Interview: Chef Matteo Silverman of 4 Course Vegan
I met Chef Matteo of 4 Course Vegan when I had dinner at his Williamsburg loft on a recent trip to New York. My dining companion and I shared a table with seven strangers (at least five of whom we confirmed were not vegan), and left feeling immensely satisfied, nourished and grateful. 4 Course Vegan features a rotating menu of raw and vegan dishes in a communal dining atmosphere that’s part dinner party, part underground restaurant. Either way, Chef Matteo’s loft has become a destination spot for haute cuisine that just happens to be vegan. And at $40 per person and BYO beverage-of-choice, it’s a serious deal. Check out the latest menu and sign up for an upcoming dinner party at 4CourseVegan.
Tell us about your path to get to 4 Course Vegan.
4 Course Vegan was born out of my passion for food and wine, and the coming together around a table to share with others. Over the years, I have always entertained, hosting dinner parties for friends and friends of friends. Of course I have always wanted a restaurant of my own. With funds lacking, I thought and thought of ways to make my dream come true. So I decided to open up these dinner parties to anyone who made a reservation. It began with just friends and their friends. Slowly word spread, solely through word of mouth. It began as bimonthly event. Now we are able to offer dinner every Saturday night.
What kinds of cuisines are you most partial to? Are those the same cuisines that inform your culinary creations?
The cuisines of Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Mexico and India are my biggest inspiration. Their flavors are bright and colorful. Their aromas are intoxicating. I get the most joy from eating those foods, too. Does California cuisine count? I love the freshness, vibrancy and high quality associated with California cuisine.
What inspires you in the kitchen?
Inspiration in the kitchen comes in all forms. Sometimes it’s a specific spice sitting on the counter speaking out to me, “use me.” It could be fresh herbs that my girlfriend is growing in the courtyard. Other times I’ll pick up a cookbook to spark an idea. Generally, going to the farmers’ market provides the most inspiration. Inspiration comes from the farmers who forage for wild mushrooms, tend to their delicate microgreens or raise the juiciest heirloom tomatoes. Nothing is better than locally grown, in-season produce. That is all the inspiration one needs.
Who inspires you in the food world?
I have drawn inspiration from a diverse group of people in the food world. Alice Waters, Huber Keller, Thomas Keller, Floyd Cardoz. Eric Tucker and Roxanne Klein. Watching Martin Yan on “Yan Can Cook” as a young boy always made me want to learn how to chop as fast as he did with his cleaver. It looked like so much fun.
You cook with a focus on fresh, local ingredients. What’s your favorite season for cooking?
I really enjoy summer and fall, though spring is close to my heart as well. The summer and fall fruits are lovely and all the tomatoes and chilies and basil and squash and greens…it is truly overwhelming to the senses. In a wonderful way.
It must be a challenge in the winter, in New York, to get good, fresh, local produce. What do you do?
We are lucky to have the Greenmarket [Farmers Markets] in NYC. The one at Union Square is open all year long and farmers offer fresh produce all year long. Through the winter you can still get root vegetables that are cellared, like potatoes and carrots, and microgreens are on offer all year long as are some hydro-grown lettuces and greens. To supplement the winter’s harvest, I’ll source organic ingredients from health food and gourmet stores alike.
Any plans to expand 4 Course Vegan and move from your Williamsburg loft?
4 Course Vegan was created as a means to an end. Someday 4CV will cease and I’ll open up a restaurant of my own.
Why four courses?
I enjoy the idea of tasting menus. Having at least four courses on the menu allows the chef to take the diner on a journey. Through different flavors and textures and temperatures. So it’s nice to have a number of courses to “play” with.
The social aspect of 4 Course Vegan seems to be as much a focus as the food. Talk to us about that.
Well, throughout human civilization, the table has always been a place for people to gather. It’s nice to relax and enjoy a good meal amongst friendly people. To share conversations and ideas with them. A lot of people enjoy the aspect of sitting at a table with people they didn’t know beforehand. Quite a few friendships have been formed at 4 Course Vegan. And even love.
What’s your process for planning a menu?
I create a menu by checking to see what is available at the farmers’ market first. I’ll try to create a menu around those ingredients, whether it be a specific cuisine such as Thai or a seasonal menu featuring different flavor combinations. Sometimes menus just roll out easily and other times I spend hours thinking about how everything fits together.
You rotate your menu every week; how often do you repeat dishes?
I try not repeat dishes at all. Of course there are times when I will use the same concepts with similar ingredients, but I’m always looking for new ways to prepare and showcase quality ingredients. Because baking is so exact, dessert is usually the most often-repeated dish. But when I do repeat something, I’ll give it a tweak or two, so it will stand out on its own.
Describe a few of your signature dishes.
Watermelon Radish Ravioli with Cashew Cheese and Basil Puree
100% raw. Thinly sliced watermelon radish stuffed with my special thyme-scented cashew cheese. A drizzle of basil puree and a sprinkle of Maldon sea salt.
Garnet Yam Pancakes with Chive Oil and Horseradish Sour Cream
Like a potato pancake, but with yam. And this is raw, too. The pancakes are dehydrated. Into the batter we fold fresh herbs and spices like chipotle and smoked paprika. They’ve got a lemony zing. Dehydrate and drizzle with chive oil and serve with a generous serving of horseradish sour cream.
Made with spelt flour and organic lavender flowers. Crumbly texture, like a good shortbread.
When you’re not in the kitchen, or outside the kitchen thinking about being in the kitchen, where are you? What are you doing?
You can find me eating at restaurants or kicking the soccer ball in the park. I like to just relax and take it easy when I have the chance.
What are a few of your favorite spots to eat, locally and elsewhere?
Any restaurants you’re dying to try?
I’d like to try Metaphor by Jehangir Mehta. I enjoy his restaurant Graffiti in the East Village. While I’ve eaten at Per Se in NYC, I’ve yet to try The French Laundry. They grow a lot of their own veggies there. I’d love to experience that.
In an ideal meal…
There would be avocado in one form or another.
If you could invite anyone, living or dead, to a dinner party, who’d be lucky enough to make the list?
I’d like to invite my grandparents, as they were never able to taste my food as it has evolved today. Carl Sagan would have been an interesting person to dine with, too. And my good friend Daniel Seymour, who passed last year—a farmer extraordinaire with whom I would forage mushrooms and learn about wild edibles on the Central Coast of California.
What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?
I am proud of quite a few things. 4 Course Vegan will celebrate eight years in January 2011. That is exciting. I never thought it would last this long. And recently, I was featured in a video project by Norma Kamali called Conversations. It centered around health and wellness and brought together a diverse group of people to discuss solutions for healthier, sustainable living.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is finding the resources to open up my own restaurant.
What’s been the most unexpected benefit?
Meeting people from all over the world. I’ve had people dine at 4CV from Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Germany, France, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and more. 4 Course Vegan has also allowed me to create a customer base that will hopefully carry over to my future restaurant.
What have you learned from 4 Course Vegan?
I’ve learned that vegetarians, vegans and omnivores can gather peacefully around a table and share conversations about almost anything. As long as the food tastes good, people do not necessarily care if it’s vegan. Food is meant to appeal to the senses and fill you up with warmth and all those good memories associated with those experiences. If you can touch someone’s soul with food, you’ve got a friend for life.
What’s next for you?
Well I’m working with Eric Helms of Juice Generation on a raw foods delivery service here in NYC. It’s called the Raw Cooler. Currently, we are moving into a new kitchen and looking to expand our offerings in the new year. Additionally, I’m trying to open a restaurant of my own. But that may take a while longer.