More than Just a Side Dish: The Art of Vegetables with Chef, Daphne Cheng
Daphne Cheng is a plant-based pioneer. She doesn't just cook food, she cooks art -- and her canvas is your plate. What once started as a small garden party in NYC has now turned into a magically delicious concept space downtown, where Daphne hosts renegade dinner parties (all of which you too can attend), where she challenges the status quo on fruits and veggies by encouraging you to make them the center piece of all your meals. We visited Daphne at Exhibit C to dig in to all things Mother Nature Made.
What has your journey been like to where you are now?
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, I didn’t eat healthy in the slightest. I was definitely raised on McDonald’s, and use to eat straight butter, and straight sugar and salt. I’d pack myself lunch and it would be just like a bag of chips. I first started getting into food when I was 14. I had an eating disorder when I was 12 to 13, so I had a very different relationship with food. I saw it as the enemy. One day, I saw a picture of myself and finally woke up. It was like seeing through a third person point of view. I decided to start cooking for myself more, and once I did, I realized that I really enjoyed it.
When I decided to get healthy, I was reading a lot of cookbooks and other nutrition things. I read the China Study, and went fully vegan.
I briefly went to school at UC Berkeley for nutrition, but dropped out and decided to go to culinary school in New York. After culinary school, I started a catering company and did that for a year or so. During that time, I had an East Village garden and would host dinner parties for 12 people twice a month. I really enjoyed that more than anything else I was doing, and wanted to find a space where I could do that full time.
Then in May of 2013, I found a loft in Tribeca and opened Suite TheeOhSix. It started off as a dinner once a week for 16 people, and then it slowly grew to 40 people twice a week. At first, I just started doing it to get people to realize how amazing whole foods can taste, but then I realized that it was also a great way to meet people. I made so many friends through those dinners that I still keep in touch with. Everybody has a common interest in food, so it’s an easy conversation stater.
Naturally, I'm very introverted. When I started those garden dinners, I hated coming out and talking to people. I would just want to stay in the kitchen. Now, I enjoy meeting everybody. My job has definitely changed me as a person.
Where do you discover inspiration for your meals?
It’s all very improvisational, even the plating. It’s hard for me to sit down and create a menu without actually being in front of the food. All my meals are just inspired by what’s there when I go shopping — it’s not a pre-conceived idea. It comes to me as I’m creating it.
The core of what I do is just to show people interesting food, that's not just another salad. I also create things in a sneakier way, so people don’t always know they’re just eating vegetables. We don’t say we’re vegan anywhere on our site.
image via daphnecheng.com
How do you respond to negativity about a plant-based lifestyle?
Thankfully, there’s never been much negativity at all. I would say that over 80% of the people that come through are not vegan or vegetarian. They're all surprised that it's so good and that they're actually satisfied and don’t leave hungry.
Growing up, my mom cooked Authentic Chinese cuisines every night. Not like American fried rice and egg rolls and stuff. But in real, authentic Chinese cuisines, there's always huge plates of vegetables, rice, then meat dishes. My family is now pretty healthy, and don’t eat too much meat, but they’d never go vegan. My grandma has the hardest time comprehending it.
There's been a few vegan converts along the way. My goal isn't necessarily to get people to convert, but just to open their eyes and see vegetables as something more than just side dishes. I just want to influence people to eat more vegetables. That’s most important, because a large number of people eating vegetables versus one or two people going vegan actually has a bigger impact.
What’s your relationship with food and your body like now?
It's definitely a lot healthier. But obviously, no one's perfect, and there are still days where I'm not happy with my body. You hear stories of people relapsing, but honestly, it’s now impossible for me to be back to where I was. It’s all about nourishing myself now.
My goal is definitely to promote vegetables as something that are really delicious, and don’t just happen to be good for you. They can taste amazing, and they make you feel amazing. That’s the whole idea — and to do it in a way that’s not preachy, but just to focus on the enjoyment of it all. Being plant-based is not about depriving yourself, it’s about fully enjoying the whole bounty that’s out there. People think that you can't eat that much because you’re eliminating a few food groups, but within the ones that are left, there's still so many varieties. I'm still discovering new foods everyday.
image via daphnecheng.com
Your food is art, and you handle and plate your dishes in such a creative manner. Why is that important to you? You definitely have a very clear aesthetic.
It's really a lifestyle. I'm definitely not a hippie at all. I went to Berkeley, but that's about it. The biggest issue for a lot of people about being plant-based is the connotation that comes with vegan. They don't want to be weird, and they don't want to feel like they're the only ones. They don't want to feel like people are going to make fun of them. I think that's a huge part of it. It's cultural and eating is so social. That's the biggest problem. I want to make eating plant-based and eating healthy something that's desirable, I think that's my approach to it all — making it a cool thing.
The presentation of my food is so important, because we eat with our eyes first. It makes such a difference. There was actually a study where they served people the same salad, with the exact same ingredients -- one was plated in a nice way and the other wasn’t. They had people rate it, and of course, the one plated nicer got higher rates for taste! The psychology of eating definitely matters.
Food is such a creative thing, and I don’t want to standardize it. I don’t want to create the same menu, or create one menu and serve it every single time. That would just kill the fun.
What’s a day in your life like?
There's no typical day. If there's a dinner then I'll spend the full day cooking, and then I have a few people come in and help set up the tables, clean up, and everything. Doors open, people come in, we serve them. It usually starts at 7pm, and goes until 10. Dinner finishes, and people like to hang out afterwards.
On other days, it's just computer work, emails and working on other projects. Right now I'm consulting for creating the menus for a bunch of other restaurants. I'm also working on a larger project, which is a kind of concept space for something bigger.
It's funny. Even after a long day of cooking, I'll still cook other stuff. I was definitely worried about that when I first started. You hear about people doing what they love and then starting to hate it because it becomes a job. Fortunately, I still love it. I don't eat out often, though there was this period where I was eating out a lot. It's good to experience other people's food and just see what's out there -- to see what's going on. My inspiration comes from everything I've ever eaten. If I'm not eating something different, that kind of limits my inspiration.
What’s your idea of legacy?
Climate change is really scary. You almost feel like you're trying to help but it's probably not enough. At this point, its kind of spiraled way too far. Definitely, a goal of mine is to make the world better and protect it so that it even exists for the next generations.
I hinted a little bit before about what I'm working on — without going into too much detail, it's essentially going to be a club house that really values a sense of purpose and doing good in the world, and making it better. It'll be centered around dinners and other events. Really, creating a community of people who are all like-minded and working towards a greater good. Ideally that would go global and start to influence our culture.