Gracias Madre's Chandra Gilbert on the Mysteries of Vegan Brunch
Gracias Madre's Chandra Gilbert
As if you needed another reason to eat at Gracias Madre as of June 1, the West Hollywood vegan restaurant now serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. The menu includes Mexican plates such as chilaquiles, tofu ranchero scramble, breakfast torta and chimichangas and traditional brunch fare such as French toast, homemade biscuits, warm lemon scone and house Madre granola.
The term "vegan brunch" is enough to get some of us out of bed early, but just to make sure we weren't missing any much-needed REM, we asked Gracias Madre chef Chandra Gilbert what this brunch thing is all about. Here's what she had to say.
Photo courtesy of Gracias Madre
Squid Ink: In your opinion, what's the difference between breakfast and brunch?
Chanda Gilbert: To me, breakfast is a little bit more solitary, like, "get the job done." You're starting the day, maybe you're having yogurt and granola and hitting the door. Brunch, to me, feels more leisurely. It feels later in the day. I don't have a lot of people showing up for brunch at 8 a.m. on a Sunday. It feels like it might include cocktails and has more festivity to it. It lingers a little longer into the day and you might eat items that are a little richer, something heavier or creamier. You can have brunch at 1, but you're not having breakfast at 1.
SI: I always assumed brunch was just something you did when you were hungover, but you're saying people have brunch without being hungover?
SI: Some of your brunch items are very much Mexican food, but some are more "Mexican-inspired." Why is that?
CG: To meet the need of people who are coming in really wanting pretty traditional vegan brunch items. Not necessarily wanting enchiladas but French toast and biscuits and gravy. We took these classical brunch items that our clients were demanding - which is great because I love to meet the demands of my clients.
SI: Was adding a brunch menu always something you wanted to do or did it come about because the restaurant was doing well?
CG: We'd always thought about it. It's fun and the patio calls for it, so we knew we'd do it but we didn't know when. More and more people were saying, "You don't have any French toast. You don't have any vegan pancakes. Come on." So it was like, "Okay, it's time."
SI: Did you expect to add brunch so soon after opening?
CG: Whether or not I expected that, the timing was perfect. I can't say if I was even thinking about it until the call came.
SI: Who's call was that?
CG: The clients' call. People wanting it. The serving staff came and said people really wanted French toast, so I said, "Ok, I'm ready." It helped that we'd already done this model in the Bay Area, so we didn't open necessarily with anything extraordinarily new, which gave us a lot of room to feel comfortable.
SI: Is there brunch in Mexico?
CG: I just got back from Oaxaca and I'd say they're eating all the time. I didn't feel like there was one [brunch] necessarily. It's a little bit more like traditional breakfast, but I didn't see traditional brunch. I saw plenty of fresh fruit and fresh juice, all kinds of smoothies, happening early in the morning.
SI: You're not Mexican, so tell me about cooking a cuisine that is not, for lack of a better term, whatever ethnicity you are.
CG: I was born in San Diego, I moved to Arizona and then I moved back to California. Being in the restaurant industry in Arizona and California, it's all I've been around, pretty much. For years in Arizona, I worked at a large chain. What I rely on are my friends and co-workers - who are from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras - for ideas and inspiration.
the patio at Gracias Madre
CG: It is. First of all, I don't like to eat it very much. In the vegan and vegetarian world, it's a little passe. It's overdone. It's been turned into a very processed food as well, which is not great. In the six years I ran Gracias Madre in the Bay Area, we never used it one time. Here in Los Angeles, I put the tofu ranchero on the menu because people wanted it. I don't like to rely on it because I like to serve plants. Granted, the soybean is a plant, but it's been messed with a lot. I'd rather eat a shiitake mushroom.
SI: A really good example of you not using tofu is the coconut bacon.
CG: It's yummy. I wish I could say I invented that, but I didn't. I stole it directly from Ryland Engelhart at Cafe Gratitude. I ran Cafe Gratitude in the Bay Area for like nine or 10 years.
SI: Wherever you stole it from, thanks for serving it.
CG: It's flaked coconut and then it's got some olive oil, salt, fresh ground chipotle and maple syrup. It's amazing. I love it.
SI: Not as a chef, but as a person, do you prefer a sweet or savory brunch?
CG: Savory, but I often will crave the sugar. I want the French toast, I want the pancakes, but I feel myself naturally gravitating toward that [savory] these days because it's going to make me sugared-out. But I like it. I love pancakes. Anything with bread and syrup, I love it.
SI: Your menu doesn't take the easy way out in terms of using store-bought cheese and things like that. What inspires you to be better?
CG: I'm really very committed to organics. That runs my show, first of all. And I'm really committed to homemade foods. If you're looking at being organic and vegan and you don't want to use a lot of processed food, you're going to do a lot of veggie prep - a lot of peeling, roasting, pureeing, sauteing and braising. It's tons and tons of work and it's worth it because I love, love, love the vegetable.
I'm inspired by what I want to eat, and by the way I want to affect this planet. I don't want to create disease - I want to create health and vibrancy all the way around. And I want to eat things that taste good and make me feel good. Probably the biggest motivator is I want to make what I want to eat.
SI: Of all the brunch items, what stands out as the most difficult to create a vegan version of?
CG: It's difficult to make a really good, high-quality vegan sausage. I'm working on that right now. Texturally, without using soy and wheat gluten: That's been difficult for me.
SI: Do you have tips for making a vegan brunch at home?
CG: Start with really great ingredients. I would stay away from processed ingredients like soy cream cheeses. I would read; reading is amazing. There's a lot of stuff out there now. I would think about what people like in the non-vegan world and I would conceptualize that and recreate it in as many whole products as I can use. If you're using good ingredients, it's going to be good.
SI: You started college studying English literature.
CG: That's true. It didn't work out.
SI: You made the right decision for lots of reasons, by the way. So when is the cookbook coming out?
CG: I don't know. That's what we keep talking about. It's really about nailing me down because I don't like to write things down too much. It's going to happen, but I don't know when. When something forces me to.
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