You’ve likely seen judges on fine-dining cooking competition shows roll their eyes at plant-based cooking. But Michelin-Star chef, Justin Bazdarich is an exception. The longtime New Yorker graduated from the French Culinary Institute, interned with the famous Jean-Gorges, and now runs four exceptional restaurants (one of which has a Michelin Star!). And his latest spot, Xilonen, focuses on sustainability, serving up "plant-based dishes that are just craveable."
"[My business partner and I] had been thinking in the plant-based and sustainability space for a while, trying to let that be a core value of what we do at the restaurants," Bazdarich told Green Matters in an exclusive interview, before we dined as guests at the restaurant's outdoor space in Brooklyn. "So one way to do that is to just serve no meat whatsoever and have that be the ethos of the restaurant."
Keep reading for more on this Michelin star chef's new plant-based restaurant.
Travel, health, and sustainability inspired Bazdarich to open a plant-based Mexican restaurant.
Bazdarich's frequent (pre-pandemic) travels to Mexico inspired his Michelin-Star restaurant, Oxomoco (which has two locations, in Tokyo and in Brooklyn) as well as his newest restaurant, Xilonen, which opened in January 2021.
"I had traveled to Mexico often in my life — luckily, I've been able to do that. And it seemed like really good Mexican food was kind of hit-or-miss in New York," he explains.
"I just wanted to apply everything I’d learned about what I liked flavor-wise, historically about the country, and all the different types of foods around the country."
But Xilonen is a little different from most Mexican eateries, as its menu is entirely meatless.
Bazdarich wasn't always a fan of plant-based cooking. He tells us how he used to dread pulling together vegetable scraps for a vegetable plate, or for green salad entrée. But over the last few years, he became increasingly invested in sustainability, and realized he felt better when his diet included less animal products.
"I studied Industrial Design in the '90s at Arizona State University and dropped out, but I found out before the pandemic started, that Arizona State University has a really great sustainability school. I'd always thought about going back to school, and then the shutdown happened but online classes were still happening, so I decided to enroll again," Bazdarich tells us.
"I put my spare 'Instagram' time into school," he tells us. "It's been awesome to apply what I've learned in sustainability towards the restaurants, and a big part of that is shifting to more plant-rich foods," he adds, saying he likes how eating plant-based makes him feel, anyway.
"Its kind of the way i want to try to eat, for my own personal health — we just consciously try to make that effort to not do [meat] every meal."
Bazdarich's focus on plant-based food has inspired tremendous creativity.
After learning more about the environmental effects of meat consumption, and realizing how much better he felt when he ate more plant-rich foods, Bazdarich became inspired to shift away from meat in his work.
"With Xilonen, I wanted to create a restaurant that was like 90 percent vegan — our dinner menu is 100 percent vegan," he tells us, saying the brunch menu does contain some eggs and cheese, here and there. And, he says it's tested his skills at creating really tasty plant-based dishes.
"To eliminate the meat and put the vegetables as the star has been a creative challenge — it's been inspiring in that sense... We’re trying to be as creative as we can: take a vegetable, make it the star of the dish, and build that dish around that one vegetable," he explains.
"For the carrot tostada, for example, the carrot is the star of the show, the tostada is the vessel that pulls it all together, and the style of cuisine, which is Mexican, kind of binds it all."
Bazdarich knows he has a big plant-based audience, which will only continue to expand.
Bazdarich noticed society's shift toward plant-based diets when he identified customers' most common question.
"The most common question [at my other restaurants] are, 'What are your vegan and vegetarian options?' If they call and ask us a question, they’re like, 'What are your hours of operation?' and that would be our second most-popular question. So, we first started to adapt our menu [at Oxomoco]," he explains, before deciding to open a fully meatless restaurant.
"I know and feel that the trend of food and eating will go to a plant-rich diet very quickly — it's already done that. I know more and more people are going to eat that way," he explains. "Chefs have a huge virtue to shift the public interest of what is delicious so that was sort of where this mission took off... We're getting people to understand that vegan food is super delicious and accessible."
With that, he looks forward to the impact it will have on our planet.
"At restaurants like Xilonen, [customers] might be like, "Wow, that purple potato taco is so good, like I want to go back and eat that again.' So they can go back to that restaurant and have another fully vegan meal. Then, maybe they’ll come once a week, and that will be the one meal they completely cut out meat."
Bazdarich aims to get more chefs on board with plant-based cooking and sustainable practices, too.
In addition to wanting to inspire restaurant-goers to eat more plant-based foods, Bazdarich also hopes to motivate fellow chefs to cook with less meat. He spoke to Lourdes Castro Mortillaro, the Director of New York University's Food Lab, who suggested he create a "pledge" of sorts. He did so, and created a tangible metric — like only serving 25 or 30 percent meat items on his menus — to more easily put chefs on-board.
He also aims to eliminate single-use plastics, and through working with Oceana, his restaurant is almost at a plastic-zero rate.
"The only things we use for plastic are some plastic tools and plastic wrap — some other things. But no more plastic cutlery to-go, no more products for to-go, for straws, and for wrappers," he says. "I’m trying to work on an op-ed piece about that to sort of put it out there that you don’t have to use those. And if you don’t, it can make such a huge impact."
"I’m lucky to have so many chef friends in the New York City area from being here for 20 years. So with that, I can expand the conversation to be like, 'Hey these are easy things to do that can make a big difference on a global scale.'"