Vegetables Take Center Stage at Pop-Up Restaurant

As chef in the Culinary Institute of America’s Pangea Restaurant, Martin Matysik helps students focus on plant-forward dishes instead of the traditional meat and fish protein options.
As chef in the Culinary Institute of America’s Pangea Restaurant, Martin Matysik helps students focus on plant-forward dishes instead of the traditional meat and fish protein options. CIA/Phil Mansfield

I run the kitchen in a pop-up restaurant called Pangea at The Culinary Institute of America, which has been open to the public since January. It is a new dining concept in that it is “plant-forward.” I describe it to my students as something that simply makes sense: Meat and fish proteins are already quite expensive, and in the near future—five to 10 years from now—we’re going to be lucky if we can afford to have meat or fish once a week.

Plant-forward means using seasonal vegetables along with conscious menu planning. We’re very careful about what we pick and choose for our menu. With conscious decisions, we decide how much meat or fish, if any, to add to our dishes. We only feature one or two dishes with animal protein throughout the five-course menu.

Guests can decide whether to eat vegan, vegetarian, or meat, and they receive both a plated and a shared dish for each course.

We serve five courses like that, or 10 dishes total. This creates a less formal dining experience, because when people share, they tend to have vibrant discussions about the food and dining experience. Meanwhile the food we offer allows us to mix and combine different flavors from around the world. The menu is like a roller coaster experience of flavors and tastes.

An example of a course we offer is by-catch seafood, or a catch that’s not necessarily popular, and we serve it with a pine essence broth and fregola grains.

Alongside this, we serve one of our signature items, the Pangea roll. This roll is a vegan take on sushi. It is tomatoes marinated in soy sauce and mirin, and then wrapped with parsnip and pine nuts.

We cut the parsnips to look like rice, add pine nuts and vinegar, and by doing this we create our own version of sticky rice. The result is that our Pangea roll looks like, and tastes better than, a tuna roll that a diner might get in a Japanese restaurant. It’s familiar to the eye, but tastes very special.

Following this, diners might have a vegetable feature of the day. For instance, today we’re presenting a whole roasted celery root. We form it into a perfect sphere, roast it, then carve it at the table and serve it with thyme, lemon, and honey glaze.

Again, we’ve taken a food that is not popular on many restaurant menus and made it special. The sharing item with this course is a root vegetable couscous with saffron and apricots, served with lemon and harissa chili.

People leave very happy without having had that big steak. We’ve successfully presented a menu that satisfies the customer and we’ve proven that vegetables can be very tasty.

The restaurant’s menu has a broad mix of flavors—some delicate, some strong—and we’re using all sorts of spices from around the world, providing a dining experience to remember.

In terms of education, the students are very much involved in the discussion with regards to sustainability and how this dining concept really makes sense.

Grains were eaten many thousands of years ago, and now they’re coming back into fashion. We want to educate the next generation of chefs and help them understand their responsibility, in terms of how many people they’re going to influence with their cooking.

We talk to the students on a daily basis about all aspects of farming and growing foods, about sustainable restaurant practices, and about how we can influence the eating habits of this nation for the better. It’s very much a debate they enjoy taking part in; they’re enthusiastic about this hip project and find it very useful in today’s world.

Martin Matysik’s professional career has taken him to more than a dozen countries worldwide. Before joining The Culinary Institute of America’s faculty in 2013, he served as executive chef at the lead restaurant of prominent hotels in Canada, England, and Spain.

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