It appears 2014 will be a healthy year for South Florida. New juice bars, raw food finds, locally-sourced dishes, and vegetarian-themed concepts abound -- and it's only getting better.
Adding to the momentum, South Florida vegan chef Seth Kirschbaum -- former executive chef for both Sublime and Darbster -- has announced plans to open his own vegan concept later this year. The local chef is looking to offer Boynton Beach its first 100 percent vegan, organic and cruelty-free restaurant. After years of dreaming, planning and prepping, he's dubbed his concept Sage Wine Bar, and launched a Kickstarter last week to propel the project into action.
What is Sage? "Sage is about giving back, sustainability, supporting local farmers and small business," Kirschbaum told Clean Plate Charlie. "It's sharing our vision for total health and well-being."
Born and raised in New York City, Kirschbaum's fondest memories of his early life are time spent in the kitchen, helping his mother to prepare healthy, wholesome meals for the family. The training came in handy when -- at the age of 16 -- he dropped out of high school to help support his struggling family through hard financial times and began working at a nearby Italian restaurant to make extra money. It started with prep work, learning the basics of how to make dough, pasta and cheese. A few years later, at 18, he was promoted to head cook.
Despite a love of kitchens and cooking, years of working with cheese, meat and grains left Kirschbaum feeling sick and sluggish. And before he knew what eating vegan truly meant, he was watching others battling poor health. When his father became ill, and hoping to alleviate the symptoms of his own digestive disorders, Kirschbaum began following a more natural diet. The true turning point came when -- in his early 20s -- his abdominal pain became so severe, he had no choice but to change his eating habits. His brother, who was working at a local health food store on Staten Island at the time, introduced Kirschbaum to rice and almond milk. From there he overhauled his diet, eliminating all dairy, meat and gluten almost overnight.
The discovery that foods could heal changes Kirschbaum, who became passionate about helping others in a similar manner. In 1997, Kirschbaum began working as the chef at the small cafe inside the same health food store that helped to launch his new diet, revamping a vegan menu that already offered fresh-pressed juices, from-scratch soups, and a variety of foods that appealed to his changing palate.
"Of course I began cooking the way I wanted to eat," said Kirschbaum. "People would come in and say I can't have gluten, wheat, dairy -- so I began making foods that worked with different people's allergies."
Kirschbaum later attended culinary school to hone his skills, graduating from the International Culinary Center in Manhattan while working more than 40 hours a week. He realized even then that he eventually wanted to have his own business where he could truly help people.
"I don't want anyone to suffer. That's part of my credo, my movement. People can have better health," said Kirschbaum. "That's what I want to achieve with Sage."
Many people don't know that Kirshbaum, a native New Yorker, came to South Florida in 2003 to support an ailing friend suffering from cervical cancer. After helping to nurse her back to health through diet and positive energy, he stayed, taking a job at Sublime in Fort Lauderdale. He was on the line for just one day, after which he was promoted to kitchen manager. It wasn't long before he was the executive chef, reworking the menu to include only organic produce, creating daily specials and making it the new "it" spot for vegan eating in Broward County.
Evenutally, Kirschbaum moved on to Darbster, at the time a fledgling start-up vegan restaurant and wine bar in West Palm Beach. The owners were ambitious about opening more locations, and Kirschbaum was moved to help them bring their vision to life, helping them to source produce properly, ensuring everything was organic, local and cruelty-free. When the owners asked him where to draw the line, he didn't know how to respond. Did all the wines need to be organic? Yes. Did the sugar have to be sourced responsibly? Why wouldn't it be?
"That's where it comes down to my balance of what's important, and what isn't. I just didn't see eye to eye with them on this," Kirschbaum told Clean Plate Charlie. "In the beginning, eating vegan was about my health. It wasn't about the animals at one point in my life. Of course, that's changed. Today, a vegan diet is about both. It's about the health of every being on the planet. If you're going to do it, then believe in it, and truly live it."
To be true to his own vision and philosophy, Sage will be everything Kirshbaum has sought to create since he began cooking vegan and vegetarian, and has already made plans to team-up with Swank Farms of Loxahatchee, as well as a handful of small local farms, to ensure he deals with only fresh and organic produce. Sage will be a raw (and cooked) vegan restaurant with a simple concept and menu: an intimate space where patrons can sample and share a variety of weekly and daily-rotating small plates that represent a global palate. The food will be "world" cuisine, everything from Asian and Indian, to Hungarian and Italian. Dishes will never be static, and will change seasonally to begin -- and eventually weekly and daily according to what is fresh, in-season and locally available. Kirschbaum is also excited to build a truly cruelty-free enoteca -- Italian for wine bar -- in addition to a selection of specialty beers that source only organic offerings.
Is it going to look like Sublime? No.
Will it taste like Darbster? No.
Will it be fresh, young, hip and inspiring? Yes.
If the Kickstarter is successful, Kirschbaum has found several locations for his conceived Boynton Beach restaurant, and plans on working with the Boynton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency to create a space that's eco-friendly, and supportive of the local business community. Plans call for ample space, enough for 30-plus seating and a small bar overlooking an open kitchen.
"It will totally change your mind about eating vegan," said Kirschbaum. "I want the meat eaters to come to Sage. I want them to see what we're doing, and maybe it's for them. Maybe they can change their mind. Maybe one of my dishes will create a domino effect."
Follow Nicole Danna on Twitter, @SoFloNicole.