HomeFoodHow a Meat-Free Icon Served Thanksgiving Feasts within the Eighties

How a Meat-Free Icon Served Thanksgiving Feasts within the Eighties


In 1982, Mickey Hornick and Jo Kaucher paged by means of The Pleasure of Cooking whereas standing within the tiny Lakeview kitchen on the Chicago Diner that has gone on to serve hundreds of vegans and vegan-curious of us in Chicago and throughout the nation.

Kaucher, educated in what was known as “pure cookery” within the parlance of the period (assume: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and plenty of sprouts) was charged with growing and finessing the recipes, and Hornick, the Chicago Diner’s proprietor and founder, sampled and supplied suggestions. Hornick had well being points that compelled him to regulate his weight loss plan and was new to vegetarianism when he received the thought to open a restaurant. “I wanted a spot to eat,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Hornick and Kaucher would finally marry in 2003, however in 1982, they have been simply beginning on the trail to founding what would change into one of many nation’s most iconic vegetarian establishments and considered one of Chicago’s most enduring eating places. The diner is vegetarian, although it caters to the vegan neighborhood the place it’s thought-about a pillar. Dedicated to regional and seasonal produce nicely earlier than “locavore” was a phrase, a lot much less a motion, Hornick and Kaucher’s problem got here from persuading clients who anticipated steaks when eating out into making an attempt and having fun with plant-based variations of consolation meals.

Utilizing The Pleasure of Cooking as their jumping-off level, the pair dove into the method of crafting what would change into their annual Thanksgiving meal once they opened the restaurant in 1983. Hornick borrowed, hustled, and scrimped for the preliminary cash wanted to open the restaurant, utilizing a classic bar from a not too long ago closed diner as their first counter; a mirror, discovered within the alley behind the restaurant, was mounted to the wall behind the counter. A few native hippies expert in carpentry constructed the cubicles and each penny was stretched to its limits. Hornick would personally go to farmers markets to purchase no matter recent produce was reasonably priced and likewise ship desserts himself to their wholesale purchasers. For the primary 20 years, they didn’t know if the Diner would survive every winter.

And with the Diner’s fortieth anniversary approaching in 2023, Hornick appears to be as stunned with its longevity and success as anybody. “I used to be so scared we have been going to fail, I spent the opening day with butterflies in my abdomen, not desirous to open,” Hornick says. “We opened anyway and it was packed. Someway we did it.”

In comparison with the remainder of the nation, when the Diner opened, it was a far completely different panorama within the restaurant scene in Chicago, the town that stands on the unceded conventional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires — an alliance primarily of the nations of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. Earlier than there was the idea of Ivy League grads disrupting issues in Silicon Valley, earlier than Turtle Island Meals debuted its legendary Tofurky roast in 1995, there was a scruffy little impartial restaurant within the Chicago neighborhood then often known as Boystown that was not solely poised to develop the which means of “consolation meals,” however to start out shifting attitudes within the one-time hog butcher to the world by going sans animal merchandise on that the majority sacrosanct of U.S. holidays: Thanksgiving.

However Hornick and Kaucher finally realized that even the town made well-known in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had room for his or her unapologetically herbivorous interpretations of basic dishes. The Diner’s vacation entree menu has developed through the years from stuffed acorn squashes and pumpkin ravioli to the extra conventional centerpiece dishes it options at present for his or her carryout Thanksgiving. Chicago Diner’s signature Wellington, a flaky and buttery puff pastry crammed with sauteed seitan, mushrooms, and combined veggies and served with a shiitake demi-glace, is a showcase essential dish for any Thanksgiving desk, as is the hearty stuffed veggie roast — a roulade with herbed stuffing filling a easy, seasoned tofu roll. These are classics that folks return to yearly. Extra not too long ago, with the elevated demand for gluten-free choices, Chicago Diner has supplied a savory mushroom lentil loaf with a white truffle sauce.

“We wish to supply one thing scrumptious for everybody,” says Michael Hornick, nephew of the founder, who began within the kitchen with Kaucher and is now president and companion within the restaurant. “Mickey and Jo bear in mind when there was nothing for vegetarians, not to mention vegans. We would like everybody to be included on the vacation desk.”

Every little thing on the vacation menu, from essential dishes to sides like Mac ’n Teese, that includes dairy-free cheese from Chicago Vegan Meals (additionally the makers of the ice cream behind the Diner’s award-winning milkshakes), in addition to jalapeno corn fritters, and desserts like carrot cake with walnuts and chocolate pumpkin cheesecake, is vegan. There are additionally gluten-free choices in each class on the Thanksgiving menu.

Whereas the Diner is an establishment as of late, visited by everybody from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who was a daily, to Woman Gaga, the early days have been a worrying studying curve. Hornick lacked expertise as a restaurant proprietor (he additionally had one thing of a crush on his chef). This led to generally sophisticated, hectic, and worrying Thanksgiving dinner companies. For the primary years of in-person Thanksgiving eating, the Diner had bought out seatings of 56 individuals each two hours till shut with greater than 200 individuals served that day. Many walk-ins additionally confirmed as much as order carryout, which overwhelmed the 2 kitchens and employees. The primary yr, exhausted from cooking all day and operating up and down the steps with to-go orders, Kaucher remembers declaring that the kitchen was formally closed for takeout orders after their final seating. Hornick, although, needed to proceed. They bickered on the steps earlier than the scenario resolved by itself. (They ran out of meals).

“We needed to lower individuals off however I didn’t wish to,” says Hornick. “I needed to promote extra.”

At present, the Diner, now with a second location in Logan Sq., is without doubt one of the longest-lasting vegetarian eating places in the USA. Kaucher has additionally handed the torch. For the previous 10 years, chef José Martinez has tailored the basic recipes Kaucher created for contemporary and extra globally influenced palates, including white truffle mushroom sauce to raise her well-known lentil loaf and a wealthy, veggie-supercharged seasonal particular of enchiladas de mole negro.

“I can hardly imagine how a lot veganism, from eating places to merchandise, has exploded,” Kaucher says. “I’d prefer to take some credit score for it, however I can’t try this. We have been early adopters. Simply don’t name us pioneers,” she warns with fun. “I can’t stand that.”

Nowadays, along with his nephew operating the day-to-day operations and enterprise, Hornick and Kaucher take pleasure in Thanksgiving away from the stress of the kitchen and the restaurant flooring. Some issues, although, stay the identical, together with their Thanksgiving meal. “I often get the Wellington,” says Hornick, “and Jo will get the stuffed veggie roast and he or she’ll additionally make some sides. It’s our custom.”

Requested if he misses the hustle and bustle of a busy vacation season in a restaurant kitchen, Hornick says that he doesn’t miss the stress however seeing the shoppers line up exterior stays a pleasure when he pops in. “When the Diner begins to scent like Thanksgiving, the adrenaline kicks in once more,” he admits.

“Meat-free since ’83,” he says, repeating the Diner’s slogan. “That’s fairly cool.”

Chicago Diner’s heat-and-eat Thanksgiving meals might be ordered till 6 p.m. Sunday, November 20 for pickup on Wednesday, November 23.

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