Ubuntu’s Jeremy Fox: for the love of vegetables
ASPEN Talk with Jeremy Fox about Ubuntu, the vegetarian restaurant in downtown Napa where he is chef and minority owner, and it takes awhile to get around to such topics as the environment and the welfare of animals. A long while. In fact, he doesnt bring it up, though when such subjects do arise, he expresses a predictably conscientious view: Were trying to decrease our carbon footprint, says the 31-year-old, a native of Atlanta. Use less grease. Less garbage. Less slaughter of animals.If Fox seems to give short shrift to such concerns, it might be because he isnt entirely sold on the social underpinnings of vegetarianism. He is, as it turns out, an omnivore. Aside from that, his political interests take a back seat to his desire to make vegetables taste astoundingly good, to the point where diners and Fox himself dont miss such ingredients as pork belly and blood sausage.Its not too political, said Fox. Were trying to give vegetables their moment in the spotlight.For giving veggies their moment in the sun, Fox is getting his own. He comes to Aspen to be honored as one of Food & Wine magazines 10 Best New Chefs, becoming the first chef of a vegetarian restaurant to be so recognized. The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen takes place Friday through Sunday, June 13-15.Fox got a heavy taste of vegetables while working at Manresa, David Kinchs Los Gatos, Calif., establishment that put ingredients from the garden on the same plane as meats and fish. A few years ago, friends arranged for Fox, who had become chef de cuisine in a second stint at Manresa, to meet with Sandy Lawrence. Lawrence was proposing that Fox take a position as chef and partner in a combination yoga studio/meat-free restaurant. It took only a few minutes for Fox to realize that their visions merged perfectly, and in August of last year the two opened Ubuntu.
Fox doesnt love the word vegetarian to describe the restaurant. For one, the sort of ambitious cuisine Fox was thinking of creating didnt fit well with most peoples notions of vegetarian spots. For another, he doesnt emphasize the meat substitutes that are almost always tucked into the menus of such places. Fox is about bringing the possibilities out of genuine vegetables.We call it a vegetable restaurant. Were highlighting vegetables. Not replacing meat with seitan, tofu, but introducing vegetables to people in a way they had not seen, said Fox, whose resume includes training at Johnson and Wales University in South Carolina, and jobs in the kitchens of Rubicon and Charles Nob Hill, both in San Francisco, and in London at Gordon Ramsey. For a lot of vegetarian restaurants, theres not a lot of vegetables, not highlighting the actual vegetables. Its more grains, fake meats.On the other hand, theres Foxs signature dish cauliflower in a cast iron pan. It features roasted cauliflower, layered with cauliflower puree, and a cous cous that includes more cauliflower. It is then baked with a brown butter vadouvan a fragrant curry mixture made in Foxs kitchen. Another dish he mentioned starts with raw baby radishes, is topped with whipped goat cheese flavored with nori, and is then mixed with a dressing of vinegar, mustard, and black salt. He has become a huge fan of kohl rabi, a root vegetable whose flavor Fox says is somewhere between turnips and cabbage, and which he finds numerous uses for.Fox, who lived briefly in Aspen, in 2002, says he doesnt miss cooking meat. Hes continually challenged by the potential of vegetables, and using vegetables so extensively doesnt leave much time for pondering much else. Its a lot more work to clean a bunch of turnips than it is to portion a piece of beef tenderloin, he said.As far as the socio-political end of his venture, maybe the truth is that Fox walks it more than he talks it. A major component of the philosophy behind Ubuntu is how local and fresh Foxs ingredients are. The major portion of his vegetables come from the acre-and-a-half garden six miles from the restaurant. Ubuntu employs a head gardener as well as someone who does the daily planting and picking. Fox makes regular visits to see what is looking ripe, tempting, and inspiring.Foxs view on the big picture might be summed up in the name of the restaurant; Ubuntu is a Zulu word which loosely translates to humanity towards others.
Jim Burke, 34, of the seasonally attuned, modern Italian restaurant James, in the Bella Vista neighborhood of South PhiladelphiaGerard Craft, 28, of the freshness-focused Niche (as well as the adjoining Veruca Bakeshop & Caf) in St. Louis Benton Park areaTim Cushman, 55, a veteran restaurant consultant who returned to his native Boston to open the Japanese-influenced O YaKoren Grieveson, 36, a South African native and a world traveler from childhood, whose Chicago wine bar Avec is inspired by the food of Europes wine-making regionsMichael Psilakis, 38, a first-generation American from a Greek family, has leaned on his heritage to build a small empire that includes New York-area empire that includes Anthos, Kefi and his latest, Mia DonaEthan Stowell, 33, a self-trained Seattlite who changes the menu daily at his UnionGiuseppe Tentori, 35, an Italian native, combines ingredients wild striped bass and veal tongue in one dish at his Chicago spot, BokaEric Warnstedt, 32, relies on the farms and seas of New England for the menus of Hen of the Wood, in Waterbury, VermontSue Zemanick, 26, lit out from the Northeast with her eye on New Orleans, where she added her touch with seafood to the long-running Gautreaus