When chef Rich Landau opened the meat-free, dairy-free Horizons Café in Willow Grove in 1994, he stayed as far away from the word “vegan” as possible. Almost 25 years later, it’s a very different scene. Landau and Kate Jacoby, his wife and business partner, are running a vegan empire in Philadelphia and printing the once-taboo word right on the cups and takeout bags at Wiz Kid. The vegan cheesesteak shop, Eater Philly’s 2017 Fast-Casual Restaurant of the Year, is a hit in Philadelphia without a steak or vat of Cheez Whiz in sight. Thanks to chefs like Landau, veganism is cool.
It’s not just Philly’s sizable population of passionate sandwich connoisseurs who appreciate Landau’s efforts. With Wiz Kid, V Street, Vedge, and the upcoming Fancy Radish to his name, Landau is in the running for the James Beard Award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region.
“To some people, ‘vegan’ still sounds like an apology, like a focus on what you’re not getting. We’re all about flavor. We’re all about food. Forget that there’s meat in it or not. It’s good food — enjoy it,” Landau says. “There’s an ethical mission behind our restaurants, but there’s a culinary mission too: Please, people, stop getting hung up on the fact that something tastes so good because it’s meat. It’s what chef do to it that tastes so good.”
Wiz Kid, opened in August 2017, serves a short list of sandwiches, including the signature cheesesteak and the KFT: Korean fried tempeh. A couple of salads and desserts round out the menu and, unusual for a counter-service spot in Philly, Wiz Kid also serves wine, beer, and cocktails.
“I love going to places where serious chefs who have accomplished a lot say, ‘You know what? I’m just going to make a f—ing sandwich right now,’” Landau says. “And man is that just a win-win for everybody.”
Eater spoke with Landau about Wiz Kid’s sandwich success, his vivid memories of eating meat, and being “99 percent vegan.”
Eater: How have things been going at Wiz Kid?
Rich Landau: To me, Wiz Kid is like a dream come true. I started off doing this 24 years ago — April 21, 1994, I opened Horizons Café in Willow Grove serving this very kind of food. It’s a little different now, of course, and I’ve learned a lot since then. But this is the food I want to eat, every day. This the food, when I wake up in the morning, I think, “I want to get over there and eat this.” It’s just been a source of joy for us.
Had you always planned to do a casual place like Wiz Kid after Vedge and V Street?
Wiz Kid was supposed to open years ago under the name Vedge Out, as Vedge’s sandwich shop. And for one reason or another it just got put on the shelf. So we opened V Street in the meantime — we made several trips to Asia, Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean, and we were just so inspired by the street food flavors. Also at this point Vedge was becoming fancier. It was supposed to be much more casual than it is, yet every vegan from the tri-state area was coming in all dressed up for their anniversaries and birthdays. The thing is, not everyone eats an elaborate dinner every day, and not everyone wants the boldly spiced street food that’s at V Street every night. Wiz Kid is something I want to eat every single day, and I’m hoping everyone else does too.
The design of Wiz Kid is different from the others, with the bright colors and mural.
Kate’s design [at Wiz Kid] is, I think, her best yet. It’s so fun — it’s whimsical but edgy, badass and serious at the same time. Wiz Kid has been a success on so many levels for us. You walk in, especially around 6 or 7 o’clock when the dinner people are coming in, and it’s bustling and buzzing and people are smiling. It’s just so much fun.
How long have you been vegan for?
I’m only like 99 percent vegan. Our house is vegan, our restaurants are vegan. Every now and then when we go out to dinner and the chef sends us something with cheese, I’ll indulge. I try not to do it that often because it makes me feel like s—. Once you get dairy out of your system it’s very, very hard to put it back in because none of us are meant to eat it. I never understood this before because I was a cheese fanatic. But once it’s out, your body has a hard time with it.
But you’ve been mostly vegan for a long time?
I started off with vegetarianism in my teens. Back then the word “vegan” was unheard of. Going vegan was so, so slow for me. A lot of people have this cold turkey moment: “And that’s when I put down the Big Mac and picked up my kale.” That never happened to me. But I’ve been in this plant-based eating state of mind since I was about 16 years old. I’ve fallen off the wagon, but it’s always been a progression toward a cleaner way of life ever since then.
So it’s been a while since you’ve had a sandwich with meat. A real cheesesteak.
I lived on the stuff when I was a kid. My passions were cheesesteaks, hoagies, corned beef specials, turkey clubs, meatball sandwiches. You know how the French have their mother sauces? I have my mother sandwiches. That’s all I ate. And I never ever have forgotten those flavors. I have vivid memories of what they tasted like. Twenty, 30 years later, I’m still craving this stuff because of those memories. I use that as my tool to build these dishes and sandwiches. Because if I forgot what meat tastes like and how satisfying it was and having that gooey greasiness drip down your chin and all that, and I started giving everyone kale burgers and sunflower steaks, I don’t think I’d be very successful.
Is that why you make versions of those sandwiches you remember at Wiz Kid?
There are two types of vegans. Some people gave it up because they’re so disgusted by the taste of meat. I truly miss the taste of meat every day of my life. I just think it’s ethically wrong to partake in the way this is all done. So what does a guy like me do who loves food and craves meat? I make meaty food to satisfy my carnivorous palate, and I hope it translates to people who feel the same way and want to take that next step.
How different is running a vegan restaurant now versus back when you were opening Horizons Café [which relocated from Willow Grove to South Philly in 2006]?
Back in 1994, I didn’t know the word “vegan” existed. Vegetarianism was something that people associated with Woodstock and hippies and wheat germ and carob. I told anyone who was working at Horizons at the time, “We do not use the word ‘vegetarian’ here at all. We’re serving food. This food happens to not have any meat in it.” We became successful because we didn’t subscribe to that cliché of what everyone thought a vegetarian restaurant was. Now, “vegan” is a household word. There are vegan celebrities. Athletes are going vegan. The people like Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay that pick on vegans are starting to look like idiots because they’re getting older and they’re on Lipitor. You go open up a restaurant now and put the word “vegan” across the window and it’s going to do you more good than harm.
Wiz Kid uses the word, right?
It does. Kate and I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not we were going to take this leap and start to use the word “vegan” for the first time. Because it was our M.O. to disassociate ourselves from it. And then we were like, “Wait a second, this is the world that we just helped create. Do we really want to disassociate from something that we kind of had a huge hand in creating?” And we thought, “You know what, let’s really start to embrace it. Now’s the time: Vegan is really cool.”
Wiz Kid (124 S. 19th Street) received the 2017 Eater Award for Fast-Casual Restaurant of the Year. Read the other stories in this series:
- Restaurant of the Year winner Palizzi Social Club
- Chef of the Year winner Michael Solomonov
- Design of the Year winner Walnut Street Cafe