant consulting as well as high-end catering.
And he's married, with two little kids. And he's in two bands, Vine Land and Misr Wat. And he writes for a local zine called Hoozdo. In recent issues, he reviewed legendary Phoenix steak house Durant's — from a vegan perspective — and wrote about his "chef crush" on acclaimed pizza guru Chris Bianco.
And did I mention he's been thinking about writing a cookbook, too?
Brasch has even more projects in the works, although he'll share that stuff off the record only. Still, I think it's fair to say he's remarkably plugged in to what's current — he's already proved that.
The Center Bistro is only the latest example. Have you found yourself hearing, saying, thinking about the word "organic" more often than you used to? Have you eaten anything organic lately?
Brasch already has you figured out. His dishes at The Center Bistro are 95 percent organic. And although they aren't vegan, you can order vegan versions of them.
"I just saw that as the next step," he says. "It starts out with people being a little bit open-minded."
The Center Bistro is noticeably more upscale than Green or That's A Wrap, with sleek, contemporary décor as well as a higher price point (no doubt due to the higher cost of organic ingredients). Instead of simple, cheap eats, expect something more sophisticated: a $12 free-range organic roast beef sandwich with organic beets, or perhaps a $6 organic soy-coconut smoothie boosted with a $3 shot of pure açai juice.
The Center Bistro is deliberately more healthful than Green, too. "We don't have any deep-fryers there," he says, laughing. Two years ago, his discovering that he's diabetic gave him "a new perspective on creating healthy food," he adds.
It's an altogether different kind of approach to shifting people's attitudes. While Green gets you by the jugular with its guilty pleasures, Center Bistro goes the intellectual route, tempting you to try dishes that aren't just organic, but often raw.
Yes, raw — another healthful food trend. Originally, Brasch thought he'd try doing an all-raw menu.
Proponents of raw foodism claim it has numerous health benefits, but at its extreme, the diet can go to absurd lengths to mimic the cooked foods that diners are familiar with. The results can be off-putting, if not pretty disgusting — how about "living" pizza made with flaxseed, or "ricotta" made from puréed nuts and raw garlic?
Gratefully, The Center Bistro doesn't go that far.
"We thought it would spook the people who could benefit the most," he says.
That echoes the attitude he'd expressed when talking about bringing vegan cuisine to the masses.
"The best way to solve a problem is to do it from the inside — brow-beating people to not eat meat won't work."
For that reason, I think Green is Brasch's best idea of all. He's taking something we all know and love — comfort food — and using it to usher in the next big thing. He knows what we crave.
That means that even if you don't give up meat entirely, you might find yourself eating less of it. Maybe you'll go for a salad instead of a steak. Or perhaps you'll find you can inhale a plate of vegan buffalo wings just as easily as the chicken version.
Anecdotally, I can definitely attest that people are eating vegetarian food more often.
Brasch is counting on it.
"I'm laying the groundwork to make Green more than just one unit — probably in the next year or two," he says.
Don't be surprised if, someday, you see a Green alongside the Subway at your neighborhood strip mall.
I'm crossing my fingers it has a drive-thru.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.