Menuism Dining Blog
Dining education for foodies

Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson of Candle Café and Candle 79

Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson are co-owners of Candle 79 and Candle Café, New York City’s first Certified Green Restaurant. Their “think global, act local” philosophy extends far beyond the restaurants and their organic vegan menus–working in partnership with a variety of community organizations, local farmers and other restaurants, Joy and Bart are dedicated to educating others about the connectedness of our food, our health, and our planet, and how our everyday choices can make long-term impacts. Follow @CandleCafe and @candle79 on Twitter and “like” ’em on Facebook for insider updates and information. Want even more Candle goodness? Check out The Candle Café Cookbook.

Tell us about the path that led you both to where you are today.

Joy: Over 20 years ago, Bart made a change of career from art dealer to proprietor of a small juice bar and health food café—the Healthy Candle. His new lifestyle impressed him profoundly with his renewed vitality and sense of peace and well-being, and he wanted to share that with others.

I was a nutritionist and frequented the café, where Bart fed me a sandwich—and my life has never been the same! We became partners in life and business, and met many mentors along the path that taught us about healthy organic food and lifestyle. We worked long hours with passion and love and developed a devoted clientele. Once we committed to growing our business, providence provided, in the form of a $53,000 New York State Lottery win! This gave us seed money to open the Candle Café in 1994. The success of the café led to the opening of Candle 79 seven years ago.

What kinds of cuisines are you most partial to?

We are partial to ethnic global vegan cuisine, but we do our best to use local ingredients. We definitely think globally [and] act locally! We love to use a variety of exotic spices and farm fresh vegetables.

Who inspires you in the food world?

We are inspired by locally motivated chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. We are also inspired by Colin Campbell, the author of The China Study, a life-changing document for many people.

Candle 79’s menu has always focused on fresh, local ingredients. What’s your favorite season for eating and why?

Joy: Bart’s favorite season is fall because he loves root vegetables and late summer corn and tomatoes. I love summer stone fruit, berries, watermelon, summer greens and heirloom tomatoes.

Compassion and sustainability seem to be at the core of all Candle endeavors. Talk to us about that.

Once we found out how much animals suffer, we could never serve them. And the toll on our environment from factory farming is horrendous. The positive impact of a plant-based diet on our bodies, spirit and our environment is profound, and is the most sustainable way to live.

Your green philosophy extends far beyond Candle 79’s menu. Tell us about a couple of your green efforts that have made a big impact.

Our composting program has been certified and shared with other restaurants throughout the city. Both restaurants are certified with the highest ratings by the Green Restaurant Association.

Do you consider yourselves activists?

We are people with passion for making the world a better place. Our vegan philosophy and the positive impact of our business make us activists every day.

How involved are you in planning the menu and specials?

Our chefs and farmers collaborate on making the menu seasonal and delicious. Of course, we are the tasters!

Describe a few of your signature dishes.

Our seitan chimicurri is an all-time favorite with the citrus cilantro marinade. It is the only dish served at both restaurants. The ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and mushrooms, served with cashew cream sauce, is scrumptious. Chocolate peanut butter bliss and the cannoli topped with house-made chocolate chip ice cream are two of our unforgettable desserts.

What’s your favorite dish on the menu?

Our favorite dish is seitan piccata—tender filets of seitan, pan seared and served with luscious “creamed” spinach and a savory herbed potato cake, in a lemon, white wine and caper sauce. It’s a reinvention of a classic at its best.

Favorite beverage?

House-made ginger ale, made with fresh, spicy ginger juice, mint, citrus and sparkling water. It’s a great healthy pick-me-up that boosts circulation, fights colds and relives nausea. Not bad for a “soda”!

Aside from Candle 79, what are a few of your favorite spots to eat?

We love Candle Café for everyday. Angelica’s Kitchen if we are downtown. Green Bean Café for breakfast.

An ideal meal…

Joy: After a visit to the farmers’ market and selecting their homegrown fruits and vegetables, I use my inner chef and create magic. In fall, an ideal meal would include a fresh vegetable soup, salad with bitter greens and herbs, a hearty seitan entrée (like our famous rosemary-walnut seitan,) a dessert made with local fruits, maybe a simple apple crisp, and a glass or two of organic wine. We like Lolonis zinfandel for fall.

What does Candle 79 do better than anyone else?

Candle 79 exposes mainstream diners to an upscale, elegant vegan food experience that they then share with others. And we do it without preaching—we do it with love.

What are you most proud of having accomplished so far?

That a great number of people have enjoyed what we’ve created.

What’s been the biggest challenge?

Finding and training staff who totally embrace our mission.

What’s been the most unexpected benefit?

Meeting and feeding the movers and shakers of the holistic movement.

What have you learned from Candle 79?

Candle 79 is so beautiful that it is a perfect setting for those who would normally never try vegan cuisine. We’ve learned that the time is right for an upscale vegan restaurant that makes all types of diners comfortable.

What’s next for you both?

We are presently working on the Candle 79 cookbook to be released in Fall 2011. We are working on Candle Café branded food. Presently we have five desserts in the grab-and-go section at Whole Foods Market. We have a chocolate tart, chocolate peanut butter tart, raspberry linzer tart, rice pudding and a cheesecake.

Anything else you’d like to add?

We are living in perilous times—now is the time to make choices that ensure the health and future of our planet. But we are also living in hopeful times! We are part of a powerful movement that embraces sustainability and we are finding new ways to live and thrive. For instance, we work with The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, and there is a wonderful core of forward thinking officials now in the school system, who are embracing systems that provide healthier food choices for our kids. The more people we can reach in this way, the better off we will all be.

Posted by on October 29th, 2010

Nikki Jong is an earth-friendly eater who’s never met a vegetable she didn’t adore. In addition to her edible plant obsession, she nurses a neverending hankering for sustainable seafood and is a champion oyster eater (and shucker). Nikki loves hoppy beers, bold, spicy reds, and believes that nothing beats a cold glass of moscato d’Asti on a hot summer afternoon. As Editor of The Menuism Blog, she has the pleasure of interviewing some of the hungriest, thirstiest and most ambitious folks in food and wine.

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