Market Chef : Aaron Adams
In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain takes quite a few characteristic digs at vegans and vegetarians, most notably a comment about how weak they all seem to be; “Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food. The body, these waterheads imagine, is a temple that should not be polluted by animal protein. It’s healthier, they insist, though every vegetarian waiter I’ve worked with is brought down by any rumor of a cold.” Everything that Portobello Vegan Trattoria chef and owner Aaron Adams is stands in direct opposition to that. Talking a mile a minute and positively lit up from the inside out, Adams is a living, breathing testament to the power of plants. Seeing as I had already interviewed him about his early childhood and development as a chef for the Market Chef series last year, I thought that this time around I’d start by asking what he’d been up to since we last spoke. 30 minutes — and what seemed like zero breaths — later, I had about a zillion answers.
“At the restaurant, we’ve been really trying to refine who we are and what our mission is. We’ve always been seasonally & locally focused, but in the past year we’ve become hyper focused.”. What does he mean, hyper-focused? Adams doesn’t use any prepared foods at all. The restaurant is completely free of soy products, like prepared tofu, and his latest obsession is getting Earth Balance-type vegan margarine out of his kitchen. “Because we’re not vegan for health reasons, our focus is animal rights. Portobello is about giving people a really nice dining experience, and also being super animal friendly. The problem with Earthbound-type products is that they use palm oil which isn’t just unhealthy for people but also unhealthy for the environment, for rainforest habitats.” So of course, unerringly energetic person that he his, Adams has resolved to make his own. “I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here or whatever. I’m just trying to do a good job of running an ethical business.”
If it were anyone else, it’d be easy to write off Adams eagerness as naivete, but as we talked, I was struck by his perfect mix of unflagging determination and the obvious rush that this work seems to give him. Frustration sneaks through only when he mentions the few non-seasonal -non-local things that he must keep and use in the restaurant to keep customers happy, such as lemons and olive oil. I get the feeling it’s only a matter of time, though, before he’s sorted out a way around those, too.
Another exciting outcome of this past year of examination and refinement are new menus. While diners can still come to Portobello and sit down to a traditional three course meal, Adams is particularly excited about a new shared plates menu. For $25/person (it’s good to come with a group to give this a go) and the kitchen will just start sending out big plates of food for the group. As he describes it: “It’s a ridiculous amount of food — family style! Just like you would eat in Little Italy. Everyone passing heaping plates of asparagus and tureens of soup. It’s the best. Honestly I love eating and serving this way — at my dream restaurant there would be a lazy susan on every table. ”
Lastly — because he just doesn’t have enough going on — Adams has begun offering monthly cooking classes at the restaurant. As part of his mission (have I mentioned that he’s a man on a mission yet?) Adams wants to encourage people to get away from processed foods, to stop relying on packaged junk (as vegans so often do) and he believes that a huge part of making that change is learning the fundamentals of technique. “Don’t worry about making seitan, or tempeh or whatever. Can you make a great vegetable stock? Do you know how to slice an onion? Principles of flavor? I want to help people build a real foundation.” Find out more, or sign up for the classes here!
As for his demo on Sunday, Aaron wasn’t sure what he’d be making but if last years’ ravioli are any indication, it is not to be missed!