Local vegans and vegetarians can still enjoy mouthwatering buffalo wings, addictive crab puffs and decadently sweet frozen desserts. Thanks to Green New American Vegetarian and Nami vegan pastry and soft serve, meat- and dairy-filled favorites have been reborn, no animal products required. Since 2006, chef/owner Damon Brasch has brought the Valley his vegan specialties, with Tempe and Phoenix locations of vegan restaurant Green, and vegan dessert/brunch spot Nami in Phoenix, which serves doughnuts and soy soft serve with a variety of mix-ins.
Brasch, a 40-year-old Phoenix resident originally from the Chicago area, is a self-trained chef who whips up tasty daily vegetarian specials at Green, such as fish tacos, and he has a cookbook in the works. He also has a restaurant consulting business, Brasch Concepts. Catch him at the Devoured Phoenix Culinary Festival Sunday, March 2, and read on for more about his journey as a Phoenix leader in vegan cuisine. Plus, scroll down to watch him name five of his favorite reasons for loving living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I came to Arizona from the Chicago area with my family because of my dad’s job in 1992. We needed a fresh start, and Arizona seemed like a really great place. We had visited a couple times, and we thought we could start new. We were able to, which is what’s so great about Arizona.
What made you want to become vegetarian?
I had a good friend who I was roommates with about a dozen years ago. He wasn’t into anyone cooking meat in the apartment, so he turned me on to the book Diet for a New America, about vegetarianism and factory farming, and that changed my whole outlook on things. I have been vegan for the past five years.
What made you want to become a chef?
When I was in high school, I started working at a pizza place doing all the grunt work. I slowly moved my way up, and by the time I was17, I was running a couple different restaurants and cutting school to turn on the ovens.
I moved down here and worked in some random restaurants. I worked through the ranks, and was the executive chef for Bottomline Hospitality Group, which owned Mickey’s Hangover and Six Lounge out here. That’s when I really started cheffing. It was a really great experience, and sort of like a crash course of culinary school.
Since you were vegetarian when you were creating the menus for those Old Town Scottsdale spots, did you purposely try to make the menus veggie-heavy?
No, I definitely incorporated a lot of meat because I was working for them, but it’s funny because I never really tasted it. I learned to cook with my nose. At the time, cooking meat didn’t bother me, but I won’t even touch it now.
Since you didn’t taste the meat, how did you ensure it turned out alright?
We had a tasting panel. You’d be surprised, though, how powerful your sense of smell is in relation to taste. Think of when you’re sick: when your nose is all clogged up, it’s hard to taste what you’re eating. Your nose is actually much smarter than your tongue. Luckily, I was blessed with a pretty good schnozz, so I can pick out a lot of good stuff.
How did Green come about?
I had always wanted to do a vegan restaurant that was my thing, and I opened Green in 2006. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure people would be receptive to Green, because there had been a lot of great vegetarian restaurants that had opened and closed since I had been here. Thankfully, the community in Tempe is fantastic. They embraced us, and without them, we’d be nowhere. They’re amazing.
Why’d you decide to make the menu all-vegan instead of just vegetarian?
It’s funny because I called the guy who gave me the book Diet for a New America, who is one of my best friends in the world, before I opened the restaurant and told him I wanted to put all these vegetarian items on the menu because I was vegetarian at the time. I thought keeping cheese on dishes might bring in more people, and he told me I should just do an all-vegan restaurant. One reason was because it would be harder, and I love a good challenge, and he said I shouldn’t be tied to the dairy industry. I decided to make it as clean as possible.
Besides your work experience, how do you come up with your recipes and learn cooking techniques?
I love reading cookbooks and absorbing different recipes and tweaking different things. We have a special at Green in Phoenix right now that’s a Korean dish inspired by vegetarian chef David Chang’s cookbook. He’s an individual who I think is doing things that are really amazing, and I really respect him a lot.
Sometimes, I just wake up with an idea and think about how the recipe can be put together – the sauce and flavors and textures – and make it happen.
What’s your favorite Green menu item?
It’s probably Thee Green Salad, which is probably the only thing on the menu that is not my recipe. It’s a very simple salad with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, hearts of palm and other veggies.
Your Tsoynamis desserts are really popular both at Green and Nami. What is your favorite kind?
We always come out with special ones, and the Swizzle Berry Swirl is a current favorite of mine. It’s something my daughter came up with, from one of her cartoon shows where the characters always eat swizzle berry. It’s basically just marion berries and a couple other ingredients – it’s very tasty.
We also have some good chocolate ones, like the Chocolate Monsoon.
What are the biggest benefits and challenges to being a restaurant owner?
The restaurant business is difficult, and owning a restaurant is even harder. The hardest part is sourcing your ingredients. We spend a huge amount of our time running around the city and on the phone, trying to coordinate what we need to execute our menu. The upside to having a vegan restaurant, especially when you are vegan and so passionate about it, is that we’re turning so many omnivores on to our food.
A lot of vegan food sucks, and it gives all of it a bad rap. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating raw and health food, but it has to be done right, and a lot of people don’t do it right. It gives the whole persona a bad name. I love to go to vegan restaurants wherever I am, but you have to maintain certain hygiene ethics. I think it gives all of us a bad name when restaurants don’t rise up to that level.
Flavor and texture are big concerns of mine, and as someone who used to cook meat, I apply all those same methods to vegetables. Green is a place for meateaters to come and say, “OK, this isn’t totally freaky. I’m not vibed out because I have some leather on my shoes.”
Why should people consider becoming vegan or vegetarian?
Definitely, it’s a healthier way to go. It’s scientifically proven if you cut back on the amount of meat you eat, you’re going to live longer.
If you dig a little bit deeper, most people don’t want to think about where their meat comes from. They love their pets and domesticated animals so much, but they don’t give a second thought to the chicken or steak they’re eating. Those are animals, too, and they feel pain. They’re aware of where they are and about these terrible things that are going to happen to them.
It puzzles me every day why there aren’t more and more vegetarians. I think we and a lot of other vegan restaurants are working hard to change that.
How would you describe the dining scene in the Valley?
The dining scene in the Valley is amazing. It’s really evolved in the last 10 years since I’ve been a part of it. We’ve really raised the bar from a culinary standpoint in central Phoenix. There have always been great go-to’s in Scottsdale because of the resorts, but Phoenix has really stepped it up.
What do we need to improve on?
I’d like to see a produce co-op that’s centrally located, where restaurants can go there and get their produce from local farms. I want to shop locally as much as possible, but it’s really, really difficult.
In Reno, Nevada, there’s a co-op where restaurants get an email every day of what they have, and they’re able to go get locally grown, organic stuff and put it on their menus. We don’t have that here, and that’s really frustrating.
What are your goals?
My goals are to try to stay strong with what we’re doing here. We do want to grow, but we want to grow at a smart pace where our integrity will follow us. I don’t know exactly where we’ll go, maybe out of state, but I’d like to see Green grow a little more.
My immediate focus is we’re launching a new amazing take-and-bake vegan cookie dough called Nami Dough that will be available at Green, Nami and hopefully at other places around the Valley. I’m also working on a line of nut cheeses.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to own their own restaurant?
If you want to own your own restaurant, I would say don’t, because it’ll make you have gray hair. There are great parts, too, but it’s a difficult business. The success rate is really slim.
If you’re really serious about it, I’d suggest you hire a consultant like me who’s done it a couple dozen times and can help you out.
For someone who aspires to be a chef, what wisdom would you pass on?
I would say follow your gut. If you want to be a vegan chef, don’t turn yourself off to meat culture if you want to learn. Being a chef takes a lot of hard work. Try to find a great restaurant that’s doing really great things, and work really hard for them. Keep your head down, don’t talk, keep your ears open, and work hard.
Do that for five years. After that fifth year, then decide if you want to open up your own restaurant. You have to cut your teeth for that long. There are no shortcuts in this game, and it’s not glamorous.
You didn’t go to culinary school. What are your thoughts about it?
I think culinary school is good if you require curriculum and structure, but you can go to the library and get a textbook and read it from cover to cover. That’s what I did – I took a lot of information from cookbooks and manuals from culinary schools. It’s more fun that way if you have the means, time, money, and kitchen to do that. If you’re feeling culinary school, do it, but you can save a lot of cash by not going.
You’ve talked about writing a cookbook. What’s the status on that?
A cookbook is in the works. It’s really, really fun, but hard to find time to write since I’m running three restaurants. There are going to be really killer recipes in there, and a lot of recipes from Green.
It’s a bit of a chef’s memoir, as well, and tells my story and my attitude on veganism and the way the world’s headed. I’ve been working on it for two years and would love to have it done by Christmas.
What’s your favorite local restaurant?
My favorite right now is probably Cibo. I love all the staff and go there way too much. You cannot find an experience like that anywhere else in the Valley, a beautiful old house that has been restored tastefully. I’m so happy they’re in our city. I’m slightly addicted to the couscous salad. They also have an amazing gluten-free pizza there – I don’t get the cheese and add a bunch of vegetables.
You’re raising your kids vegan. What advice would you have for parents who want to do the same?
My wife and I have raised them as vegan since they were 1 and 4 years old. I would say do your research. We read a lot about it, and there are certain supplements they’ll need to take. Our kids take vitamins and supplements every day, including B12 and calcium. We eat a lot of kale, greens, nuts, and healthy fats. Don’t go crazy with soy – don’t go crazy with everything. Moderation is key.