Author’s note: This is the third entry in an occasional ongoing series.
Craig Vanis is a man on a mission. A devout foodie in the most holistic sense of the word, he aims to bring the best vegan fine dining experience to Austin with his upcoming restaurant Bistro Vonish. Focusing on local, fresh produce, Craig’s culinary offerings have garnered much buzz with his series of popular supper clubs, and we can’t wait for him to bring his full vision to fruition with his brick-and-mortar establishment.
If you would like to help make that a reality, please seriously consider donating to his Kickstarter, which ends next week. You can also sample some of his wares at ATX Vegan Drinks tonight, where he’ll be slinging his famous kolaches. Get there early, because they sold out in minutes when he was there last month!
Craig and I sat down in my apartment a few weeks back to discuss his journey, holistic consumption, why Austin is such a good a fit, and the various geographic permutations of barbecue. (Seriously.) What follows is a lightly-edited version of our rather delightful conversation.
Red Hot Vegans: We’ll start off with a question that I ask everybody: Tell me about your journey to veganism?
Craig Vanis: My journey to veganism…well, back in high school, the nickname from my family for me was “T-Bone.” So, that should give you an indication of how far anyone can come with their journey with food.
I’ve always had intense relationships with food. Going back to being a very picky eater growing up, I didn’t like any salads, vegetables, things like that. But I was very active and played soccer as well as many other sports. And when I turned 14 or 15, I started getting hurt all the time, like pulled muscles all the time. Went to a nutritionist who found out it was because I wasn’t digesting my food like I was supposed to be, especially the proteins, and it was because I wasn’t eating enough vegetables. So, from there I started exploring more foods, eating what’s called “20-minute salads,” which are so big, it takes you twenty minutes to finish it, and really started to learn the value of healthy food that way.
As I turned 19, I became vegetarian, just started meeting more people who were vegetarian and all the ideas made sense, and from there I learned what goes into our bodies and what goes into the process of making food reach your table. Does that jive with my ideals, and ethics, and how I want to interact with the world? So the more I learned, the more I knew that I had to become vegan. I just had to make myself make that jump. Strangely enough, it took me moving to Texas to make that jump into a decision that I love every minute of. I’ve made it my way of life.
RHV: Cool. We’ll get back to that Texas thing in a second, but for now I want to move on to your professional relationship with food. How did your journey towards veganism lead to becoming a chef?
CV: Well, my first career was as a mechanical engineer. I worked for GE building aircraft engines and I worked in a research lab doing advanced metal-casting research. After moving to Texas, I took a job working in the Gulf Coast oil fields. So, I kind of had this dual life: being interested in veganism, ecology, and all the social and political reasons for why someone might become vegan – and then during the daytime, working in the oil field. My happiest times were when I was cooking dinner with friends or for friends, getting to be in the kitchen and just enjoy food.
When my entire department got laid off at the company I was working at as an engineer, I took that as the greatest day of my life. I said, “I’m going to pursue jobs that I actually want to do.” I changed gears and started working in professional kitchens. After nine months of making that change, I was managing a restaurant in Houston, had my own menus out, and was pursuing making vegan food something very accessible and joyful for people to share in this experience.
RHV: That’s a really huge change that happened really quickly.
CV: It did, and I couldn’t run to it fast enough. I was really thrilled to taking those opportunities.
RHV: Did you run into any social trouble, being a vegan in that work environment?
CV: (Laughs.) Definitely. All of the usual jokes you would think from good ol’ boys working in the oil field. It did not make me popular when people learned that I did not eat meat or dairy or anything like that. I was called an extremist at one time. There was one guy, who every time I would see him, he would say, “Don’t you feel bad about all the vegetables you’re killing?” Which is maybe funny the first time, but not every time you see somebody. So, that was difficult, and being able to make this my life really gave me a sense of belonging. There’s definitely a level of social acceptance that was not there in a previous career.
RHV: You alluded earlier that it took your trip to Texas to make that transition, and in your Kickstarter video, you say that lived in a lot different places, and no place has quite felt like home like Austin. So, what about Texas and Austin has led you to where you are?
CV: So, a little bit about me and where I’ve lived: In 1879, some of my relatives got off a boat from Czechoslovakia and moved to the farms of Nebraska, and my uncle still lives on some of that farmland out there. My dad got off the farm and I’m the first generation to not grow up on it. Technically, I was born in Wisconsin, but I only lived there for two weeks before my family moved back to Nebraska, where I lived until I was 11. At which time, we moved to Connecticut, where I went to middle and high school. I went to school after that in Worcester, Massachusetts. After my time going to school there, I also moved to several different cities, living and working in Boston, San Diego, Cincinnati, as well as doing research in London for a little while, and then moving to Houston. I was trying to move to Austin before ever moving to Houston, but I spent five or six years in Houston before making it to Austin.
What’s great about Austin is that it’s very laid-back – sometimes to a fault, admittedly – but it is a very laid-back place to be. I noticed an immediate change when I moved from New England to Texas, about the general pace of life, which was refreshing for a while, and still is. I consider Austin a “burned over district” – which refers to a region in upstate New York, at the turn of the twentieth century, I believe – it’s a place that is wild enough where new ideas could take root. There was still American expansion, going westward, so if you moved out west you were out on the frontier, where there is room for big ideas, but no support of infrastructure. In New York, where there was this room for new ideas to flourish and grow, but you still had the support of a very organized local government, canals, and railroads. I see a little bit of that in Austin, where it’s a major city – there are a lot of established businesspeople, restaurants, companies, and a lot of what we consider established city life – there’s also room for a new idea, like all of the trailers that have popped up. What’s made Austin great for these trailers and pop-up restaurants is that it’s free enough to have those kinds of spaces available. So, that’s why I say Austin is a very good home: There’s anything you want to be here, and if there’s not what you’re looking for, there’s the room to make it happen.
RHV: That’s a good way of putting it. Related to all of that, you’ve had a supper club going on for a while. What’s the reaction been like? Has it surprised you in anyway?
CV: The reaction’s been great. Anyone I tell about it has said, “Finally! Thank you! We’ve been missing this for so long!” There definitely are a lot of people who are vegan themselves, veg-curious, they know someone who is, and they want to go out and have a celebratory nice dinner or a fancy night out – occasions where it doesn’t make sense to go to a food truck. So, it’s been really great having the response. The community is really starting to come around the idea. It’s reaching further outside of what I would think of as the core of the Austin vegan community, which has been fantastic.
RHV: Good. Looking back on the supper club and any of your other culinary adventures, were there any dishes that you were most proud of?
CV: Yeah, there are some favorites that come out. You know, one of my ideas that I had when I first got into the industry, I wanted to possibly open a vegan pizza place or a vegan barbecue joint. So those ideas are very much still with me. I love making pizza, I love making kolaches, I love the barbecue spice blend that I traditionally make. It’s a Kansas City spice blend – I know that’s a very touchy subject for some people, with the different regional takes on it.
RHV: Yeah, Texas gets pretty picky about their barbecue, even if it’s just spices. So, what goes into a Kansas City blend?
CV: A Kansas City barbecue is a sweet barbecue, so there’s very often molasses, brown sugar, or something like that.
RHV: Cool. And the pizza?
CV: I love making pizza. I don’t think it has to be the typical kind, either. I think places like Domino’s have really cheapened something that can really be a remarkable food. Just a great utility dinner. It doesn’t have to be cheap and greasy. It can really be as classy as you want to make it.
RHV: Still talking about the culinary aspect, and getting back to what you mentioned earlier about your Czechoslovakian heritage, does that inspire anything about the business or the cuisine?
CV: A little bit, yeah. For the kolaches, it definitely does. I remember growing up, and still to this day, my grandmother makes kolaches all the time in her kitchen. Every time I went to Grandma’s house, she always had kolaches out. It was always the fruit-filled ones; always a sweet Danish of sorts. When I moved to Texas and I saw places like The Kolache Factory with sausage-stuffed kolache, I was offended. “My Czech grandmother would never do this! This is an abomination!” I’ve kind of worked to reclaim the tradition, in vegan way, in a way that utilizes local ingredients. A couple weeks ago, we had the carrot-ginger kolache [at Vegan Drinks] made with some local, organic carrots.
So, that’s really the biggest part that’s influenced my cuisine, but in general, I didn’t grow up speaking Czech in the household, so authentic Czech cuisine wasn’t necessarily what I grew up with. In New England, there a lot of Italian-Americans, where it’s very old country Italian cooking in Mom’s kitchen, but it’s not something that I really grow up with, but rediscovered as I got older.
The name of the restaurant, however, comes from an older pronunciation of my last name. For the bistro, we go with the phonetic spelling of it. Growing up, I heard stories on how it used to be Vonish, then slowly transitioned into Vanis. It’s a way to keep the heritage in the name without putting my face directly on the logo.
RHV: Tying that into what you said earlier about your professional history, how did your family take your career change and your move towards veganism?
CV: (Laughs.) I have two older siblings who are both engineers, plus my dad is an engineer as well. So, my departure from engineering was a departure from this idea, this tradition that sprouted up. Not only that, but from a parent’s point of view, engineering is a very nice way for their child to be taken care of into the future – there’s usually a lot of work for engineers, and it’s decent income, and so on. So, going into opening a restaurant is a much more uncertain, so that creates some concern. But they’ve been incredibly supportive. They’ve seen how thrilled I am in everything I do, so they’ve been supportive of all that.
They’ve done very well accepting my veganism. There’s a history of high cholesterol and things like that in my family, and I wish I could influence their eating habits – there are so many dynamics that go into it, when a child tries to teach their parents – but in general, it’s good. I love to cook, of course, so come holiday time, I do a lot of the cooking for Thanksgiving or whatever, so a lot gets made vegan. And it’s delicious, so they enjoy eating it. They have some non-vegan items, and it’s been a strange transition for everybody, but in general, it’s pretty good. With siblings, especially being the youngest, there’s always some tormenting that goes on, but it’s not too bad.
For the extended family going back to Nebraska, “vegan” really wasn’t a word they were familiar with. I was kind of sick of eating salad by the end of that week, but I managed. But Isa Chandra Moskowitz lives in Omaha now, so you can’t completely discount that state.
RHV: Everything you’ve mentioned thus far in regards to food – the health of you and your family, the culinary and gastronomic aspects, the various ethical and sociopolitical concerns – lead me to believe you have a very holistic take on the subject, which I feel is missing a lot of the time. How does that influence your plans for Bistro Vonish?
CV: Yes. I definitely understand the need for healthy eating. I’ve taken part in Engine 2 immersion programs, really seeing the dramatic effects of healthy vegan eating can be. So, that is very, very important. However, we eat not just to consume calories, I very much feel that we eat as a social creature. We come together to eat, many of our holidays are built around what type of food we eat, with Thanksgiving being the most obvious. Being able to still hold onto those sense memories and that social togetherness is hugely important to me.
You mentioned the sociopolitical aspects – at Bistro Vonish, our mission is to showcase local foods and local produce, and that’s also incredibly important. That plays economically, politically, and environmentally, and Austin is great for its so-called “locavore” community.
Food changes us so much. How we eat, where we eat, the ambiance – everything about that can change your life. I want the experience to be special, to relive those old memories, but also to create new memories with Bistro Vonish. It goes back to how the pizza remains so important to me. In elementary school, what was the best day? It was when you were really good and you got a pizza party for your whole classroom. That was the best reward your class could get. So, why do we have to do that with terrible ingredients? Why can’t we celebrate today with a delicious pizza that was made with good ingredients?
So, it’s a physical health, but it’s also an emotional and societal health, and I really hope to bring all of those things together inside Bistro Vonish.