Today I had the pleasure of dining at Maimonide of Brooklyn for the first time. Neal Harden, a Natural Gourmet graduate, is the chef of this vegan newcomer to Boerum Hill (open since December). I don’t want to write a gushy restaurant review (though I’d gladly), so I’ll just say you should make an effort to try Neal’s food.
While my lunch stood on its own as a fresh, creative, carefully prepared meal, it was also the best vegan meal I’ve ever had in New York. Particularly noteworthy and appreciated was the conspicuous lack of any processed, analogue meat substitutes or faux comfort foods so common to the genre.
I recently took the opportunity to catch up with Neal and ask him some questions about this, his latest culinary adventure.
Your career is varied and colorful. Give us a thumbnail of where you’ve been working since graduation and what you’ve been cooking.
Thank you for saying so. Since graduation I have been floating around a bit. After an internship/brief employment at Millennium in California, I did a long stint at Pure Food and Wine, initially as a line cook, followed by a very lucky and rapid promotion to Chef, and subsequently Executive Chef. That was my first amazing opportunity, which allowed me to work on cookbooks, travel from time to time, meet lots of interesting people, and grow my career.
My follow-up project was to open the restaurant at a health spa luxury resort in Bali, Indonesia. That was also incredible. Your local products are chocolate, cashew, bracken shoots, rice, wild long pepper, lemongrass . . . I learned how to cook all over again while I was supposed to be teaching others. Prior to my current job as Chef of Maimonide of Brooklyn/MOB USA, I had been doing some short-term restaurant work and some catering and private work.
How did you get involved with this project? Who are your partners?
I simply responded to an ad that name dropped Alain Senderens in a vegetarian food concept. I was familiar with him as the famous champion of Nouvelle Cuisine in France who told the Michelin guide they could take their three stars back! I couldn’t help the curiosity of what a vegetarian project would look like with him on the team.
After meeting the primary partner, Cyril Aouizerate, I knew I wanted to work on this project. Admittedly, the concept sounded bizarre to me at first, but his infectious energy and drive sold me. I have always been at home working for people a little left of center.
What are you trying to do with the food? What do you want newcomers to know about Maimonide of Brooklyn?
With the food we are trying to do a couple different things at once. Firstly, important to the owner is that we keep the food cost down so that we can provide the public with very affordable, friendly dishes.
We also want the dishes to be simple and accessible, but also gastronomically interesting and delicious. Finally we are trying to create lighter vegetable-focused cuisine which is purely reliant on mushrooms, vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, and natural sweeteners, and avoids fried foods, mock proteins, and heavy preparations.
Also, we really just want the restaurant to be a totally fun place to gather and linger. We have communal seating, a patio, and a nice program of music, both recorded and live.
What’s with the name? Where did it come from?
The name comes from Maimonides, the medieval doctor and philosopher. Although he had a diverse catalogue of philosophy on topics like spirituality, he also believed in treating health ailments with food first and medicine second. Our owner studied philosophy extensively and has been a big fan for a long time.
There’s some connection to comic books?
We decided to put the story of the restaurant and the concept of some of the food in comic book form. It is a fun way to get people interested, adults and children alike. Who doesn’t like a good comic book?
What’s with those Brooklyn Bridge dishes? Who designed them?
The owner designed them in conjunction with a small French factory. They are an unabashed tribute to Brooklyn, the bridge and otherwise.
The food looks different from other vegan places. What’s setting you apart?
I hope we are set apart partially stylistically. There are many greasy spoon dingy vegetarian restaurants, or alternately restaurants that have kind of an outdated style.
We strive to be colorful, modern, fun, and completely unique aesthetically. In the kitchen, I strive to base my menu solely around products that grow. I’ve never ordered ingredients such as tempeh or seitan, though we do go through 25 cases of different mushrooms and 250 pounds of locally milled, organic wheat flour a week, for example.
Would you be up for some Natural Gourmet interns?
Absolutely. In the beginning I was far too swamped to put together a good enough program for interns, but I think now we are able to take one or two on occasionally. Put them in touch!
What is Neal Harden’s culinary signature?
Various little touches all over the place that I’ve only recently started to notice I’ve been doing for years. 500 different uses of mushrooms, a focus on the forgotten salad, far more fresh herbs than most people would reasonably consider using, an occasional expression of the cuisines that inspire me such as Persian, Moroccan, Japanese, or Maine (my home).