By Caroline Hatchett
Justin Bazdarich helped open restaurants for Jean-Georges Vongerichten all over the world before launching Speedy Romeo in Brooklyn and then on the Lower East Side. His Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant Oxomoco arrived in 2020. Also in that year, Bazdarich enrolled in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, and in January 2021, he added plant-based Xilonen to his growing portfolio of restaurants.
With Xilonen, the goal was to make a restaurant with no meat, and to make vegan food so delicious and craveable you’d want to come back for it. A good way to describe it is a “plant-rich” menu. I think that’s an easier way to approach change. If I heard the word “vegan” back in the day, I’d be like, “GFY. Thanks, I’ll have the wagyu.”
For me, eating vegan food started when my wife was pregnant with our son. She had an aversion to eating flesh. At the time, we ate some sort of animal protein at almost every meal. That’s just how we operated. With her aversion, we started eating fish, then vegetarian. We tried some vegan stuff, too, and taking the meat out of our diet sort of stuck.
Then my son was born. I feel like it was around the time when rainforests were burning in Brazil. My wife and I had created this life, and it was just like, “Oh, what are we doing here?” In the middle of 2019, I began to put my efforts into R&D. If I was creating a dish at Oxomoco, I would try to make it vegan, or if I was doing a new pizza at Speedy Romeo, I’d try for vegan.
Around the same time, I met Lourdes Castro, the director of the New York University Food Lab. I asked her about plant-based trends, and she introduced me to the United Nations’ Diets for a Better Future program. It shows you what we should be eating to change the direction of climate change, global warming, and deforestation. It was eye-opening and sparked an idea for a menu matrix that I could apply to Speedy and Oxomoco to decrease meat consumption. It would be 25 percent vegan, 25 percent vegetarian, 25 percent fish, and 25 percent meat. I also started to think about forming a chefs’ collective to see if other restaurants were willing to come along on the ride.
At the end of 2019, we had opportunities to open restaurants in some Manhattan hotels. All that folded with COVID. Instead, my partner Chris Walton and I put all our efforts into this plant-based realm for the sake of our own bodies and the health of the planet. That’s where Xilonen came in, and we figured let’s just go all in and do 80 to 90 percent vegan, and the rest vegetarian.
One of the most common questions we got before I ever thought of doing this was, “What are your vegan and vegetarian options?” And we always got comments like, “Oh yeah, I love Oxomoco. I’m vegan, and it’s easy for me to eat there,” or “Thanks for putting that vegan pizza on at Speedy. My wife is so happy to go there again.” So I know the demand is there, and I feel like there are more people—especially Gen Z—eating like that in the world.
My partner says it’s our job to convert the carnivore, and I like that. But I also think that Mexican food really really lends itself to being vegan. In ancient times, there was very little animal protein in the Aztec diet. There are so many corn and chile varieties and all these Mexican produce ingredients that are just so amazing on their own.
There was a time where I thought we could do a one-off concept of Oxomoco. Our carnitas are amazing, and that could be a whole thing on its own—a carnitas truck fleet. Now, I just think of the animals required to do that. I want to continue to open restaurants, but I want to figure out how to do it in the softest way. I’m learning more and more as I go, and I’m now officially a student of sustainability.
I went to Arizona State University in 1995. I studied industrial design, which is a super-intense major. I partied like crazy. I couldn’t pull it off. After my second sophomore year, I started to cook, and that’s when I realized that the food industry had everything I was interested in at the time—architecture, interior design, industrial design, art. So I put my efforts into food and never looked back.
Fast-forward 20-plus years, and I was doing a dinner with Rick Bayless for the 2019 New York City Food & Wine Festival. When the host introduced me, they said that I was a student at Arizona State University but school life wasn’t for me, and this one table went into an uproar. They were all administrators at ASU. I had cooked two vegan dishes and talked about sustainability and why I was focusing on plant-based foods. One of the people at the ASU table—he was drunk—told me, “You didn’t graduate, but I can pull some strings.” He emailed a couple days later apologizing for having been drunk, but also said that ASU has one of the best sustainability schools in the United States. When COVID hit, I was like, “Fuck it. If I’m just sitting here, let me see if I can enroll and get back into school.”
I left ASU with a 1.8 GPA. I’m now three classes into an interdisciplinary studies major with a focus on sustainability, and it’ll take a couple years to get my degree. I’m getting 103 percent in all my classes. I think I just needed to be 43 to go back to school. For all my papers, I write about food or the industry, like how much like single-use plastic garbage is being produced because everyone turned into a take-out restaurant during COVID.
I’ve found that the more I talk about sustainability, the more stuff bubbles up to the surface. A friend introduced me to Oceanic Global, a group that tries to eliminate plastic from the hospitality industry. We’ve been working with them for six months to deep-dive into all the disposable items we use. Now, all our take-out containers are paper. We’ve gone to wooden utensils and started to buy products that are the most compostable, and all three restaurants have Oceanic Global’s Champion seal. We’ve inspired our paper supplier to carry all this stuff, and now they’re positioning themselves as a greener company.
In one of the papers I wrote for school, I explained that as a chef, you can place a produce order through a large distributor and not really have the seasons in mind, or if you order 50 ingredients, they could be coming from 50 countries. And people dining out don’t know that.
I worked in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurants in Istanbul, Doha, and Qatar, plus Cabo in Mexico. In the US, it was Hawaii, Las Vegas, Utah, Atlanta, Washington DC, and New York—15 restaurants in total. Our sourcing practices actually weren’t so bad. We would change ingredients and recipes to incorporate local products. The farmers market was always a big part of Jean-Georges’ thing, but there wasn’t talk about doing it for sustainability. It was because that’s where you got the best products.
Our flour at Speedy Romeo now is half from upstate New York and half from Pennsylvania. Our beef comes from Happy Valley Meat Company in Pennsylvania. We work with Greenpoint Fish and Lobster at Oxomoco. Pretty much everything they sell is sustainable. We’re tied in with Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, a group of Pennsylvania farmers, as well as Natoora, a distributor that works with mostly regenerative farms in Europe.
What I’ve learned about sustainability is that it comes with trade-offs. Natoora has beautiful citrus. It’s all coming from California, but they’re choosing their farmer correctly. Then there’s avocados. We’re doing a plant-based Mexican restaurant, but then it’s like, “Oh, maybe we need to rethink our guacamole and all the avocado we use, because it’s really not the most sustainable business on the planet.” I’m kind of waiting for people to poke holes in what we do, which is fine. There’s a strong presence of humility in this initiative. We’re here to learn.
There’s so much information out there on how to change. People need to actually start doing the work. For me that means creating a program where a chef can see that if they have two restaurants that serve 60 percent vegan and vegetarian food, or only 20 percent meat, what the environmental offset will be. And that’s just for two restaurants, right? But then what would it be for 20, 200, or 2,000 restaurants? Chefs can have an incredible influence over the population. We can show people that this is a way to save the planet. This is a way for you to feel better.