Chick’n Fried Mushrooms  with coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and white pepper gravy
Modern Love

Chick’n Fried Mushrooms  with coleslaw, mashed potatoes, and white pepper gravy

Chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz Makes Vegan Work, from Omaha to Brooklyn

The menu in both locations is accessible for everyone.

When chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz opened her first restaurant in Omaha, Nebraska, Modern Love, she knew she wanted the food of her Brooklyn childhood reflected on its menu pages. There is Greek, like the phyllo spinach pie punched up with dill, lemon, and tahini. There’s classic American, as seen in the BLT-avocado sandwich, served on grilled garlic bread. And, of course, Italian staples like fried mozzarella, eggplant-olive lasagna, and risotto carbonara are just a few of the red sauce favorites that make an appearance. There is, however, one major difference between these dishes and those of Moskowitz’s youth: They’re all vegan.

Modern Love is not vegan for the fainthearted. In fact, it’s not really even a restaurant for vegans. “It’s 100 percent catering to meat eaters,” she says of her target audience. “I really like that we can make vegans happy, but that’s a side effect. The goal is to expose people to vegan food.”

Moskowitz was one of the first “cool” evangelists for vegan food, starting first with her Brooklyn Public Access show “Post Punk Kitchen.” That led to a successful website, which in turn led to huge success as a cookbook author (she currently has 10, ranging from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World to Vegan Brunch).

But opening a restaurant was always an ultimate goal. “Ever since I started cooking, I was thinking about designing restaurants,” she says.

A move to Omaha, where there was not a single vegan spot, gave her the impetus to make her daydreams a reality. Seven years later, not only is the restaurant now thriving in a bigger location, but Moskowitz has also opened a second branch in her old stomping grounds of Brooklyn. And while the cities may seem fairly disparate at first glance, a large part of her success has been the ability to recognize where her two customer bases intersect and diverge.

“Yes, we do have to do a lot of education with our customer base in Omaha, but we do it as well in Brooklyn. Society’s pretty homogenous these days,” she says. “Brooklyn is not necessarily a more sophisticated place. When it comes down to it, not everyone knows what vegan food is, even in Brooklyn where there’s a lot of it.”

The menu in both locations is accessible for everyone—whether or not patrons know what nutritional yeast is. The brunch menu gives enough information that even those entirely unfamiliar with vegan staples can parse it with no trouble. Sure, the Modern Cheeseburger with its seitan-bean burger and cashew cheddar may be novel for some, but fancy sauce, potato buns, and fries are more or less universal.

While Moskowitz substitutes vegan ingredients for meat and dairy counterparts, part of the magic of Modern Love is not being able to discern the difference. Take the aforementioned risotto carbonara, a dish normally cooked with loads of taboo products in the vegan world, like eggs, Parmesan, and bacon.

“We use smoked tomatoes and mushrooms, and kala namak, which is a sulfurous salt that tastes like eggs,” she says of the recipe. “That’s a dish where people are like, ‘How is this vegan? It doesn’t make any sense. It tastes like bacon and eggs!’ It’s playful. It’s not meant to be a powerful political message, even though it kind of is.”

Both restaurants also make a cashew-based mozzarella in-house, which many guests are incredulous is actually dairy-free. “It freaks people out, what you can do with cashew cheese,” she says.

Where the two menus diverge has less to do with Modern Love’s customer base and more to do with each city’s unique culinary landscape. In Omaha, where there is little competition, virtually every type of cuisine is fair game. But in Brooklyn, where there are not only other vegan restaurants but many that are hyper-focused, Moskowitz is careful to choose dishes that customers cannot find elsewhere.

“We don’t do a ton of vegan Mexican or Indian because it exists all over the place in Brooklyn,” she says. “In Omaha, people are more excited to try, say, our chana masala because it doesn’t necessarily exist on every street corner.” Moskowitz recalls that enchiladas were recently a huge hit in Omaha but fell flat in Brooklyn. The reason? There was a vegan Mexican restaurant just down the street.

Staffing each restaurant also presents unique challenges. “It’s harder to get people to cook vegan here,” she says of Nebraska. “Someone who wants a culinary career in Omaha doesn’t necessarily want a vegan one. He or she might feel like they’re missing out on something by not making things like foie gras.” In Brooklyn, where there are entire cooking schools devoted to vegan cuisine, it’s less of an issue.

Dividing her time between restaurants that are over a thousand miles away from each other hasn’t been a dream commute, but Moskowitz keeps her sanity by spending time with whichever one needs her more.

Although the coronavirus may have temporarily halted her travels and stalled plans for expansion in Brooklyn, Moskowitz is staying true to the Modern Love mission

“The whole idea is to have really great food that people have to keep coming back for,” she says, “That’s the only way I know how to do it.”

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