Chicagoans have shed our reputation as veggie-averse meat heads, thanks in part to vegetable-forward and vegan eateries like Bad Hunter and Brass Heart. Now, as award-winning vegan chef Matthew Kenney brings his plant-centric philosophies to the newly opened Althea restaurant, he sits down with CS to discuss how meat-free is increasingly the way to be. 700 N. Michigan Ave., 7th Floor, 312.525.3400
What drew you to opening your first restaurant in Chicago?
I’ve always loved Chicago and the food scene here. I used to go to Chicago two or three times a year just to try the restaurants. It’s our goal to reach as many people as possible to share our plant-based cuisine, and Chicago is one of the major food cities. At the same time, I think a lot of New York chefs have been challenged in Chicago. The climate is different, so it’s important for us to do a menu that’s beautiful and exciting, but at the same time, it needs to be comforting.
Do you feel like diners are becoming more receptive of plant-based menus?
I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and for the first decade, we felt like we were working in obscurity. That has evolved a lot—it would be easy to say over the past five years, but it’s really in the last year that plant-based eating has become incredibly mainstream. It’s a completely different market today than it was even six months ago, and it’s accelerating really quickly.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s a combination of things: the products that are available now, the fact that you have more chefs and even non-vegan restaurants putting out high-quality plant-based food and that people are becoming more educated and understand the benefits of it.
Tell us a little more about Althea.
Like most of our restaurants, about half of the menu will change with the seasons, but favorite dishes like our kimchi dumplings or lasagna will always stay because they’re universally popular. Because we opened pretty quickly, we purposefully focused on recent classics; this is a new market for us, and we wanted to make sure we could execute it at a high level, rather than get too experimental with the first menu. But our chef at Althea is really creative, and she’ll continue to make adjustments to the recipes in line with her own creativity. We’re really happy to see how supportive people have been; we thought it would take awhile to build a following, especially in the winter, but I’ve been just thrilled with the support.