There’s no denying that sushi has become something of a modern staple in the American diet, especially when it comes to cities like New York. Even for those who aren’t particularly thrilled enticed by the prospect of munching on raw fish – fair enough – veggie options and picks with cooked seafood have managed to widen the fanbase of the popular Japanese dish. But one of the newest concepts in sushi innovation is taking sushi somewhere it hasn’t quite gone before. Launched by New York-based chef Guy Vaknin, Beyond Sushi is an eatery dedicated to entirely vegan and vegetarian sushi, where unique vegetable combinations and creative takes on a popular food are the star of the show. Here, we chat with Vaknin about what inspired him to shake up the sushi scene, how he goes about developing his rolls, and just what people need to keep in mind when it comes to preparing their own healthy meals at home.
Tell us a little more about yourself and what made you want to get into cooking.
I was born and raised in a small town in the south of Israel and came to the US in 2005, was raised by a single mother and spent a lot of time with my grandma in the kitchen and always was pulled to food. My father moved here in the 90s and opened restaurants so when I moved here that was my door to professional cooking.
Why did you decide to open up a completely vegan sushi restaurant?
I actually did not. Beyond Sushi started out as vegetarian and moved to being vegan two weeks after opening, mainly because I was inspired by my customers who wanted it. So, like anything in life, the concept evolved, as did I and my cooking.
How do you come up with the ideas for the rolls on your menu?
I was very fortunate to open my first location by Union Square and had the farmer’s market there three times a week. I would walk around the market and pick out things that were out of my comfort zone and play around in the kitchen with flavors, textures and colors until it felt right.
Is it tough coming up with new ways to pair different ingredients, like when you’re pairing fruits with vegetables?
I see it as a challenge. I do not put any limitations on it. I usually create from memory. I have very vivid memories of flavors. It’s kind of crazy, but just thinking about a flavor, I can taste it, so that helps me think of flavors that will go together.
What is the most popular sushi roll on the menu?
Spicy mang. (That includes black rice, avocado, mango, and English cucumber topped with spicy veggies, and is served with a toasted cayenne sauce.)
Was there ever an idea or an ingredient combination that you experimented with for a roll that just didn’t work out well?
I tried to work with sautéed greens in the past but they were too watery. The flavors were great and I would love to incorporate them in the sushi, but it wouldn’t hold together.
Are these vegan rolls meant to be eaten like regular sushi – with toppings like soy sauce and wasabi, for example – or do they call for different sauces and toppings to go with their flavors?
I look at the sushi we make as a package that holds all the flavors together for a perfect bite. So every sushi has a unique sauce and topping to compliment the flavors of the ingredients inside. However, it’s hard enough to get people to believe that sushi without fish is good, and it would be extra hard if you take things like the soy, wasabi, and ginger away, so we serve our rolls with all of the above condiments, too.
The different items on your menu all have such fun names. How do you come up with those?
I come up with the recipes and food and my partner in life and business, Tali, is the mastermind behind those names. Most of them are a take on the ingredients in the dish.
You and your wife Tali have opened several locations since first starting the business. Did people have a positive reception to this concept right from the start, or was it hard getting people on board with such a new spin on a popular food?
It was very hard to convince the non-vegetarian people to try it at first, but after they did, they kept coming back. Today, over 50 percent of the people coming and dining at our restaurants are non-vegetarians, and the vegan community helped us a lot with that.
What are some of the benefits of working primarily with locally-sourced ingredients, either nutritional or otherwise?
I always say the great ingredients produce a great final product, so using local is using the freshest ingredients out there especially when we talk about produce.
What is one healthy ingredient in your kitchen that can be challenging to work with at times?
There isn’t one specifically. I see all ingredients as a challenge in getting the most out of them and in the best way possible with the biggest yield being the goal.
What is something that you think a lot of people don’t realize about healthy cooking?
That it’s not hard to make it tasty. Just keep it balanced and out-of-the-box, and keep trying until it works!
What is your biggest tip for people trying to create healthy dishes from scratch in their own kitchens?
Don’t be scared to go wild and be foolish. Learn, taste and adjust next time.