Green’s Damon Brasch wants to bring vegan comfort food to the masses

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"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.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig