Food

Chef Guy Vaknin Expands Plant-Based Sushi to Midtown, FiDi, and Beyond

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Beyond Sushi, New York’s popular, completely vegan sushi eatery, is quietly staging a culinary revolution. Mere months after opening a spacious full-service location in the heart of Midtown in May, the restaurant debuts its fifth outpost in the Financial District’s City Acres Market this week.

Beyond Sushi redefines the way diners eat and experience sushi by celebrating local and seasonal produce, unconventional fusions of cuisine, and, of course, plants. The menu skips the fish but not the flavor, offering a range of dishes designed to please the masses.

Chef and founder Guy Vaknin, 33, attributes his love of food to his Moroccan and Israeli heritage. He learned to cook from his mother and grandmother, who prepared immense dinners every weekend. “We would have seven or eight salads, six appetizers, and an entrée,” Vaknin says. “It’s a big thing in Jewish culture.”

At eighteen, Vaknin enrolled in the Israeli military. He cooked for the entire company every Friday night, cultivating a passion for feeding others. After completing his military duties in 2005, Vaknin moved to New York City to study at the Institute of Culinary Education. He then worked for four years as an executive chef at the Esprit Events catering company, where he trained as a gastronomic switch-hitter, familiarizing himself with an array of cuisines and flavor profiles.

In 2011, Vaknin developed a sushi recipe using black rice and premiered it at the NYC Vegetarian Food Festival to rave reviews. Sensing an opportunity, he began to shape the endeavor that would ultimately grow into Beyond Sushi. (He also enjoyed a brief foray into reality television, appearing on Season 10 of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen in 2012.)

Vaknin opened the first Beyond Sushi outpost — at 14th Street and Third Avenue — with his wife and business partner, Tali, in 2012, at a time when New York’s vegan scene was rapidly developing. Vaknin’s goal was to create healthy and sustainable dishes without animal products; he eschewed the deep-fried and fake-meat products that appear on some vegan restaurant menus (“The craziest thing we have on our menu is tofu!”). He crafted a simple selection of signature sushi rolls, rice bed salads, and rice paper wraps to promote the restaurant’s mission, which filled a demand for vegan food that he didn’t know existed.

Beyond Sushi drew sizable crowds that its twelve-seat flagship could not contain. By 2014, Vaknin had added eateries in Chelsea Market and Midtown West. Last year, he expanded the menu to include dumplings, noodle salads, and soups, as well as reinvented rolls, wraps, and salads. The restaurant has enjoyed sustained success, enabling entrées to maintain their modest price point of $10–$12, a fairly cheap range for quality vegan cuisine in New York City.

Vaknin reports that the majority of his customers are not even vegetarian. “The hardest part is getting them to try it,” he says. “But once they do, they return on a regular basis. It’s the biggest compliment when non-vegetarians come, because it’s not only for this community….I am interested in providing the experience and letting people decide for themselves.”

The rationale behind Vaknin’s vegan venture is clear, but still, one might wonder: Why sushi? Vaknin says he was seeking a vessel that would create not only flavor, but also consistency. “Sushi is a perfect bite. It’s one bite, and it’s the same bite every time,” he says. “That might sound boring when we talk about it, but people love consistency. It’s something that the restaurant is built on, and it’s why people come back for more.”

The restaurant’s specials rotate to accommodate seasonal produce, sourced from the Union Square farmers’ market. Vaknin’s creative process begins with him writing out an extensive list of seasonal ingredients on a big board in his new Long Island City kitchen facility. “I look at it for hours. I sit and play around with what could work together.” This method produced the new summer special: a black rice roll filled with charred cabbage, mango, roasted scallion, and mint, topped off with hickory smoked green jackfruit braised in barbecue sauce and dehydrated Moroccan olives. Try finding that anywhere else.

In May, Vaknin unveiled a full-service, 72-seat Beyond Sushi restaurant in Herald Square, complete with a wraparound drinks and sushi bar. “Over the years, we realized that people want to sit down and eat this food, not just take it to go,” Vaknin says. That location is open from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, feeding the Midtown lunch crowd by day and converting into a more elegant eatery by night. It serves the regular menu with a few new specials, as well as an extensive menu of curated sakes and specialty cocktails. In its latest venture, Beyond Sushi joins a diverse list of vendors (including vegan mainstay the Cinnamon Snail) in the Financial District’s City Acres Market, an upscale waterfront grocer opening on July 5.

Both new venues confirm Beyond Sushi’s status as more than just a vegan staple. But Vaknin is clear to point out that his business isn’t peaking here. “The idea is to open even more of them,” he says. “This is just the beginning.”

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