Vegan Cheeses Are Finally Finding Their Place in New York’s Food Scene
00 + Co’s tomato, basil, and cashew-mozzarella pizza
We are living in the age of vegan cheese that doesn't suck. Every self-respecting vegan restaurant has a menu boasting of house-made nut cheeses — creamy, tangy, and in textures ranging from smooth to hard to straight-up gooey. No longer are vegans limited to blocks of the artificial Daiya. "I've had Daiya before, and honestly I wasn't impressed," says Julia Kravets, proprietor of Williamsburg vegan crêperie Little Choc Apothecary. "Not only is it not really melty, but I took a look at the ingredients and was like, 'Jesus Christ, this is the worst.' "
But restaurants like Kravets's, Manhattan pizzeria 00 + Co, and Bed-Stuy's Toad Style are now righting years of rubbery wrongs. Aged or not, these homemade nut cheeses are mimicking the texture and sharp flavors of dairy cheeses like nothing that's come before. Prospect Heights even has its own dairy-free cheese shop, Riverdel.
Making tasty cheeses is a key evolution in vegan cuisine. When I tell people I'm vegan, the response I get is, invariably, "I could never give up cheese." It wasn't a problem for me. I'd spent my life up until then ignoring that I was lactose intolerant. Of course I miss the sweet tang of cannoli cream, the richness of gyro meat slathered in tzatziki, the easy satisfaction of grabbing a slice and shaking on as much powdered garlic as it can hold — but, along with the ethical and political reasons for my transition to veganism, I couldn't ignore my body's cries for mercy anymore.
The process of creating nut cheeses is ripe for experimentation. Cheese sauces are generally blends of soaked nuts (usually cashews, but other fatty nuts and seeds work) and starch, with flavors added: cultures, miso, nutritional yeast, spices. These are easy even for home cooks, who can have a passable mac 'n' cheese with a bit of planning. It's in the more complicated processes for aged nut cheeses, made by adding stiffening agents such as agar or carrageenan, that chefs can add their own touches.
Consider the recently opened 00 + Co, which is attempting to save pizza from dairy's stranglehold: The mozzarella on its version of a margherita is made from cashews, parmesan from sunflower seeds, and ricotta from almonds. "We make close to a ricotta or a farmer's cheese by bringing nut milk up to a certain temperature and adding citric acid, then straining out the whey," says chef Scott Winegard, whose stints at the storied East Village restaurant Angelica Kitchen — where the only cheese made was a tofu ricotta — and the late Pure Food & Wine are reflected in 00 + Co's health-oriented menu. (Those looking for a more classic pie should brave the wait to order off the vegan menu at Paulie Gee's in Greenpoint.)
It was after enjoying Dr. Cow's cultured cheeses — one of the original brands available — but finding them too pricey that Winegard was inspired to start working on his own at home. He still tinkers with 00 + Co's cheeses once a month, trying to improve on them. What they could definitely use is more bite; there's a distinct lack of funk that may be fine for most vegans but won't make any new converts. The next cheese on his agenda is blue. "We can get it to look like it, but we can't really get it to taste like it," he says. "I've been talking to a friend of mine who works in a restaurant in Copenhagen" — Winegard staged at the world-renowned Noma in 2011 — "and he's been experimenting with making nut-based cheeses but inoculating them with Roquefort spores. I'm trying to see if these spores are actually dairy-free."
When you know the work that goes into making more nuanced nut cheeses, seeking out new variations becomes an obsession. But the idea that all vegan cheese is factory-made remains so prevalent that the most common question some vegan restaurants get is whether they're using Daiya. This is the case at Toad Style, a nondescript spot that opened up last summer. Chef Ian Graye learned his technique for fermenting and culturing nuts while working at the now-shuttered Pickle Shack in Gowanus, which influenced Toad Style's mission to make everything in-house (save for the bread and Yeah Dawg hot dogs).
"We're trying to separate ourselves from GMOs and processed foods," he says. Graye's kitchen makes almond-based cheese sauce and feta and a cashew-potato blend for nacho cheese. The result? Pitch-perfect renditions of comfort food staples: An eggplant parm reminded me of my childhood, and the cheese fries were undeniably indulgent. He tells me they'll also be experimenting with aged cheeses, sour cream, and yogurt.
Kravets, too, has been trying out different techniques for vegan cheeses. "Ever since I went vegan, I was looking for cheese substitutes," she says. Unimpressed with supermarket varieties, she tried out the popular nut-based Treeline Cheese, made in upstate New York, when she opened her crêperie in 2015. Distribution problems led her to create her own cashew-based take on cheddar. In a burrito crêpe filled with beans and avocado, this spiced cashew blend marries the flavors but acts less as cheese and more as a luscious crema.
Still, "luscious" isn't a word anyone would've associated with the vegan restaurants of the Nineties or even the Aughts; they were vilified for serving up brown rice, bad tempeh, and those weird processed cheeses. But that was then, when cutting yourself off from dairy meant also giving up a lot of joy. It doesn't have to be that way anymore. Pizza, cheese fries, crêpes — they're all there, waiting for you. Vegan cuisine is finally taking itself seriously, and the proof is in the cheese.
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