The Philosopher Chef

Chef Nathan Isberg sits down with us to discuss food ethics, the cult of veganism and what it means to be a mindful eater.

Anyone who ever ate at the erstwhile Atlantic restaurant on Dundas West knows that it was not, exactly, a standard eating establishment. It was an odd place, an alcohol-free place, a place where chef Nathan Isberg would serve whatever he wanted — such as crickets smoked over hay, maybe, or whole fish heads — and customers would pay whatever they wanted (literally, patrons were asked to pay any amount as they saw fit).

The Atlantic was, essentially, a direct reflection of Isberg’s raison d’être as a chef, which is to raise questions about the ethics and effects of consumption. Should we eat animals that are higher up on the food chain? Do we need wine with every meal? Is a zero-waste kitchen possible?

After the Atlantic closed in 2015, Isberg went on hiatus to travel the world and focus on other projects. But now he’s back in chef mode with Awai, a vegan restaurant he opened in Bloor West Village in December. We met up with him to talk about food ethics, kitchen hierarchies and Jainism.

How could a pay-what-you-want restaurant ever be expected to survive?

Pay-what-you-want was the most effective model I used the entire time the Atlantic was open. People paid according to their abilities. So I had one customer pay €300 for two people, and then some artist-types would drop $10 for four courses. It all balanced out. It was almost a system of paying it forward.

chef Nathan Isberg

You were actually making more money?

I was making more money and I was spending less money. I had farmers’ market vendors who would give me a discount on whatever they didn’t sell. I’m familiar with a lot of ingredients, so I was able to make it work. And I wasn’t wasting, either. I effectively had zero waste.

So you had creative control and were making money. Why close the Atlantic?

There were some pressures associated with business choices I made in the past, things that had cost me a lot of time, money and mental effort early on.

You were in debt?

It was partly debt. But also, after five years, I had spent literally every single day at the restaurant. I never expected it to be open for that long. And I found that I was doing the same thing over and over. I had proven to myself that I could do anything I wanted in the space, and the further out I went with it, the better it all worked. So I didn’t have to prove anything to myself. And the building was in rough shape, too. So it seemed like a good time to a take a break.

Your new restaurant, Awai, is a vegan restaurant, but you aren’t vegan. How do you feel about that?

I feel like it’s a pretty idiotic position to put myself in. But I do believe that the concept of doing as little harm as possible is the key to being an ethical person. And to a certain extent, vegans have a monopoly on morality because the intent is to reduce harm to other sentient beings. Jainism, I would say, is the only version of veganism that is completely consistent with that discussion.

The Jains avoid killing organisms as a whole, but they are still killing things , because they eat living cells.

That’s why I consider veganism a sort of speciesism. Yeast, for example, is a colony of animals. You’re still corralling and using them when you make bread. I wanted to put a Persian rug on the wall at Awai, but I couldn’t do that because wool is not vegan.

Plants are sentient. They warn other plants of predators.

So your petroleum-based shoes are fine?

How about your cotton, which is a monocrop that destroys animals for miles around? The problem I have with veganism is that there is often an arbitrary stoppage of discussion.

So it’s intellectually lazy?

I have a hard time talking with most vegans because it’s always, “killing animals is bad,” or, “using animals is bad.” Killing is terrible and traumatic, but when I was raising pigs out in Niagara – these pigs were eating scraps that nobody else would eat. These pigs were happy, and the food they provided was extremely nutritious and desirable. I understand the Kantian concept of not using animals as a means to an end, but we are inherently wrapped in a web of relationships. There has been a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals for a very long time. There is this idea that any time humans impose on the animal world it’s wrong, and maybe it is, but at that point the only way you could be an ethical person is to kill yourself. I think we should try to avoid causing suffering in any way possible, and that’s an ongoing discussion to have with the world around us.

Do you ever feel that plants are more sentient than we give them credit for?

There is scientific proof that plants are sentient. Plants warn other plants of predators. But our relationship with living things doesn’t have to be, “they feel pain therefore we should care.” That’s kind of a low bar. This conversation becomes much easier if you’re growing things yourself. If you’re engaged with an animal from the time it’s born to the time of slaughter, or if you’re seeing something from seed to plant, it becomes less abstracted. You see the vitality, the context and the life behind the thing. If you’re engaged with it, you’re less likely to treat it as a commodity.

Our modern-day food system seems to be characterized by a lack of connection.

There’s a cognitive dissonance that occurs. I think it allows a lot of people to wilfully remove themselves from the discussion. That’s why a lot of people think that simply choosing which things you eat – not how those things are produced – is enough. Suffering is going to happen on a fairly large scale because of indifference and a lack of relationship to what you’re consuming.

Flourless ash-coated gnocchi with baby kale and Middle Eastern spices

Vegans do seem to have a lockdown on the environmental side of the argument.

Generally speaking that is true. But even with organic food, with the production of arugula, or rice, or lentils, these things are really problematic environmentally. Not as problematic as meat, but it’s only a matter of degrees. The almond industry is laughable. Avocados have a huge impact. There is a smugness about meat consumption. The means of production can be problematic whether it’s meat or a vegetable.

What kind of mental preparation did you need to do to open a vegan restaurant?

I’ve been working toward this for a long time. I was a vegetarian for a while. In my 20s, I started getting into Buddhist cooking, and that has been the main reference point for me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how modes of consumption create you. It’s not just that if you eat better food you become healthier, but the way you think about food has an effect on your mentality – and therefore, the world changes. You constitute the world and it constitutes you. You can cook anything with pork fat and have it taste good. Eggs are magical. How did you deal with the loss of these tools? I have to keep reminding myself that those things are superfluous. They make sense in the context of a world in which we eat highly refined carbohydrates, in which we crave heavily salted, high-protein, oily food. We don’t inherently need these things. You can re-centre that. It takes some faith to do so.

So you don’t feel the need to replace non-vegan ingredients with vegan ones?

Absolutely not. In fact, any point at which I start to even think that, I scrap the dish. My process is to think about why things are good, and what we can do to maintain the characteristics of what makes something good. There has never a point where I think, “this needs to be meaty.” It’s so unnecessary. The idea of a “main course” is a western notion. I don’t think everyone wants or needs a big dose of meat all the time. You can be satiated in a softer way.

In a lot of ways the concept of feeling satiated seems to be a trained one.

In the west we have this idea of having a starter, main course and dessert. But in most of the world, you sit together, and you enjoy different things. Everything is integrated.

The way you think about food affects your mentality

There is no hierarchy.

Exactly. And actually, one of the reasons I wanted to work with Roger [Yang, the co-owner of Awai] is because he comes from a working background where there is no hierarchical structure. He created a telecom company that has a horizontal management system. One of the major problems with restaurants is that they are inherently hierarchical. Auguste Escoffier essentially designed the kitchen brigade, and he did so based on the military. And this translates to the violent mentality you see in kitchens. So that’s one thing we’re trying to do at Awai: how do we fix some of these problems?

You're running a non-hierarchical kitchen?

It’s a difficult thing to navigate, but it’s actually coming together quite nicely. There does seem to be a gender element to it. I’ve been hiring mostly women, and it’s kind of fascinating. There is a real lack of one-up-manship, which I’ve seen constantly in restaurants. We had a couple of guys come in who completely disrupted the flow. It was remarkable how badly it messed stuff up. Here, everyone plates, everyone serves. The cooks run food, and the servers help plate – to the degree that they can or wish to.

Much of the cooking at Awai is done with a traditional wood-fired oven

But doesn’t a hierarchy naturally develop based on skill level?

Everyone has different skills. There is physical capacity, or acumen, or knowledge. They all have legitimacy. And some people combine a few different ones. You can’t take one of those and impose authority over another. That’s tyranny. You can have a discussion about the best strategy to do something. One of my cooks is very good with the wood-fired oven, for example, so I defer to her on that.

So how do you achieve a consistent artistic vision if everyone has equal say?

Why would we want a consistent artistic vision based on a tyrannical exercise? It’s not necessary. I have a sensibility that I bring, and I try to bring in people who are within that same orientation. I’m fundamentally an anarchist. Everyone, given the opportunity to do so, will get together to make something work – generally speaking. I’ve seen the ways in which restaurants can change people in positive ways or negative ways.

What are some examples of both?

Let’s start with a negative one. There are places like the Black Hoof. As much as there were interesting things that came out of that restaurant, it was the pinnacle of cynical meat consumption. It’s like a type of nihilism, or violence porn. It’s as if doubling down on the concept of killing on a large scale is a way of brushing aside any ethical considerations.

Sometimes the ethics of eating are so fraught that you think, “I am a destructive force, and I need to embrace that.”

That type of nihilism is an impulse that I understand. But you shouldn’t make decisions based on that mentality.

Awai is an indefinable flavour, a taste of the delicate

How about the fact that the Black Hoof taught a generation of people who rarely ate off-cuts to eat the whole animal?

In the past I thought, “If you eat the whole animal, you’re fine.” But that’s like having a hybrid car that you drive twice as much because you’re using half the energy. Having heart tartare on the menu doesn’t change the discussion. And you can see the trajectory that the chef [Grant van Gameren] has gone on, and it’s not very thoughtful. You can’t just eat octopus without thinking about it. It’s an animal that needs consideration. In the same way you can’t say veganism is the only ethical choice, you can’t valorize that type of meat-eating. There are no positions you can take that will absolve you of having to think about each and every choice you make.

What are some examples of positive Toronto restaurants?

Avalon was the first restaurant I worked at in Toronto. And Chris McDonald was a huge influence for using ingredients to their fullest potential. He’s one of the smartest, most thoughtful chefs I’ve met. He changed food culture for the better by infusing it with a bit of thought. Jamie Kennedy is another one. It’s a trio: Jamie Kennedy, Michael Stadtländer and Chris McDonald.

Awai grows its own microgreens, such as wild thyme, tobacco and mustard greens

What is the significance of the name of your new restaurant?

I read about the notion of awai in a Buddhist cookbook. Awai is an indefinable flavour – it’s the taste of the delicate, or a taste of the sublime. Something ethereal, but something intrinsic to the ingredient that you can draw out with mindful preparation. That passage in the book blew my mind and changed the way I thought about food in one go. Instead of acting upon an ingredient to create something different, you’re drawing something out of the ingredient.

Are you going to do pay-what-you-want?

We do offer pay-what-you-want as an option. It’s definitely resonating, but some people prefer a menu. Awai is on a temporary lease. There is a demolition clause, so it’s like I’ve been commissioned to do something. This is a good opportunity to experiment and play.