In-Depth Interview with Owner of Manhattan’s Freshest Vegan Restaurant
“I never thought this was where I’d end up with my life,” restaurateur Ravi DeRossi tells me over the phone during our hour-long interview.
Indeed, the 40-year-old owner of Death & Company, The Bourgeois Pig, Mayahuel, Cienfuegos, Amor y Amargo, Desnuda, 124 Rabbit Club, Proletariat, Bergen Hill, Post Office Bar, Riddling Widow, Sol (closed), Mother of Pearl (formerly Gin Palace) and Avant Garden wasn’t always on a trajectory towards working in the adult beverage business. The Brooklyn-based entrepreneur began his career as a visual artist, selling paintings to people of means in New York and Europe. Until September 11, 2001. That date changed everything for DeRossi. The world was different after that, and the effects were no less felt by this painter in his mid-twenties struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan.
With the economy collapsing and few folks collecting canvas, DeRossi left for New Mexico, where he dabbled in theater. But he was depressed and drinking profusely and wound up getting arrested. After roughly a week behind bars, his father traveled to Santa Fe from Boulder — where DeRossi grew up — and bailed his son out of jail. At that time, DeRossi’s mother was in the midst of opening a gourmet grocery, café and wine shop. So DeRossi stayed on in Colorado to assist.
DeRossi recalls thinking, “I have nothing in my life right now. I’ll help my mom.” Though he hated it, he learned a lot. After a challenging first year, the second year brought success.
“There was an article in the local paper, and then business exploded. It was a really neat thing. It ended up doing really well. Two years later we sold it for five times what we would have accepted. We paid our debts and I immediately moved back to New York. I ended up living on East 7th Street, wondering what I was going to do.”
The Bourgeois Pig would be his entry into the world of food and drink in New York. It was a hit, and remains so to this day. Following this, DeRossi opened bar after bar, restaurant after restaurant.
Coincidentally, where he was living upon first returning to NYC is the very same street on which his 100% vegan fine dining restaurant opened earlier this season. Avant Garden — located at 130 East 7th Street — has been generating buzz since its announcement in May. Finally, four months later, the intimate space (formerly occupied by Gingersnap’s Organic) launched as this tasteful and tasty place for vegans and non-vegans alike.
“I hope all the vegans come here and love it, but it’s more important to me that non-vegans come here,” DeRossi says.
Executive chef Andrew D’Ambrosi and his skilled line cooks prepare vegetable-laden dishes in the open kitchen, which stretches along ten counter seats for an up-close and personal view of how menu items are assembled. (From experience I can assure that this is a transfixing place to perch for a meal.) With twenty seats occupying the remainder of the cozy eatery, Avant Garden proves a crowded but comfortable spot to dine and drink wine. Deliberately absent a cocktail program, things wind down by 11PM–12AM seven nights a week. Currently Avant Garden is open only for dinner, from 5PM. And the food is delicious — inventive yet familiar, flavorful and fresh. From what I tried I highly recommend the tomato jam, pickled peach, tomato, almond ricotta and basil toast; the quinoa tabouleh, apricot, couscous, onion, preserved lemon and pumpkin seed salad; the king oyster, maitake, smoked macadamia and crispy leeks entrée; and the singular dessert, a pudding made from bamboo rice cooked in coconut milk, scented with lemongrass and kaffir lime with cinnamon-dusted diced mango and calamansi-lime sorbet.
But enough about what you should order at Avant Garden. Read on to learn more directly from the Brooklyn-based bachelor and avid pet parent Ravi DeRossi — about his on again off again relationship with veganism; his preferred way to spend nights; his inherent and admitted hypocrisy when it comes to animal rights; his decision to hire a non-vegan chef to helm Avant Garden; and his latest passion project, a nonprofit known as B.E.A.S.T.
First things first: Are you vegan?
I am about 98% vegan. The only time I ever eat any animal products is when I’m tasting dishes that are going on [my] menus. I taste them just to make sure they’re good. But I’m in the process of phasing that out; I finally have a guy that works for me whose palate I trust. It’s exceptional. I trust him to taste everything on my behalf.
Were you raised vegan?
I’m half Indian, half Italian. But even my Italian side grew up in India. But I’m American. I was born here. My family’s not vegan. Nobody in my family is. But there was always so much Indian food around, and Indian food is mostly vegan. It was really easy to keep meat out of my diet. I don’t know what compelled me, because I started really young. I didn’t have this passion for animals. We had had two dogs growing up, but I was never close to them. I just chose not to eat meat. And I didn’t [eat meat] for a very long time.
Why did you veer away from veganism?
There [have] been a few times in my life where I went away from it and then went back to it. I’m going to be brutally honest; some of this stuff is terrible, but it’s true. I was in art school in New York and had been vegan going in, but I was broke. This was 20 some odd years ago. I had no money. The little money I had I spent on alcohol. And I was drinking too much. Obviously. There was one bar between my house and my school [that] offered free food if you spent money on alcohol. I think it’s still there. It was garbage. That would be my meal of the day every day on my way home. That last[ed] about a year, [until] I was disgusted with myself.
So why in more recent years as a successful restaurateur and bar owner? Beyond the menu assessing?
Being in the bar business, I was drinking a ton. I was drinking every day. Your consciousness gets repressed. Eventually, after drinking every day for long enough, it no longer existed. It wasn’t until probably 5 years ago — I had opened 7 or 8 bars by that time, was working every night until, like, 4 or 5 in the morning, drinking every night and living conscious-free — [that] I started sobering up.
At some point my [then] girlfriend convinced me to adopt a dog. I hadn’t had animals in my life in a very long time. So we rescued this pit-bull German shepherd mix from Hurricane Katrina. And we ended up adopting a second dog. Then we found a cat living in the basement of one of my bars. And then we found another cat. As I had two dogs and four cats living around me, my conscious started coming back. I realized this love I had for these animals; how much they changed me. I didn’t want to go out at night and drink anymore. I wanted to be home with Honeybee and Cajun Queen and my cats, which is part of the reason why I cut my alcohol intake by 95%. That got me back to where I was before I started drinking so much.
Do you still have these companion animals?
I moved to Carroll Gardens because of them. I prefer living in the city. I used to be a snob about it, tell[ing] people, I leave the country more often than I [go] to Brooklyn. But…now I have a huge backyard.
Given your recognition and acknowledgement of animal suffering for food, etc., how does it make you feel to own and run restaurants and bars that feature animal products, from the menu to the furniture?
It’s terrible. I get it. It’s total hypocrisy. People call me out on it all the time. When I got into this industry, I didn’t have a conscience and it didn’t faze me. Now my conscious is dominating my life. That’s why I’m doing Avant Garden; that’s why I’m doing B.E.A.S.T.; that’s why I’m adding vegan menus to all my venues. I have a two-year plan: My intention is to sell all my bars. I want out. I will hold onto Death & Co. because we’re getting rid of the food. People don’t go there [for food]. It’s a cocktail bar. Our food sales are, like, 1%. There’s no reason to have food. And we’re also opening Death & Co. in L.A. I have no problem ruining people’s lives with alcohol; I don’t want to ruin animals’ lives. I’m going to do a fast-casual spin-off of Avant Garden. I think it’s going to be called Avant Garden as well. I’ll do that in New York and, if it’s going well, we’ll probably do 1, 2, 3 locations. And then, as we’re selling everything off, my intention is to put that money towards branding and expanding Avant Garden across the country. I will open Avant Garden, a fine dining restaurant, in Hollywood. And I’ll probably end up moving to L.A. at some point. It’s either that or I’m going to move upstate somewhere. Or both. I’m pretty good at making things happen. When I get an idea and I want to do it, I do it. My plan is to have Avant Garden fine dining, which will probably end up opening in a few cities. Definitely L.A. second. I have a lot of friends in the animal rights world there. Maybe Miami, Chicago. Then, the fast-casual line. The idea would be to make it as big as any fast-casual restaurant that has thousands of locations. I think it’s about time. So, to get back to the hypocrisy of what I do — there’s a huge hypocrisy to what I do — I’m working to change that.
Can you tell me more about B.E.A.S.T.?
B.E.A.S.T. (Benefits to End Animal Suffering Today) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. After adopting dogs and cats, animals became really important to me. It just made sense. What can I do to help? Open a vegan restaurant? I can do that.
Death & Co. is considered one of the trendiest bars in the world. We have a wait list seven nights a week. Without sounding like an arrogant asshole, I want to capitalize on that for animal rights. So I’m gonna start B.E.A.S.T. I’m gonna throw really cool parties and charge people to attend. The idea is to do all these parties and raise all this money.
To which organizations will the money you raise go?
When it comes to animal rights, everybody needs money. The idea is to give it to organizations that are on the ground getting shit done.
Small organizations are having a harder time raising money. That’s who I want to help the most. When it comes to which animals, to me, they’re all the same. I just read about the bear bile farms in China and it breaks my heart. And I love Sea Shepherd. Last year for Christmas I bought all 200 employees Sea Shepherd hats and sweatshirts. But I don’t want to name anyone just yet.
Once B.E.A.S.T. launches, we’re gonna take our B.E.A.S.T. logo and make stencils out of it and chalk paint or spray-paint it all over New York. A little guerilla marketing. Once the money starts coming in, 100% will go to different organizations doing cool shit. And if you get the B.E.A.S.T. logo tattoo anywhere on your body, I’ll donate $1000.
Speaking of money, are you working with investors for Avant Garden?
There [are] no investors, just me. I don’t use investors that often. Having investors sucks.
Remind me again how you came to open Avant Garden…
Remember, I hate mushrooms. Bergin Hill’s Andrew D’Ambrosi made me a hen of the woods dish that happened to be vegan and it was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Over the next year-and-a-half he made me 20 different vegetable dishes that I thought were amazing. I said, Let’s open a restaurant.
So, why enlist a non-vegan as Avant Garden’s executive chef?
Andrew just wants to make great food. He’s a really great chef. He makes very good vegan food, and that’s all it comes down to. I think he sees it as a challenge. If down the line I can convert [Andrew] to being vegan, I will. If we [launch] Avant Garden fast-casual, and Andrew does that with me, then I’ll probably make him go vegan. I say that lightheartedly, but it’d be nice if he did.
What’s your favorite type of food?
Probably Indian. There’s this restaurant called Dosa Royale. Fucking amazing. They’re not fully vegan, but they’re probably 50% vegan. I eat there, like, three times a week. And I order from Wild Ginger, the vegan Thai restaurant. I really love their food. I go to Juicy Lucy every day for lunch when I’m at the office. I just love their tofu hot dogs.
Why does eating vegan in 2015 make sense?
The obvious: [Farm] animals. But it’s also environmental. There [are] millions of environmental reasons. So many [wild] animals are going extinct and the oceans are running out of fish. [Animal agriculture] is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gases and global warming. If you don’t give a shit about [farm] animals, but you care about the planet, it’s a huge reason to go vegan.
Lastly, where are you from?
I’m from New York, but I moved to Boulder, Colorado when I was young, around 11–12. So most of my [youth was spent] in Boulder. New York always felt like home. Boulder’s never felt like home. But I’ve lived all over: LA, New Orleans, London, Europe — Greece, Paris, Spain. But I always kept coming back to New York. It always felt like this was where I was supposed to be.
All photos courtesy of Avant Garden.