If you ever find yourself walking the canal towpath by the Delaware River, you might stumble upon patches of stinging nettle growing in richly green, riotous abandon. For Vincent Peterson, it’s the mother lode. For his appreciative guests at The Kindle Café, it means a beautifully presented plate of vegan lasagna will soon appear before them.
Last Friday at one of Peterson’s almost-famous supper club events, he served Stinging Nettle Lasagna; the guests raved. “It’s one of my best dishes,” Peterson, says, although he changes things up constantly according to season as well as to keep himself interested.
Peterson, one of the pioneers of the “supper club” or “blind pig” dining movements, is now orchestrating his own virtual restaurant nearly every Friday night at various locations around Lambertville, New Jersey and New Hope, Pennsylvania. Although he is looking diligently for a permanent restaurant, Peterson’s one-offs are so successful he is savoring the luxury of taking his time.
“There are lots of benefits of not having my own restaurant,” says the quiet, confident Peterson, who is 39. His dishes are created from whole foods—nothing processed whatsoever. Beans and whole grains comprise the protein and the base for most entrees. Light on the oils. Vegetables are barely cooked, mostly soaked in a lemon-salt bath for flavor and optimum digestibility. Sauces are created from nuts.
Although he is looking diligently for a permanent restaurant, Peterson’s one-offs are so successful he is savoring the luxury of taking his time.
Peterson credits his many years in catering as the perfect training for running an event-style restaurant business. “As a caterer, you have to be absolutely prepared,” he says. “If you forget something, you’re out of luck. It’s pretty much the same thing when you’re shifting an entire restaurant from place to place.”
Pioneer Comes Home
A New Jersey native, Peterson began a supper club of the same name in his San Francisco home about five years ago, after a long stint catering with partners Eric Fenster and Ari Derfel (now of Gather restaurant in Berkeley). Classically trained as a chef at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, Peterson spent many years on the West Coast starting as Lead Line Cook and then Sous Chef with the famed Millenium restaurant under Eric Tucker. In between gigs, Peterson took a year off to travel through Thailand and Cambodia, learning much about Southeast Asian herbs and flavorings.
Throughout his travels, home called to Peterson. “I grew up in New Jersey and missed my parents, my family,” Peterson says. He and his wife Carolyn Cohen decided to move to central Jersey a couple of years ago, and settled in the artsy, historic town of Lambertville. Kindle Café officially moved with them. Here in a light-filled old townhouse, Peterson develops his menus, pores over the daily produce sheets he gets from Zone 7 and other organic food suppliers, manages his guest list and experiments at his commercial-grade range.
Most metropolitan areas are intrinsically set up for mobile restaurants—dense population, strong word-of-mouth advertising and residents with a penchant for culturally diverse and unique experiences. Ever the pioneer, though, Peterson decided to bring Kindle Café to the suburbs.
“You can’t put out a sign and cook for people in your home in Lambertville,” Peterson says. “The zoning laws are strictly enforced and no one wants to be overrun with cars and loud conversations where they live.”
After some discussions with Rojo’s Café owner David Waldman, Peterson was invited to hold many of his dinners in the space, which has all of the equipment Peterson needs to serve up to 28 guests. Live music is usually part of the evening.
Starting with a simple signup sheet posted in Rojo’s, Peterson’s average turnout was modest in the beginning. Today, nearly every event reaches capacity, whether it’s at Rojo’s, the Columbia firehouse, Soupcon Salon, or Yogaphoria in New Hope.
“David has been extremely generous in this adventure,” Peterson says.
The menu, consisting of an appetizer and four courses, is prix fixe and is the same for everyone. All dinners are BYOB and are usually priced at around $40-$50.
“Because my overhead is relatively affordable I’m able to pass that savings on to my guests,” Peterson says. “I like the fact that I am using space, like Rojo’s, that otherwise wouldn’t be utilized [in the evening].”
Don’t Get Me Started
Despite his calm, friendly demeanor, Peterson has strong opinions about the restaurant business.
Organic labeling. “Passé; the USDA has watered down [the requirements] so much that it is meaningless. I work with growers who may not be certified but practice [organic farming] anyway.”
Yelp. “I once served a seven-course meal to a couple who came all the way from New York City. They gave Kindle Café a rave review and that one review generated a substantial amount of business. Ignore yelp.com at your peril.”
Chef TV Shows. “I don’t own a television although I keep up with what’s happening peripherally. I was aghast, though, when I heard that [in 2000 on Iron Chef], Bobby Flay jumped up on his cutting board in premature victory, with his shoes. Cutting boards are sacred.”
Back Kitchen Tyranny. “Competition and harassment don’t belong in food. It doesn’t have to be that way to create great dishes.”
If there is anything that the food shows have done for American cuisine, though, Peterson is first to declare it. “In France, chefs are revered—they always have been. Now thanks to the excitement of these shows, American chefs are enjoying more prestige and respect. And that’s a good thing for all of us.”