“Poor, impoverished restaurateur begs for you to come in on Tuesday. Can that please be the title?,” quips Isa Chandra, chef and founder of Modern Love. “Or: You don’t know what I fucking went through to make this. Can that be the other headline?,” she suggests.
It’s that brutally honest, self-deprecating humor and a sheer talent for creating satisfying, crave-worthy vegan cuisine that endears us immediately to Isa. Following her punk days into her Post-Punk Kitchen franchise – a public access TV show in NYC turned cookbook series – Isa is loved the world over. For us, it was a no-brainer that she be the first person we profile in our new series, Meet the Chef. (“Start with the best,” cracked Isa.) We’ll be periodically meeting visionary chefs around the world; those who are owning their unique corner of the vegan food world and defying expectations of what plantbased cuisine can and should be.
We met Isa just ahead of dinner service on a recent Tuesday at the Brooklyn location of her restaurant, Modern Love. When we tell you that you need to eat here, we mean it. Luckily for me, I’m local to NY so when my weekly daydreams of chickpea parm or poutine piled high need to become reality, my counterparts in Berlin can only look from afar in envy of another evening spent in a swanky place in Williamsburg savoring the last bite of the battered cutlet topped with house-made mozz or sopping up every remaining morsel of the richly satisfying porcini gravy. (Sorry not sorry, team!) The vegan deliciousness can be life altering and clearly here, quite a distraction from work obligations.
Now two years into the Brooklyn, NY digs and four years going in Omaha, Nebraska (in a brand-new location which opened just last month), Isa shared with us her take on vegan cuisine as well as the reward – and the struggle – that comes with running an independent, locally-driven restaurant. Frankly, we think she sells herself far too short. Modern Love has become a destination and a local favorite for both vegans and non-vegans alike. Night after night, this post-punk chef and her team create dishes that remind you of home. That is, if your mom knew how to cook, let alone with complex flavors sans animal cruelty, and with an irreverent sense of humor about it all. With Isa, the knife cuts deep – into her handmade, perfectly charred veggie burger that is impossible to beat.
Vegan Good Life: How would you describe Modern Love?
Chef Isa: Vegan comfort food that’s a little bit elevated. To bring the cuisine to the forefront but not in a super pretentious way. An approachable way, but still from scratch and a little bit swanky. Food that I wanted to eat growing up.
Why a restaurant?
I had been writing cookbooks for awhile, and doing pop-ups. It seemed like a natural progression for me to share food with people so they don’t have to cook.
After Post-Punk Kitchen, right?
Post-post-punk. I’m so post punk, I’m back again.
That’s funny. Why Omaha as your first spot?
I was living in Omaha at the time, so especially there it seemed really important and also possible. Omaha is a really livable city with lots of local farms that need support because it’s mostly big agriculture out there. A lot of people from the area had come back to their family farms and had transformed them into vegetable farms, so it felt like a good way to support that. All these farmers are doing great things, but no one’s really serving their food. So it’s really nice to do that, to connect with the farms, the growers, and the people from the area.
“All these farmers are doing great things but no one’s really serving their food. So it’s really nice…to connect with the farms, the growers, and the people from the area.”
But Omaha, really?
Well it’s funny because it was just on PETA’s top 10 vegan cities list, which is kind of bullshit, but it was just funny to even be mentioned. The vegan community has grown as has people eating vegan food. So it’s important having it be their first vegan experience. 90% of my customers there aren’t vegan.
So then Modern Love has really paved the way there.
People saw that it was viable. There was already a vegetarian restaurant there so people already had some idea. There’s so many vegan options everywhere now. 10 years ago I wouldn’t have said, ‘Come visit me in Omaha!’ But now…ice cream, bloodys, a food hall…
Here in Brooklyn, there’s a lot more competition though.
I never look at vegan places as competition. It’s community. I’m still in my own lane. It only makes people be their best, and I think it’s important vegan restaurants be their best. If they’re going to do better than us, then cool we’ll rise to that. A vegan restaurant could open next door and I’d be happy.
“I never look at vegan places as competition. It’s community.”
Who are your regulars here?
Here, we get a lot more vegans obviously. We’re always trying to be more neighborhood friendly, but I still think it’s a destination restaurant. It’s sometimes harder for a restaurant to survive on being a destination restaurant though. We’re getting there, busier on the weekdays. But still, come in on a Tuesday!
Why isn’t it as neighborhoody as you would like yet?
Take our burger for instance. It’s $18. Handmade, local greens, gigantic portion. But overhead is high and we pay our kitchen really well. What do you want to support? An ethical company gets judged the same way a corporation would. Still people want to be baller and get a $24 entree so we have those too. Do you want to be baller or more weeknight baller on a budget?
And you’re so unapologetically yourself. It’s so endearing.
I don’t try to be anything. It just comes naturally.
I guess I just contrast it to the overly perfect, ultra-serious…
Chefery, you mean?
To be honest, no one takes me seriously as a chef so it kinda doesn’t matter how seriously I take myself. I’m not thought of as a chef.
Why is that?
I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m a woman, because I do comfort food, or because I do vegan food. I think we have award-worthy food, I think we need 10 Michelin stars! I kind of gave up on the thought of “Chef Isa”. I don’t really give a shit, I think our food and restaurant is the best, and I think that’s more important than chef recognition. Although that would be nice. There are so many male vegan chefs that get chef-y recognition but I just don’t. Yelp, that’s the only recognition that really matters. (quintessential Isa deadpan)
Is there a certain ingredient or taste that you’re defying expectations or proving otherwise?
Having the char, creaminess, the meatiness and the cheesiness come through. It’s not necessarily a certain ingredient, it’s having the methods, those satisfying flavors that really hit the spot and don’t taste fake. I think that’s the big goal. Translations and just hitting those right notes.
“It’s having the methods, those satisfying flavors that really hit the spot and don’t taste fake.”
What about the naysayers?
I don’t have any. (another deadpan)
I knew you’d say that!
We’ll get a disgruntled customer once in awhile, but I just let it go. I’m not here to force anyone to think anything. Here’s the food, hopefully you love it, most people do. I’d rather spend the time pleasing the people that love the food, than trying to win someone over. We kind of just win people over naturally. Although sometimes someone will get in my head and that will really inspire me. Like once someone told me they’d had a better veggie burger. Well no, I’m going to improve it even more so then that’s impossible.
You do want to win people over though, I suspect. I read that you’ve sometimes referred to your cooking as culinary activism. Can you describe that evolution?
Learning to cook went hand-in-hand with activism. I’m vegan since 1989 and I had to learn to cook and I had to cook for friends and bands and homeless people and bake sales, so it all happened at the same time for me. So there wasn’t ever a turning point, it was always that way. I learned to cook out of necessity. Then more and more, I started to have more fun with it.
“Learning to cook went hand-in-hand with activism. Then more and more, I started to have fun with it.”
Fun but with the pressure of running a restaurant though?
It’s a tough business. You have to please 200 people a day, plus your staff, plus somehow keep costs down. People don’t realize how much money it costs to run a restaurant. It’s funny because you do this, it’s the hospitality industry, and you want people to be happy but no one’s ever happy. So it’s just like, you just keep trying.
I get the impression people are happy.
I know, I know, but I’m Jewish so like 2% of people not happy to me is nobody is happy. I’m just like, if there’s one person complaining, everybody’s miserable. We’ll try again tomorrow.
How do you view success?
Always cooking from the heart, always making sure the quality is awesome, with good service. Just being a great restaurant. Nothing is ever good enough, we have to always improve, representing veganism. And as a chef, you always want to be better and better. It’s an everyday process.
Modern Love Brooklyn
317 Union Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Modern Love Omaha
3157 Farnam Street
Omaha, NE 68131