How a Meatless Icon Served Thanksgiving Feasts in the 1980s

In 1982, Mickey Hornick and Jo Kaucher leaf through The pleasure of cooking while standing in the small Lakeview kitchen at Chicago dinner which has served thousands of vegans and curious vegans in Chicago and across the country.

Kaucher, trained in what was called “natural cooking” in the jargon of the time (think: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and lots of sprouts) was tasked with developing and tweaking the recipes, and Hornick, owner and founder of the Chicago Diner, sampled and provided feedback. Hornick had health issues that forced him to adjust his diet and was new to vegetarianism when he came up with the idea of ​​opening a restaurant. “I needed a place to eat,” he said evenly.

Hornick and Kaucher would eventually marry in 2003, but in 1982 they were just beginning to found what would become one of the nation’s most iconic vegetarian institutions and one of Chicago’s most enduring restaurants. The restaurant is vegetarian, although it caters to the vegan community where it is considered a mainstay. Committed to regional and seasonal produce long before “locavore” was a word, let alone a movement, Hornick and Kaucher’s challenge came in persuading diners expecting restaurant steaks to try and enjoy plant-based versions of comfort foods.

Using The pleasure of cooking as a starting point, the couple dove into the process of creating what would become their annual Thanksgiving meal when they opened the restaurant in 1983. Hornick borrowed, hustled and saved for the initial money needed to open the restaurant, using a vintage bar from a recently closed restaurant as the first counter; a mirror, found in the alley behind the restaurant, was attached to the wall behind the counter. A couple of local hippies skilled in carpentry built the stalls and every penny was pushed to the limit. Hornick personally went to farmers markets to buy all the affordable fresh produce and also delivered cakes himself to their wholesale customers. For the first 20 years, they didn’t know if the Diner would survive every winter.

And with the Diner’s 40th anniversary approaching in 2023, Hornick seems to be as surprised by its longevity and success as anyone. “I was so scared we were going to fail, I spent opening day with butterflies in my stomach, not wanting to open,” Hornick said. “We opened anyway and it was packed. One way or another, we made it.

Compared to the rest of the country, when the Diner opened its doors, the dining landscape in Chicago was far different, the city standing on the unceded traditional lands of the Council of Three Fires – an alliance of primarily Ojibwe nations. , the Odawa and the Potawatomi. Before there was the concept of Ivy League grads disrupting things in Silicon Valley, before Turtle Island Foods launched its legendary Tofurky roastery in 1995there was a scruffy little independent restaurant in the Chicago neighborhood then known as Boystown that was not only poised to expand the meaning of “comfort food,” but to begin to change the attitudes of the former butcher of pork in the world by going animal-free products on the most sacrosanct of American holidays: Thanksgiving.

But Hornick and Kaucher eventually learned that even the town made famous by Upton Sinclair The jungle had room for their shameless herbivorous interpretations of classic dishes. The Diner’s holiday entree menu has evolved over the years from stuffed acorn squash and pumpkin ravioli to the more traditional center dishes it offers today for their Thanksgiving. Chicago Diner’s signature Wellington, a flaky, buttery puff pastry filled with sautéed seitan, mushrooms and mixed vegetables and served with a shiitake demi-glace, is a main course for any Thanksgiving table, as is the hearty roast of stuffed vegetables – a roulade with herb stuffing filling a roll of smooth, seasoned tofu. These are classics that people return to year after year. More recently, with the growing demand for gluten-free options, Chicago Diner offered a savory mushroom lentil bread with white truffle sauce.

“We want to provide something delicious for everyone,” says Michael Hornick, the founder’s nephew, who started in the kitchen with Kaucher and is now the restaurant’s president and partner. “Mickey and Jo remember the days when there was nothing for vegetarians, let alone vegans. We want everyone to be included at the holiday table.

Everything on the holiday menu, from main dishes to sides like Mac ‘n Teese, with dairy-free cheese from Chicago Vegan Foods (also the makers of the ice cream behind the Diner’s award-winning milkshakes), as well as jalapeno corn fritters and desserts like Walnut Carrot Cake and Chocolate Pumpkin Cheesecake, are vegan. There are also gluten-free options in every category of the Thanksgiving menu.

While the Diner is an institution these days, visited by everyone from the late film critic Roger Ebert, who was a regular, to Lady Gaga, the first few days were a stressful learning curve. Hornick lacked experience as a restaurateur (he also had a crush on his chef). This led to sometimes complicated, hectic and stressful Thanksgiving dinner services. During the early years of in-person Thanksgiving dining, the Diner sold out seating for 56 people every two hours until closing with more than 200 people served that day. Many customers also showed up to order takeout, which overwhelmed both kitchens and staff. The freshman, exhausted from cooking all day and running up and down the stairs with take-out orders, Kaucher remembers saying the kitchen was officially closed for take-out orders after their last session. Hornick, however, wanted to continue. They bickered on the steps before the situation resolved itself. (They ran out of food).

“We had to interrupt people, but I didn’t want to,” Hornick said. “I wanted to sell more.”

Today, the Diner, now with a second location in Logan Square, is one of the oldest vegetarian restaurants in the United States. Kaucher also passed the torch. Over the past 10 years, chef José Martinez has adapted classic recipes created by Kaucher for modern and more globally influenced palates, adding a white truffle mushroom sauce to elevate his famous lentil bread and a specialty of rich, vegetarian season of mole negro enchiladas.

“I can’t believe how much veganism, from restaurants to products, has exploded,” says Kaucher. “I’d like to take credit for it, but I can’t. We were the first to adopt. Don’t call us pioneers,” she laughs. “I can’t stand this.”

These days, with his nephew running day-to-day business and operations, Hornick and Kaucher enjoy Thanksgiving away from the stresses of the kitchen and restaurant. Some things, however, remain the same, including their Thanksgiving meal. “I usually have the Wellington,” says Hornick, “and Jo has the Stuffed Vegetable Roast and she’ll do some sides too. It is our tradition.

When asked if she misses the hustle and bustle of a busy holiday season in a restaurant kitchen, Hornick says she does miss the stress, but seeing customers line up outside is still a joy. when he enters. like Thanksgiving, the adrenaline comes back,” he admits.

“Meatless since 1983,” he says, repeating the Diner’s slogan. “That’s pretty cool.”

Chicago Diner reheat and eat thanksgiving meals can be ordered until 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 20 for collection on Wednesday, November 23.

About Jimmie T.

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