Despite his elaborate multicourse dinners spotlighting cuisines from around the world — think Japanese, Greek, Korean, Italian, Spanish, and Burmese — with dishes ranging from housemade kimchi and spanakopita to mazeman (no-broth ramen), it’s chef Kevin Schuder’s burger that might actually make people sit up and take notice. Which is all the more ironic as the burger, like all the food Schuder makes at Lakeview’s Fancy Plants Cafe, is vegan.
Over the last two years, Fancy Plants has earned its place as a go-to for Chicago’s vegan community with its assortment of classic pastries, breakfast fare, and sandwiches, in addition to specialty coffee and tea drinks. But Schuder’s passion to push the boundaries of what vegan cuisine could look and, more importantly, taste like is always in play. While companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and a number of newcomers fight for market share, Schuder wanted to create something better. “I’m going real hard at attempting to create a new language of vegan cooking,” he says.
The process of learning how to transform seven organic ingredients into a delicious, uber-healthy patty that sears perfectly with just the right crumble and chew is as intriguing as the person who made it. Schuder took the project into research and development overdrive when the restaurant closed over the summer for 50 days due to COVID-19 concerns. The time away from the cafe allowed him to speak with a few food industry veterans for guidance.
Cooking was one of a number of things, along with playing music and writing, Schuder enjoyed while growing up in Ephraim, a village in Door County, Wisconsin. But at age 25, reality hit. “I thought I should probably get my shit together and have some kind of a career,” he says. Cooking, something he had enjoyed doing for friends, aligned with his other interests in culture, nature, and agriculture. Driven by a need “to be a responsible citizen of the world,” Schuder began educating himself about politics, animal welfare, and the environment. “I thought I should cook in such a way that alleviates some of these climate problems,” he says of his passion for vegan cuisine.
He started his professional culinary career at San Francisco’s Millennium, an innovative fine dining vegan restaurant considered by many, including Schuder, to be the best of its type in the country. He spent a couple of “eye-opening” years there before opening a wine bar with Millennium’s sommelier. A second one soon followed.
Success aside, Schuder was itching to know more and committed himself to learning at some of California’s most respected restaurants: Japanese cooking at Izakaya Yuzuki, molecular gastronomy techniques at AQ Restaurant, and California cuisine at Boulettes Larder. Knowledge of fermentation, pasta making, and live-fire cooking was added through various stops elsewhere. “I pursued different angles partially because if I’m already going to compromise by not cooking vegan, I really wanted to learn something from it,” he says. Eventually, Schuder struck out on his own with dinner pop-ups at an Oakland restaurant along with catering gigs.
After 11 years in the Bay Area, Schuder was ready for a change. Chicago appealed to him for its accessibility for small businesses as well as its proximity to his parents in Wisconsin. He resumed hosting vegan dinners and catering out of his house. But when vegan deep-dish specialists Kitchen 17’s original Lakeview location became available after it moved around the corner, Schuder — who is friends with owner Jennie Plasterer — moved in. In January 2019, he opened Fancy Plants Cafe inside the 710-square-foot space. “It’s tiny and weird, but I thought it would make a cute cafe during the day,” he says, “and then the evenings could be free to be more creative and do fun cooking things.”
While the vegan pastries and breakfast sandwiches have earned cult followings of their own, it’s the cutting-edge culinary experiments he conducts in an off-site facility, the results of which can be found in those multicourse dinners as well as grab-and-go items, that have set Schuder’s Fancy Plants Cafe apart from other vegan and vegetable-focused restaurants around town.
Vegan cheese was something Schuder tackled early on, including making a blue cheese cultured with Roquefort bacteria and then aged for a month. That cheese (which, incidentally, is killer as a topping on that vegan burger) is used in a caramelized onion and thyme quiche with a hash-brown crust and Phoenix Bean tofu as the base. After some trial and error, he figured out how to bake melty cashew burrata inside a sweet-savory corn muffin, the latter of which includes their cultured yogurt and whipped aquafaba (the cooking liquid from garbanzo beans). For the restaurant’s take on spanakopita, almond feta replaces the traditional sheep’s milk version. And then there’s Fancy Plants’ lasagna, which layers cashew mozzarella between sheets of house-made pasta and smoked lentils that sub in for ground meat in the Bolognese sauce.
Even Fancy Plants’ simple-sounding chili is anything but, with ingredients ranging from lentil tempeh and black-bean miso to poblano and jalapenos smoked in-house. “There are layers of complexity in our dishes that aren’t always apparent when you read our menu,” says Schuder.
Fermentation is another technique Schuder has embraced, and can be found in a number of Fancy Plants dishes and ingredients. Experimenting with koji, a mold used in the making of sake, soy sauce, and miso, is something Schuder is particularly excited about. Spend any time talking with Schuder and he can’t help but give shout-outs to others, so it’s no shock that he’s quick to credit Jeremy Umansky, who runs Cleveland’s Larder Delicatessen and Bakery and is the author of Koji Alchemy, as inspiration.
Schuder continues to find new ways to use what he was taught: He recently used koji to make miso out of fresh masa he bought in Pilsen.
“It’s only been a few weeks, but I tasted the tamari [the byproduct liquid] and it’s unlike anything I ever had with the most intense corn flavor,” says Schuder.
And then there’s the aforementioned burger. Using lentils and nori as the main ingredients, the burger is grown together with tempeh and a koji culture, a process which not only creates new proteins and vitamins, says Schuder, but also adds umami and helps bind the burger to give it that essential chew. “A lot of the plant-based burgers out there use harsh chemicals and are working really hard to fight with nature,” he says. “Our approach uses a process already in nature. It takes less energy to produce, it’s environmentally a knockout, and I can make a whole lot of them really quickly.”
Given the intense push from fast-food companies touting Beyond and Impossible products, Schuder feels strongly about the burger’s potential for a much larger consumer audience. So much so, in fact, that he’s in the planning stages of opening a new, larger space that could function as the prep kitchen for the burger as well as operate as a central kitchen in Lincoln Park for future Fancy Plants Cafe locations.
“I’m just trying to cook for people who like food in general,” Schuder says of his culinary approach. “I always felt that if I play to the foodies, the vegans will come anyways. And, honestly, if I’m trying to have some kind of impact, you can’t just preach to the choir.”