Restaurateur Ravi DeRossi Readies His Empire for a Meatless Makeover

Restaurateur Ravi DeRossi Readies His Empire for a Meatless MakeoverEXPAND
Dan Craig

If you've lived in New York for a while, chances are you've spent a decadent evening at the Bourgeois Pig, feasting on cured meats while seated atop plush velvet cushions. The boudoir-like wine bar, which began in a cramped space on East 7th Street, was a popular spot for omnivores. But when it reopens in a month following renovations, it'll boast a new name, Ladybird. Oh, and no more soppressata, or cheese, or butter, either — the menu's going vegan.

"It's been something I've been thinking about for a long time," owner Ravi DeRossi tells the Voice. He's been a vegan off and on his whole life, in recent years eating meat only when tasting new dishes at his New York bars and restaurants (he has fifteen altogether). But until now he hesitated to remove animal products from their menus: "I thought I'd go out of business if I made [them] all vegan." Then, in the winter of 2015, his beloved cat Simon was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Inspired by his companion's strength throughout the ordeal, DeRossi decided to make the switch: In a triumph of ideals over experience — and flying in the face of what most restaurateurs would consider logic — he's rolling all the dice on vegan.

It's not that his decision isn't timely. New York is increasingly open to meatlessness and in 2014 was dubbed by PETA the most vegan-friendly city in the U.S. "Twelve years ago, when I got into this business, vegan was so not cool. It was bad. People weren't cooking with vegetables; it was just an afterthought," DeRossi says. Now not only are vegetables taking the lead on plates, focusing on them also lowers a restaurant's costs; meat prices are soaring. And diners seem eager: They pack the tables at vegetable master John Fraser's latest spot, Nix, and when veg-blockbuster Dirt Candy finally moved to appropriately spacious digs after years at a hole in the wall on 9th Street, Brooks Headley and his cult Superiority Burger vegetarian pop-up took over the vacated nook and commanded lines just as long. But DeRossi's move to make his business reflect his conscience is arguably the most concerted attempt in the city to nudge the dial on vegan dining.

DeRossi has already taken two of his properties vegan, and he plans to convert the remaining dozen at the right pace. (He doesn't want to rush the menus, as he wants all the food to be on point — and not to be dismissed.) Avant Garden, which opened to good reviews last fall, was the first, followed by tropical bar Mother of Pearl, which overhauled its menu in February. The Bourgeois Pig is next in line, but that's a much taller order, mainly because it's so personal. "It was the very first place I opened, and probably the most dear to my heart," he says of the Pig. "I had no money; I did everything myself. I worked in the restaurant seven hundred nights in a row, one day off at Christmas and one day off at Thanksgiving."

The bar moved last year to its current MacDougal Street location, where renovations for the Ladybird relaunch are under way. When its doors reopen, the over-the-top fondues and charcuterie will be gone, replaced by Spanish-style tapas. "None of the original Bourgeois Pig will be in Ladybird," says DeRossi.

Returning with a menu that has the same broad appeal could prove tricky, as other recent endeavors suggest. Cider bar Wassail, a vegetable spot that opened last year to raves, has quietly begun adding meat to its menu. Co-owner Ben Sandler says that while he admires DeRossi's choice, he doesn't see it as "the kind of decision that is gonna make you more money on the other side of it." Wassail was never an intentionally vegetarian restaurant, and adding meat was both a business and branding decision. "We didn't want to have a very narrow customer base," Sandler says. "It was hard to connect to people with a solely vegetarian menu." This may prove to be the case with the Pig's overhaul, especially with its meat-and-cheese reputation — no matter how much press vegetable-forward restaurants get for their novel approach, people still need to come in craving these dishes for the businesses to thrive.

Even Dirt Candy's owner and chef, Amanda Cohen, says her success with omnivores and vegetarians alike hasn't banished all her fears. "I still worry that because we're calling [menu items] 'vegan,' you're not gonna get a lot of crossover with the mainstream. But hopefully now there's a lot more knowledge about food, and good food." Grub Street associate editor Chris Crowley, meanwhile, points out that DeRossi might be coming on too strong by changing over each of his menus. "If you're going to Death & Co. [one of DeRossi's bars], you're going for a drink and you're not going to care whether the food there is charcuterie or jackfruit," he says, "but with a restaurant, you're probably stretching it a little thin" by not offering more options.

DeRossi has proof of concept, though. Avant Garden has achieved mainstream crossover, with chef Alex Aparicio's creations drawing a crowd that, according to DeRossi, is only 10 percent vegan. And he says food sales at Mother of Pearl, whose opening menu last July included hanger steak and whole black bass, have doubled since chef Daphne Cheng ushered in a light, refreshing menu of Polynesian-inspired dishes like coconut tofu in chimichurri and green-mango "poké."

For Ladybird, Cheng, who has been a vegan for eleven years, is applying what she's learned from Mother of Pearl (where she'll remain as chef) to the tapas space, where she'll be serving up items like a seared-peach caprese salad, a collection of crostini, and a tofu take on deviled eggs. When she was testing dishes for Mother of Pearl, Aparicio encouraged her to be bolder with flavor to appeal to a wider audience. ("It didn't have that umami in the beginning," he notes.) Cheng wants the Ladybird menu to have a global tinge, something she has planned for by asking herself, "If the world had its own cuisine, what would that look like?"

Cheng and DeRossi agree that their goal isn't to convert people but to show that plant-based food can be delicious; "it's not just hummus and salad and falafel," quips Cheng. To counter any remaining perception that eating vegan means Tofurky and Vegenaise on sprouted bread, they're using minimal soy and none of the fake meats that can strike fear in the palates of discerning diners, although DeRossi will be offering house-made versions of those in a forthcoming vegan butcher shop in Williamsburg. (There, you'll be able to order slices of seitan like you would meat at a deli, in line with similar trendy ventures that have found success in Minneapolis and San Francisco.)

With the butcher shop plans — and DeRossi's recently launched charity, called BEAST, which will raise money for animal-rights organizations through parties at his venues — it's clear he and his team want to keep veganism on the map in an unforgettable way. "There's been a lot of good feedback," Cheng says, but "I've seen a lot of hate in the comments on articles that have come out, like 'Vegans suck.' I don't know how we've cultivated so much hatred, but we're trying to fix that."

The biggest outstanding question is the rabid loyalty of Bourgeois Pig customers, who hopped across the city as the bar changed locations and would wait up to three hours for a table. "People are already upset about it, because they've been going there for twelve years," DeRossi says, wistful but resolved. He knows it will sting a bit and admits he can understand the frustration, because he grew up thinking vegans were crazy. "They just have this glow and this happiness," he says, "and I thought, 'You're full of shit.' " He knows he's not, though — and Ladybird's got the vegan fondue to prove it.

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