The Organic Holiday Party

By Nora Zelevansky / November 1, 2012

Photography by Natasha Phillips

Recreating Mom’s classic dishes for the holidays is always a festive choice. At least, it seems that way until we realize exactly how many sticks of butter, out of season frozen fruits and heaping tablespoons of Crisco are involved.

All is not lost. We can create versions of those traditional holiday treats—and even innovative new favorites—without clogging our arteries and wasting resources in the process. Just ask husband-and-wife team Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza, who pioneered organic dining in New York with their restaurants Candle Café, romantic fine dining hotspot Candle 79 and, most recently, the new Candle Café West on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They’ve also published two cookbooks and launched a line for Whole Foods.

The duo—supported by their expert team of chefs, sommeliers and mixologists—clearly knows a thing or two about creating a healthy but truly sumptuous holiday spread. (The food happens to be vegan, but that’s really a footnote to the organic, socially responsible and healthy mandate here.) “The food is the convincing factor,” says Pierson. “Once people taste it, they realize they don’t have to compromise. Ninety percent of our customers are carnivores. Eating this way just makes you feel good.” Devotees include Paul McCartney, Woody Harrelson and Alicia Silverstone, to name a few.

Here, the restaurateurs guide us through creating our own organic holiday feast. This healthier supper still evokes happy memories of traditional family gatherings past, but, in the best possible way, this is not your mama’s holiday spread.

The Set Up

Before the food is even prepared, it’s important to set the right tone. “Healthy to us means that it not only does no harm to the individual, the planet, or others, but that it also nourishes the body, the soul, and the community,” says Pierson.

Leading by example, the owners are notably respectful of their staff (which, for us at home, might correspond to not snapping at a spouse or other family members acting as sous chefs). The “flow of energy” in the space is important too. For their newest restaurant, they brought in Feng Shui expert Judith Wendell of Sacred Currents and recommend reading up on the interior design practice, as there are some smaller, easy adjustments to make.

The Food

As Potenza explains, raised awareness about farming practices and the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables now available have helped to elevate organic cooking. The freshness of ingredients is key. “When we think ‘traditional,’ we think of food that comes straight from the earth and from the farm,” says Pierson. “The biggest pitfall is when individuals don’t take advantage of all the fresh vegetables, herbs, and spices available. Sage, rosemary and thyme are exciting touches to add to holiday meals. These ingredients, at their peak, are bursting with flavor.”

Executive Chef Angel Ramos and Chef Jorge Pineda first learned to cook from their mother and grandmother respectively. Thanks to a passion for food, they’ve managed to harness those traditional styles, cooking with 98 percent organic ingredients, locally sourced as much as possible, which they say “just tastes better.” And preparing healthy food does not limit innovation to what’s simple or dull. The team regularly frequents the most haute restaurants to get a sense of what’s trending and to compare their own translations. “The secret is that any dessert can be vegan because every ingredient has a more friendly substitute,” says Pineda, whose specialty is desserts. “For eggs, there are flax seeds. For butter, there are non-dairy vegetable based options. For milks and creams, there are almond, rice, soy, and many other non-dairy alternatives.” Adds Ramos, “We can combine and play to create all different types of international cuisine.”

That includes nut-based cheese plates, root vegetable-filled dishes like risotto cakes with butternut squash veloute and roasted brussels sprouts with dried cherries and a poblano dressing and desserts like sweet potato cheesecake with vanilla frosting and candied almonds, pumpkin cake with lavender sauce (the last perhaps inspired by Ramos’ Mexican background). These two even make their own almond milk, so they know the source of the product.

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“When I make a drink, I want it to be well-balanced with a layered sphere of flavors, so I experiment with a lot of herbs and fruits,” says mixologist Gabriela Martinez


The Festivities

Much to the relief of newbies at the healthy food table, alcohol is abundant. “Organic wine has gotten better and better since I’ve been in the industry,” says sommelier Cynthia Goddeau [See Link at End of Article]. “And vegan food has evolved so much over the years, so I love the challenge of pairing the wines and flavors.”

Even specialty cocktails can be responsibly created, according to mixologist Gabriela Martinez. For the bar, she searches out spirit companies that are not only using organic and sustainable grains and raw materials in small batches, but that find ways to “help their neighbors” through charitable foundations and organizations.

Garden ingredients come into play here too. “When I make a drink, I want it to be well-balanced with a layered sphere of flavors,” says Martinez, “so I experiment with a lot of herbs and fruits.” That mindset was behind the creation of their Rum Punch and, created by Liverpool-born bartender Stephen King (no relation to the writer!), the Mistletoe with Pedro Jimenez sherry, sweet vermouth and Berkshire Bourbon, served in a snifter with clove smoke. “When you smell it, it’s like being in a cozy cabin in the woods in front of a fireplace,” Martinez laughs.

Wine Pairings for this Article

Recipes for this Article

Cocktails for this Article

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky

Nora Zelevansky is the author of upcoming novel, Will You Won't You Want Me?, and Semi-Charmed Life. Her writing has appeared in ELLE, T Magazine (The New York Times), Town & Country, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair, among others. She lives with her husband and daughter in Brooklyn, New York.
Nora Zelevansky

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