Mérida Anderson remembers when vegan food was scarce in Vancouver. Five years ago, after visiting an underground vegan restaurant in Halifax, she had the irresistible urge to create something similar at home.
So the ceramist and self-taught cook started Vegan Secret Supper, the city’s first vegan dinner club, in her East Van apartment. Once a week, Anderson would welcome paying diners to the cozy attic space for a homemade, multiple-course meal.
When she moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, Anderson took VSS with her. Having relocated to Montreal this past winter, she told the Georgia Straight she plans to keep VSS going there—with occasional pop-ups in Vancouver and New York City—but she’s not sure she wants to host it in her home anymore.
“Your whole living room is tables and chairs,” Anderson said by phone from Quebec’s largest city. “It’s a big—maybe not sacrifice—but it’s a big deal to have it in your house. You keep your house very clean, and everything is set up just so.”
Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press has just published Anderson’s first cookbook, Vegan Secret Supper. Subtitled “Bold & Elegant Menus From a Rogue Kitchen”, the 220-page book offers 150 recipes and plating instructions that allow anyone to re-create the high-end food of VSS at home.
The book will no doubt lead to plenty of plant-based dinner parties, much like its 28-year-old author has inspired a small but vibrant underground vegan-dining scene in Vancouver.
On a recent Saturday night, 17 people gathered for supper over two sittings in the same Mount Pleasant apartment where Anderson founded VSS. This time, however, the chef was Tim Aretz, who runs the monthly vegan dinner club Plate Invaders with his partner, Alissa Raye, Anderson’s former roommate.
From a tiny kitchen, Aretz—who works full-time at Gorilla Food, a raw vegan café in downtown Vancouver—served up a sumptuous, four-course meal featuring an entrée of stacked turnip with mushroom and pecans, marinated sunburst squash, creamy red quinoa, and spicy red-pepper sauce. For the 32-year-old, Plate Invaders provides an opportunity to experiment with cooking techniques and contribute to a burgeoning local vegan-food scene.
“I really don’t cook for vegans,” Aretz said in an interview at the Straight offices. “I want to cook for everybody, and I want to cook really good food that happens to be vegan.”
Plate Invaders charges a sliding scale of $30 to $40 per person, with 10 percent of proceeds donated to nonprofits that help animals. While they started out in August 2012 cooking for their friends—including a visiting Anderson—Aretz and Raye are now seeing strangers subscribe to Plate Invaders’ Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter accounts and reserving by email.
On his Facebook profile, David Isbister posts the menus for PlantBase and usually manages to sell out the vegan secret suppers, which have taken place once or twice a month for the past two years. The 32-year-old autism support worker and singer in the rock band Season to Attack told the Straight that each event involves three days of preparation.
Isbister likes to serve healthy plant-based versions of “indulgent” dishes, such as chicken parmigiana and mac ’n’ cheese, and set the stage for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores to engage in friendly conversation. Dinners range from $28 to $35 and brunches cost around $20, with 10 percent of proceeds going to animal nonprofits as well.
“It’s just fun, and I love cooking,” Isbister said by phone from his Grandview-Woodland home. “It works out really well all around. I like being hospitable.”
Cam Dean considers Bring Yer Own Wine, which has a Facebook profile, a monthly dinner party. What sets BYOW apart from other vegan secret suppers is that Dean, a 29-year-old urban farmer and bike mechanic, grows most of the food.
Attendees pay a suggested donation of $15 to $30 to enjoy Dean’s seasonal vegan cuisine in his Grandview-Woodland apartment. He describes BYOW, which he founded in 2010, as both an artistic and a political endeavour.
“It’s really about how I can live in a conscious, more sustainable way, and how I can share that with other people,” Dean said in an interview at the Straight offices.
While the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Coastal Health do not permit underground restaurants in residential areas, both generally wait for complaints before taking any action, according to spokespeople.
Anderson advises anyone thinking of starting a secret supper to get certified in food safety. In terms of what’s next for VSS and underground vegan dining in general, she sees change on the horizon.
“I think it needs to evolve into something different,” Anderson said. “But I don’t quite know where that will be or what that will be.”