New York’s Accessible Vegan with Peacefood Café’s Peter Lu

January 29, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and I’m so honored to have my friend, the co-founder of Peacefood Café, Peter Lu. He’s on with us today. Welcome to Green is Good, Peter. PETER LU: Hey, John. How are you? JOHN SHEGERIAN: We are great today, Peter, and as this is such a special day for me personally because you are so important to my family’s life in New York City. We love your food. We love your restaurant. We love you and your partner, Eric, and we’re just so thankful that you’re here in the New York Metropolitan Area and sharing the good word of veganism and plant food based diets and so thank you for being on the show to share your story today. PETER LU: Yeah, we love to share our story and we love you as our customers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Peter, share a little bit about you and Eric and where you’ve come from and where you were on your journey historically, what you’ve done before leading up to this great restaurant chain that you’ve built here in Manhattan and then how you got to where you are today. PETER LU: Okay so, we are both from Hong Kong and we’ve lived here in New York since the early ’80s, so it’s pushing maybe even over 30 years now, and we’ve been partners for 20 years. Eric used to be an antique dealer for 20 yearsm and he did have a degree in hospitality management, which was in the ’80s when he was going to college and me, I am in interior design. I have been in that profession for over 20 years, and we kind of like stumbled into this opening Peacefood in 2008, so kind of accidental, but you know, purposefully. We did that because if you remember the 2008 market crash, his antique business was dwindling down and you know, he finally closed shop and he spent a lot of time thinking what we should do in the next chapter of our life, and we thought and thought and at the time that we already became vegan. Eric became a vegetarian probably a little before I did, and I soon became a vegetarian afterwards in 2001 and then we had been vegetarian probably like six, seven years and then we turned vegan because we kind of like learned about the milk industry, how bad it was and how the animals were treated and eventually, they will be put to death as well so that doesn’t make any difference whether you’re eating meat or whether you’re eating eggs or milk. Actually, the farm animals that are in the milk industry, they probably go through a lot more suffering because they have to produce milk or they have to produce eggs and all that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Who brought you that information? Did you read a book? Now there’s famous books like The China Study and Forks Over Knives. Was it some friends who shared this information with you? PETER LU: Actually, I stumbled into some podcasts. These podcasts also do some wonderful work with spreading the truth of veganism and you know, one of my heroes was Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, who owns CompassionateCook.com, who has been podcasting for almost five years and I kind of learned that from her podcast and I said to Eric, “You know, being vegetarian is just not quite enough. We have to live up to the truth,” and we decided to turn vegan and just swear off all the dairy products by 2007, so at the time of 2008, after he closed shop, (back to the story) we thought that doing a vegan restaurant is true to ourselves and it would kind of share the message of veganism to people so we looked around in New York City. It was our first restaurant. We had never had a restaurant before, ever. It was a brand new project and we looked and looked and looked and it was not a very easy thing to do because first, the market was not really- It was just after the 2008 bubble burst in the stock market and all that but we looked around. It wasn’t easy because first of all, it was our first business. Second of all, the landlord, when they hear that you’re opening a vegan restaurant, they hear that you probably won’t be making much money and why am I giving you the lease? So, anyway, it took us like a long time to find a space and the space which we have our first restaurant is on Amsterdam Avenue. Then it took probably another six months to put the restaurant together with very little money and it just started from there and Eric was like the soul of the restaurant at the time because I was still having my interior design job. I didn’t resign until we opened up the second restaurant. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, so you opened up the restaurant back in 2009, and what was the response like for two new restaurateurs on this journey at the beginning of this whole vegan revolution? What was the response like for your neighborhood and for the surrounding area? PETER LU: It was great. It was a very slow start. It took at least a year to kind of like get out of the red on the business side, so we just kind of like put our hearts into it, especially Eric, because he was really running the restaurant at the time and he would do everything from buying the stuff, from hiring the people, working in the kitchen, running the kitchen and cooking some things or make the soup in the morning. He was like tireless basically for the first year and I just kind of supported him on the side. I was doing the book work and the administrative stuff. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re humble. A partnership is a partnership and everybody is doing an important role. You’re very humble. So is Eric, by the way. For our listeners out there, we’re so honored to have with us today the co-founder of Peacefood Café, Peter Lu, and to learn more about the amazing and delicious food that they serve, go to www.peacefoodcafe.com. How did you come up with the name? How did you and Eric come up with the name? PETER LU: Oh, that was great. We had like this farm sanctuary, Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary up in Woodstock, and they always have this slogan on the T-shirts that peace begins on your plate so we were kind of like, ‘Wow, that sounds really true’. When you think about it, people are saying, ‘We want peace, we want peace,’ but we still keep eating all this meat, not in the sense of just to harm the animal but imagine all the animals going through this state of fear when they are being slaughtered and the kind of energy that was latched on the piece of meat that somebody is going to be eating. It’s not a very good thing. That kind of will affect your whole well being, I think, so we think that peace begins on your plate is a really good message so we kind of pair peace and food together. Food should be peaceful, so Peacefood and we kind of combine it together. We think that it should be one word. Food should be peaceful. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it, and that’s a beautiful statement, “Peace begins on your plate.” I never even heard that before. That’s so wonderful and for our listeners out there, I’m on Peter’s website now. Like I said earlier, the website is www.peacefoodcafe.com. My family goes to Peter’s an Eric’s restaurant all the time. He has now two restaurants and we’ll talk about that in a little while but for people who think veganism is just for granola eating kale eating hippies, this is the furthest thing from the truth. Peter and Eric have created food that is so mainstream and so delicious that there’s always a line out the door and there’s a bakery and every person I’ve ever brought to your restaurant loves everything they put in their mouth and they just can’t even tell the difference between your baked goods and any mainstream baked goods in terms of the sugar and the fats that are in typical baked goods. Your baked cookies, pies, and scones are world class. PETER LU: Yeah, I have to thank you and I have to thank all the people who have worked with Peacefood, especially the bakery chefs that we have, and they are all actually vegan and they create these wonderful recipes. They probably veganize most of the memorable desserts or pastries that we have and the kind of ingredients that we use are very good ingredients and they’re not processed sugar or anything. We use very natural ingredients, such as maple syrup and agave and coconut meat and that type of thing and also on the food end, Eric is actually the creator of the menu. He actually created the menu based on the type of food that both of us liked and so it’s kind of a very diversified type of menu. It’s something that people can come in any time of the day and they can find something that they can have. It doesn’t really matter what time of the day it is so we want the place to be kind of home like that you can kind of just walk into Peacefood and feel like that you’re in somebody’s home or in somebody’s kitchen and you can kind of just open the refrigerator and grab something that you want, that kind of a feeling. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, you’ve succeeded because I know the first time I ever walked into Peacefood was after the hurricane last year hit and you were the first and only restaurant open in New York and we walked the streets and drove the streets and we came into the place and it was like being at home and everyone was happy and your staff was so loving. Of course, Eric greeted everybody as always and the food was amazing. PETER LU: Yes, I remember Hurricane Sandy and we were slammed the whole week because downtown, they had electrical problems that anything below 14th Street was just completely out of electricity for like a week or something, so I think the migration of all the downtown people and other neighborhood people really made our restaurant very successful that week. We were like slammed from when we opened until the end of the night. I think we closed for one day and then Eric said, ‘We have to open, we have to open. There’s probably people out there looking for food and all that.’ JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s true, and you guys did and it was just the best experience and let’s talk a little bit about, Peter, the ethical, health, and environmental issues that surround and are benefitted from veganism, Can you share with the listeners your view on these issues? PETER LU: Oh yeah, sure. First of all, let’s talk about the environmental issues. We do a lot of things these days, like recycle, we conserve in water, and improve our transportation and all that but it’s really not quite enough but we’ve just forgotten something that is so simple to do , which is just to choose a vegan diet so basically, the vegan diet is something that can help us just because of the lifestyle industry creates a lot of waste. JOHN SHEGERIAN: The whole meat industry and all those industries create all sorts of carbon footprint. PETER LU: They’ve actually created a lot of the waste. It’s like 18% of the methane that came out. Basically, they were calculating in the equivalence of carbon dioxide and also, there’s poor waste management and the amount of manure that these farm animals excrete is far beyond our imagination and it leaks into our bodies of water and land and also, it’s very inefficient to grow crops to feed the farm animal and then in turn, the people will eat the meat of the farm animal. It’s just isn’t a very sustainable way to live so by choosing a vegan diet, we can skip all this and then the crops that grow can feed the hungry and then we don’t have to have so much land that are being deforested for additional more animal grazing and all that. All in all, it’s just very good for the environment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Since 2009, have you seen a shift in consciousness in terms of both society and even just the local crowd that you serve? Are the lines getting longer and the crowd more diverse in your restaurant? PETER LU: I think people are starting to open up about veganism. First of all, I must say that vegan diet is not a fad diet. It’s something that has already been there for years. It’s just people are so busy and they hear this message about veganism and they might not be able to spend the time and kind of think about it so our purpose to be there as a restaurant is to just kind of give them a reminder that these foods are really good for you and they’re delicious and it’s sort of like an incentive for them to go a little further to think about what veganism is all about. After we have open the uptown location for four years, actually four-and-a-half years, and we do feel that people are a lot more open to come into the restaurant and so they just like the food. It doesn’t really matter if it’s vegan or not. It’s good food and once they kind of break down that barrier, they will kind of look into what veganism is all about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Peter, you and Eric are both very humble. The food is great. The lines are long. There’s a mixed crowd in there. This is businessmen, businesswomen, older people, younger people. I’ve seen rock stars in there. I’ve seen celebrities in there and it’s a very democratized location. Everyone is treated the same and loves the food just as much. We’re down to the last minute or so. Two things Peter: Talk a little bit about opening your second location, where that is, and then the future of Peacefood and then we’re going to have to sign off for today. PETER LU: The second location is on 11th Street and East 11th Street between Broadway and University Place and actually, the reason why we actually didn’t pick that location but I have a little story to tell. Basically, I turned vegetarian on September 11th, 2001 and I was standing at that corner and I had a view of the World Trade Tower coming down. I turned vegetarian that day because I did not want to contribute to more suffering, to more loss of life, so there again, not just to the human but also to the animal so it’s sort of like we didn’t even know but when we looked for the second location, we just found it on the website and then we went over there and it was on East 11th Street. It’s a familiar spot so we didn’t even look at any other space and then we just kind of signed the lease. The second time was a lot easier because we already had some reputation with establishments. We got the space right away so under six, seven months of construction and then we opened the door in March of 2013, this year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful, and I know I’ve been there many times. I celebrated my 50th birthday there. For our listeners out there, you should go and enjoy Peter and Eric’s two great restaurants, Peacefood Café Uptown and Downtown now and it’s www.peacefoodcafe.com. Peace does begin on your plate. Peter Lu, you are a visionary leader in the vegan food revolution and truly living proof that green is good.