Two years ago, when Andrea Kerzner—founder of the nonprofit Lalela, and daughter of South African super-hotelier Sol Kerzner—discovered how the meat industry was fueling climate change, she decided to open a casual plant-based restaurant that focused on the ultimate comfort food: burgers. She set out to find the best chef for the job, interviewing several candidates before finding Amanda Cohen, the executive chef and owner of Dirt Candy, an award-winning vegetarian restaurant that has been in New York City since 2008.
“I met with Amanda and literally there and then I could see her passion for food,” says Kerzner. “Within 24 hours, she agreed to work with me.”
The two set about creating Lekka (Afrikaans slang for “delicious”), an all-vegan restaurant that opens November 19th in Tribeca. The restaurant’s signature dish is a vegan burger, served five different ways.
For Cohen, creating a plant-based burger required overcoming some of her own prejudices. “We haven’t had a burger ever on the menu at Dirt Candy. And I had been against it, to be brutally honest,” says Cohen. “I guess I was really against all these vegan burger places because, well, it’s not really advancing the dialogue of food. They’re just all making the same thing over and over again. But then I realized that I was just being snotty, and actually everybody wants to eat a really good burger. And that there was a way to advance the dialogue of food, which was by making a better burger.”
But with the recent popularity of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, as well as the expansion of vegetarian spots like By Chloe, does the world really need another veggie burger?
In a word, yes.
“Why do omnivores get to have burger places all over the country?” counters Cohen. “There are tons of regular burger places and people keep coming up with new regular burger places and people keep adding regular burgers to the market. There’s certainly room for lots more plant-based foods on the market. And we think we have a really different product.”
Cohen doesn’t hold back on her opinions of the current veggie burgers on the market. “My experience of eating of veggie burgers has always been that if they’re soy based, then they hold together but they’re really chewy and they don’t have a great flavor. And if they’re like bean and mushroom based or whatever else, they’re really squishy. You end up with a pile of mush on a bun,” she says.
Cohen insists her burger is better, and she might be right. In a recent tasting, Lekka’s burger was tender yet firm, juicy, and, perhaps most importantly, it had the taste of real flame-grilled goodness. This comes from actually grilling the patties, something a lot of plant-based burgers can’t stand up to. “Because we can grill it, we don’t have to rely on a lot of other flavors,” Cohen points out.
So what exactly is in her plant-based, chemical-free burger? While Cohen won’t go into too much detail, she shares that there are about 14 easy-to-get ingredients, including salt, oil, flour, cannellini beans, chili peppers, and portobello mushrooms. The real secret, though, comes with the technique, something she learned during a workshop with Chinese food scholars where they tested Song dynasty recipes that dated back 900 years. There, she discovered yuguanfei, an ancient fake meat made with fried dough and red yeast rice, which provides the meat-like color.
“When it came out of the pot, I was like A, this is delicious. B, this is 900 years old, and C, I'm using this one day,” recalls Cohen.
Cohen’s burger patty appears in five sandwiches, all of which are served on a housemade vegan Japanese-style milk bun. The basic Lekka Burger comes topped with ketchup, mustard, veganaise, lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickles. Other variations include a “cheeseburger” (with vegan cheese) and veggie burgers topped with African chili pepper sauce or guacamole. In addition to the requisite side of fries (crinkly-cut in this case), Cohen also has salads and vegan milkshakes on the menu.
Because the whole point of the venture was to help the environment, Lekka plans to donate all the profits from the merchandise sold in the store—which includes handbags made from recycled bottles in South Africa—to the local nonprofit Grow NYC, which run various environmental programs in the city.
Here’s to a better veggie burger, and to being more sustainable in the process.
Originally Appeared on Vogue