Neal Harden is the executive head chef at Maimonide of Brooklyn, a freshly-opened artistic, friendly and unpretentious vegan restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. A veteran of the city’s top vegetarian restaurants (including Pure Food & Wine), Harden brings a healthy respect for cooking tradition and a love of the wide-open possibilities of punk rock to the restaurant’s offerings of sandwiches, comfort food and epic vegan brunch. He’s also a musician and we met as teenagers in the small punk scene of Portland, Maine. We talked over house-made kale chips, chickpea flour-breaded mushroom nuggets and a Mediterranean open-faced sandwich called a “MOB,” seated at a family-style table in the dining room, which is decorated with experimental objets d’art, cooking magazines and comic books. (And speaking of comic books, the restaurant has one to explain its background, viewable here via Grub Street.)
Tell me about Mamonide of Brooklyn, the philosophy behind it and the type of food you serve?
The core of the restaurant is simple, affordable vegetarian food that is also gastronomic and full of interesting flavors. It’s a lot of tongue-and-cheek Americana as well. For example, we have classic American desserts made vegan, like cheesecake, carrot cake and pineapple upside-down cake. The owner wanted me as a chef to showcase American-style and American food. The restaurant is very community oriented and casual; for example, you just pull your silverware out of the drawer in the table. We wanted to make a place where people could come for music and linger for a long time. The concept is to draw people away from cheap, fast food by creating something that is affordable and in such a cool environment that it be a transcendent experience.
What was your process to develop the recipes?
Originally I worked with the French team in France. They are all really talented chefs, but they don’t have a lot of understanding of vegetarian cuisine. However, their perspective is very based on using fruits and vegetables. They don’t use a lot of these weird proteins that vegetarians and vegans in the United States use. That spoke to me because I don’t like those anyway. When I came back to the States, members of the French team came with me and we tested out how our recipes worked with American ingredients. We nixed a lot of things that we didn’t think would fly with an American crowd, like a dish made with celery root. Americans don’t care that much about celery root. I tried to source a lot of local products. The majority of our food is served on bread, so I found organized, locally grown, locally milled flour that we use for everything.
For you is developing a recipe at all like writing a song?
For me it’s different. I’m not an amazing musician, so I when I wrote a song I really had to sit down, focus and push myself to do it. I never had a song it my head that I had to push out like some musicians do, but with food it’s that way. I wake up dreaming about a dish and I write it down and I come in and make tests of it and try to create that thing I was dreaming about.
So did you literally dream up these dishes or did you work with a theme and let that inspire you?
I definitely dreamed up a lot of these dishes. For example, I created a sausage here that we make from sun-dried tomatoes, porcini mushrooms, and fruits and vegetables. It’s home dried, there’s no soy in it, and the process is very much like a vegetarian version of charcuterie. I started there, but one day I woke up thinking, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a rustic, vegetarian charcuterie plate, with beautiful pickles and condiments and some terrine and vegetables?” When I came into the restaurant I started making it.
Let’s switch gears and go way back. How did you develop an interest in punk, independent, and underground music, and did your interest in food and cooking develop with this interest?
They are related in many ways. As a younger person I was obsessed with the idea of doing things for myself and having personal liberty and autonomy. I heard all this boring, flavorless music and was not into it and so I wanted to create something better of my own. The same can be true with food. You learn the basic principals of how it’s done and then you say, “Now I’m going to do it differently.”
Underground music caused me to learn about a lot of things I probably never would have been exposed to otherwise. It’s the reason why I originally became interested in vegetarian, vegan and health food and health food on both a political and personal level, which directly affects the way I cook.
I am primarily self-taught in the kitchen. I was always tinkering since I was a little kid. In the cooking world, as in any other world, there are a lot of rules about how to do things. You go to culinary school and they teach you the French tradition. Recently that has changed a lot and people are starting to reflect on a lot of different cuisines and styles, but I felt free to just do whatever I wanted. The music scene inspired me to not be afraid of doing things differently and to value the feeling that comes with doing things yourself.
I think a lot of people who are interested in alternative culture via music become cooks because I think there’s a certain purity to it. In a restaurant every day you just serve people directly. There’s a huge community aspect and a huge art aspect and all the weirdos and criminals fit in.
As a teenager you were deeply involved in Food Not Bombs in Portland, Maine. I also remember you brought delicious seitan “ribs” to a potluck at my mom’s house. It didn’t really surprise me when you decided to become a chef, but could tell me a little bit more between going from one to the other — the trajectory between cooking in the “Dirt House” for Food Not Bombs to cooking in the some of the highest-end vegetarian restaurants in the world?
It was a rough transition, especially as a punk rocker into anarchism and a bit like, “fuck everything.” At some point I realized I wasn’t interested in being against everything forever. I wanted to be a part of something that other people are a part of and live in the world. That became more important than resisting everything. This particular career is an opportunity to interact with people, serve them food that is good for them, give them an excuse to sit around and talk, and make something that does not have a huge impact on the environment. I think restaurants are hugely socially important and my interest in punk rock politics was an interest in social politics.
What is your relationship to the music scene now?
To be honest I’m a little disconnected because I just don’t have time to play in bands. Music is still hugely important to me, but at some point I had to make a decision whether I wanted to be seriously cooking or seriously playing music. And I was just not as good of a musician and it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, so I prioritized the cooking.
Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs who might be coming from alternative culture and interested in working in an independent restaurant?
I would say go for it. They have to expect to make no money for an extended period of time, but they probably don’t need a lot of money if they are living an alternative lifestyle. It’s a great industry for people who don’t fit in other places. You meet fascinating people and you will always have a job no matter where you travel. Once you rise to the top you don’t have to be a chef who is corporate or a jerk or crazy, you can kind of define it how you like it, and that has always appealed to me.
As far as getting into it I would say don’t go to school. The most profound things I learned on the job were from other chefs, even at simple places, and I think every time you work for somebody new you learn a whole new set of styles. School only teaches you standard issue techniques and that’s good, but it only takes you so far. It teaches you nothing about hard work or style.