Discussing Vegan Food Choices with Candle Cafe’s Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson

January 19, 2015

Joy Pierson is a nutritionist and co-owner of the Candle Cafe, Candle Cafe West, and Candle 79. Her passion for counseling and healing through great food led her to join Bart Potenza at The Healthy Candle in 1988 where they began creating foods and menus tailored to the nutritional needs of clients from Joy’s private practice and the Healthy Candle’s ever-growing customer base. Their partnership flourished and they have since created three restaurants, a growing catering and wholesale business, and three books, The Candle Cafe Cookbook, Candle 79 Cookbook and the new, Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Cafe. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. I’m truly honored to have back on the show my friends and the founders of the Candle Café chain, Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson. Welcome back to Green is Good. BART POTENZA: We are here for you, John. We love it. JOY PIERSON: Thank you, John, for having us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s a joy to have you both on. You guys have not only made the Shegerian family so happy with all the yummy and delicious food that you serve in New York City, but you’ve made the city of New York not only happy and healthier, but so much better. The city is so much better for having your great restaurant chain in New York City. I know so many of your customers, and I see how happy they are and the healthy food that you constantly serve on a consistent basis, it’s just wonderful. I’m one of your biggest fans, but I want to continue to share the word of all the great work and the mission and the journey that you guys are on. That’s why we’re here today. But before we get talking about your new book that you just came out with, I want to share a little bit of your journeys and through your own eyes. Bart and Joy, can you share with our listeners who didn’t have the opportunity to hear the first time you were on the show, a little bit of how you came to being where you are today? What made you guys who you are today? JOY PIERSON: Well, John, my story is somewhat similar to yours. I was a customer, and I was so moved by the quality of the food and how it tasted and how it made me feel. I was a practicing nutritionist. I had a private practice, and I was working for physicians all over the Upper East Side. I stumbled into Bart’s place for lunch, and he couldn’t get rid of me, John. He made me a sandwich. My life was never the same because I couldn’t believe my energy quadrupled, my skin, my hair, my mental clarity, everything improved. For me, it was like seeing a good movie and I just wanted to share it with everybody. It was just such an awesome experience for me, especially being a trained nutritionist. The rest of the story, I think, I’m going to let Bart take over because we met and I worked for him at the Healthy Candle, with was on 71st and Lexington, a 500 square foot takeout and delivery place. Then Bart and I found another location, and Bart played the lottery. Bart? BART POTENZA: In 1993, I played a combination of our birthdays, and we won $153,000 in the New York State Lottery. That became the seed money, literally and figuratively, for starting Candle Café over 20 years ago, the joke being we could have had a year on the beach or an 80-hour work week, and we chose the 80-hour work week. Now we’re down to half that. JOY PIERSON: We keep people happy and healthy. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s wonderful. For our listeners out there that want to find Joy and Bart’s great restaurant and see all the yummy and delicious and healthy food that they get to serve every day to the residents of New York City, it’s candlecafe.com. Of course, there are other URLs too, candlecafefoods.com and candle79.com, but candlecafe.com you can find everything right there. Today you’ve got three wonderful restaurants in New York City. You also have a line of food that you’re serving at Whole Foods, but what I want to touch on first today is your new book. Share the title of your new book and what the theme of your new book is. Joy, you share that with our listeners? JOY PIERSON: Yes. Our new book is called Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Café, and it’s a compilation of recipes that we’ve collected over the years for holidays. John, I don’t even know if you know this, but during the holiday time, and this is since the beginning, we get booked solid. We hate turning people away because we love to feed everybody this delicious plant-based food, so we created the book to bring families into the kitchen because I think cooking together is a wonderful thing for everybody, and then to the table together because, obviously, as we’ve grown, sharing meals at dinner tables has been sort of a lost art. We’d like to bring that art back because we find that sitting around the table and sharing delicious food is really extraordinary, especially because it’s holiday time. John, this book, although it’s holiday cooking, these recipes can be used any night of the week. It does have some really fun, different types of holidays, not just Christmas and Thanksgiving, but we have Superbowl Sunday and we have Cinco de Mayo and Easter brunch. So it’s got a lot of really fun, fun recipes in here that really do help us celebrate on many levels. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Was it challenging to create a holiday recipe book, as opposed to the day-to-day plant-based eating that we all enjoy right now? Was it more challenging to do holiday recipes plant-based wise? JOY PIERSON: I think plant-based holiday was really important to me because, as you know, being in the restaurants and people coming in to do a lot of takeout, bringing our food home for the holidays, it’s been very challenging for the plant-based eater to go home for the holidays. There was a lot of joy in making this book so that people could really celebrate and not have to feel compromised. There are no compromises. These are guilt-free indulgences, and a lot of them have history in terms of they’re recipes that are traditional, but veganized. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Bart, you guys have created a family feeling at the Candle chain. When I walk in and our family walks in, we’re treated and welcomed like family. My brother flew in from California a couple of months back, and he couldn’t believe he was sitting at a table alone and the manager walked by and said to him, “Hey, Carney.” That’s my brother’s name, Carney Shegerian. He couldn’t believe that the manager, who doesn’t see him regularly because he comes in only when he’s in town, just called him out by name. He said, “I just felt so welcome there.” Talk a little bit about how this is part of your DNA and culture, how you include your family and kids in the kitchen, and how you made a book that extends your culture that you’ve already created in your restaurants. BART POTENZA: DNA is the right word, John, because the more I look at Joy and myself, we’re doing it 27 years, it’s like the cliché goes, it comes naturally to us. I think a lot of other people need to learn that’s something we do intuitively, instinctively, and spiritually. I just read a document recently about how you bring that to any work environment. The point is there’s no other way to work in our way. The pressure of doing it is intense enough, and if we don’t make it a happy, loving environment to make it for our own sake as well as for our friends and clients and staff, then there’s no point to it and the way we feel about it. I think Joy would agree with that. It’s a day-to-day challenge, though. Joy always says what good is our last meal? We’re in our 30th year right now, and every day feels like day one. Maybe that’s what keeps our edge on. It keeps us excited about it, new menus, new organic farmers coming in, new commitments, new staff members, growth ideas. We have a frozen food line as well at Whole Foods. I don’t know if your listeners know that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Share a little bit of what they can find at Whole Foods, Bart. Share a little bit about that. BART POTENZA: Joy’s got that one. JOY PIERSON: In Whole Foods, we have a ravioli in a red sauce, we have a ginger miso stir fry, a seitan piccata, and a macaroni and cheese. They’re in the frozen section. They’re frozen entrees, plant-based, organic. You can find them at Whole Foods across the country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Some of the best macaroni and cheese in the entire planet. But before we leave the book, Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Café, where can our listeners buy it? If they’re listening right now and they want to enjoy the book and the recipes in it, where can they buy that book? JOY PIERSON: You should be able to get it at any local bookstore, or you can get on amazon.com and get it. We do sell it at all three of the restaurants, if you want to come by. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. Again, if you want to learn more about Candle Café and all the great food that they serve, it’s candlecafe.com. Let’s now shift the topic a little bit to a topic that I know is very, very near and dear to both of your hearts, the amazing work you do with regards to bringing plant-based foods to our desperately in need school system. Can you share what you’re doing with the Coalition for Healthy School Foods? JOY PIERSON: Yes. Bart and I both sit on the Board. I’m actually the Board Chair for the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, and we’re bringing plant-based options into the schools. There’s an alternative, and, John, we have our first vegetarian school in Queens. It’s very exciting, and attendance, academic scores, everything is shifting for them for the better. It’s really quite a sample school, and it’s in Queens. It’s P.S. 244, and we’re in school offering kids a plant-based option, and then teaching them and their families. I’ve heard great stories when I go to schools and we do family dinner nights. I had a woman jump on the table and tell me that her weight went down, she’s no longer diabetic, her cholesterol went down, she’s no longer asthmatic, and she had all this positive just as a byproduct of us working in the schools because her son is in our program. It’s been revolutionary because at first when I first joined the Board over 10 years ago, they wouldn’t even let us in the cafeteria. Now we’re being embraced by the DOE, the Department of School Food, to develop recipes with them and to work as their partners in changing the way kids eat. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Two questions. If there’s listeners out there that want to learn more about how to bring healthy plant-based foods to their schools, whether they’re sitting in Madison, Wisconsin or in another borough in Brooklyn, New York, how can they engage with your great organization to learn how to bring plant-based foods into their schools? JOY PIERSON: You can contact me directly at joy@candlecafe.com, and I will put you in touch with Amie Hamlin. She’s the director of the program and she runs all the programs in the schools, and we can get together and see how we can change the world, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about for our great listeners out there that want to support what you’re doing? Is there a way to donate or help support your Coalition for Healthy School Foods? JOY PIERSON: Yes. Get on the website and you can hit Donate, and that would be awesome. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Perfect. I know you guys have some of the hugest hearts of two individuals that I’ve ever met in my life. I know it goes way beyond the Coalition for Healthy School Foods. What other organizations is your Candle Café chain and yourselves involved with, with regards to all the great, important work that you do in the community? BART POTENZA: This very week, tomorrow night, we’re doing the food at Cipriani’s for the Humane Society event. We do that every year. We consulted with what we’ll call traditional chefs and taught them how to present vegan food, which is SOP at a Humane Society event. Just to give it a context, people are paying $1,000 a plate just to attend the event, so there’s another piece of this. This thing can be taken upscale in more ways than one, as you can tell. We still have this thing of the old hippie image around health food and veganism and so on, but we have proven with all three restaurants that you can take this to a whole major level, including fine dining with fine eco wines and eco bars and craft beers, etc. One of the things you’ve picked up on, I think, John, by coming to us and knowing us, we’ve taken this to a whole another level that most people, I think, were not able to and were too terrified to try. We’re really proud that we’ve done this. JOY PIERSON: I’m going to talk a little bit more about the Humane Society of the United States. It’s also, John, on our box of frozen food. Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States are both recipients of money based on sales of that food. Bart is very involved with SVN, Social Venture Network, as am I, and also the Green Restaurant Association. Bart was the first person to bring composting into New York City, and he taught other restaurants out of the beauty of his heart for saving the planet for our kids and our grandkids. He set up composting at other restaurants for them and taught them how to do it. We were the first restaurant in New York to compost. BART POTENZA: Guess what, John. They don’t compost bones. You can’t do bones. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’re so excited and honored to have with us today Bart Potenza and Joy Pierson. They are the owners behind the great Candle Café chain in New York City, and you can also find them in the frozen foods section of Whole Foods coast to coast. Bart, you just touched on something a little while ago that’s fascinating. Thirty years you and Joy have been doing this. Can you share the evolution, if not the revolution, in the people? Of course, it had that crunchy, hippie meaning back then. How has it evolved? Because I come in your restaurants, you come into Candle 79 and go sit upstairs at lunch time. It’s not hippies upstairs; it’s the Upper East Side hoi polloi up there. It’s the high class ladies of the Upper East Side. Share a little bit about who some of your clients are and how that’s evolved over the 30 years. BART POTENZA: I think the whole movement has been, as it is now, very media-friendly. Not a day goes by that the New York Times or in the press or media that some new story about why you’ve got to eat your veggies, whether it’s obesity in the country, the diabetes, etc. I’ve said it recently. It’s not about bragging, John. People want it, and the people who do come in are really the shakers and movers of the planet. The other part that’s influenced Joy and myself, we’ve had the pleasure of feeding Colin Campbell, Michio Kushi, Edelson, all the other great people. We’ve been open to the idea of embracing their ideas and their concepts and integrating them, of course, into our restaurants. It’s a user-friendly atmosphere, as you can hear. We’re also falling over each other to say, “What can we do? How can we do it better? Where can we go with it?” Joy is doing a book signing event today at the ABC corporate for us in New York, and that’s another realm of people that we connect with. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I know how humble you both are, but I’m just a visitor and a happy guest at your restaurants, but I see other thought leaders in there all the time, legends like Gloria Steinem, Bill Clinton. I saw James Cameron filming some discussion on veganism and why it’s become important to him. These are some of the thought leaders. You guys rock. JOY PIERSON: That was amazing, John. I said to him it decreases your carbon footprint by 25%, and he said more than that. BART POTENZA: John, he brought 41 people back for dinner the next night. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s just amazing. That’s what’s going on, and you guys are leading the revolution, which is so exciting. That’s why we’re just so honored to have you guys here today. We’re down to the last couple of minutes or so, and I really want to leave this to you. There is so much of the story to share with regards to the local and sustainable produce that you guys use and how you support local farmers and the catering that you guys do to the important organizations, like you said, about the National Humane Society. I’ll leave the last couple minutes both for you guys just to share some of your thoughts and visions, not only where we are today, but where you’re going to take this in the months and years to come. JOY PIERSON: That’s a loaded question. Go ahead, Bart. BART POTENZA: Oh well, honey, double hand off here, huh? We have a few cookbooks in development, and the frozen food line and the frozen food line has the potential of expanding quite a bit. We’re actually discussing bringing something onboard in January, which will be ravioli in bags, like a Boca version of the box, etc. I think a lot of what we do is chef-driven, and I think, John, this could be another show, but with all the things going on in the country with droughts and shortages and stuff, we might have those kinds of challenges on our hands as well. We have to really work with what we can get. This time of year we get all the local farmers, and in wintertime we’ve got to go out to a UR, and there is not a carrot to be had out there with the drought. What do you say? JOHN SHEGERIAN: There’s not. They’re all gone. It’s just crazy. JOY PIERSON: You, Bart, have developed some beautiful relationships with farmers over the years here. I’m so proud of our farmers because, obviously, John, it takes a village. We talked about the employees and our wonderful chefs and everybody because it’s all that energy throughout the room, from the dishwasher to the person who serves you to the person who prepares it, it all makes a huge difference. We’re hoping to continue what we do and to keep spreading that, so that it does give you such a good feeling, and it nourishes body, mind, and spirit. We hope that we continue to do that, we continue to show people how delicious this food can be because I think it’s got some preconceived notions about our type of cuisine that we’re debunking. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, to find the Candle Café’s food and the books and everything else that they’re selling, candlecafe.com. Vegan Holiday Cooking from Candle Café at great bookstores in your community or on amazon.com. Bart and Joy, thank you both for being inspiring visionaries and making the world a better place. You both are living proof that green is good.