In the heart of New York City’s vibrant West Village, Chef Santiago Astudillo is busy working on exciting vegetable-forward dishes at The Wesley, where more than half of the upscale restaurant’s curated menu is vegan.
Starters range from gem lettuce dressed with vegan Caesar, smoked breadcrumbs, and black garlic to an Earthy beet salad served with kabocha squash, fennel, sunflower seeds, and almond ricotta.
Astudillo’s embrace of plant-based cuisine in the upscale dining setting reflects a broader shift in dining preferences towards health-conscious and sustainable choices. A direction that other NYC chefs, most notably Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, have also followed.
“The inspiration to focus on plant-based dishes comes from a personal evolution of how I eat and what I perceive as healthy,” Astudillo tells VegNews. “I think it aligns with the evolving dining preference in NYC as many people are prioritizing health as a deciding factor of the activities they partake in.”
“The food we eat will affect our mental, physical, and even emotional health,” he says.
Eating with the seasons
Out of the 13 dishes currently on the menu at The Wesley, eight are vegan without modification. Part of the reason is because it is first-and-foremost an eco-conscious restaurant and emphasizing plants makes sense in the sustainability of the menu.
Plus, Astudillo is also a vocal proponent of eating with the seasons. “To me it is clear, one of the most satisfying and aligned ways to eat is going with the seasons and that means veg, fruits, greens, and choosing ingredients at their natural peak,” he says.
Balancing sustainability, wellness, and culinary creativity is a complex task, especially when developing appealing plant-based dishes. Astudillo admits that finding this balance can be challenging.
“I tend to go all in and do my best to organize the other parts of life accordingly,” he says, especially when it’s time for menu changes and seasonal transitions.
Crafting plant-based dishes comes with unique challenges, particularly when avoiding meat alternatives. Astudillo focuses on creating dishes using only vegetables, which can be more time-consuming but ultimately more rewarding.
“I want the dish to feel satiating and also delicious, it can take more time to put the composition together so the guest can have an experience with the dish,” he says.
One of the creations he is most proud of is the mushroom ceviche, a playful take on the classic ceviche using royal trumpet and oyster mushrooms, which comes with jicama, yuca chips, and coconut Leche de Tigre.
“I really enjoy those flavor combinations and to be able to produce a mushroom version is exciting to me,” Astudillo says.
Plus, this dish is an edible representation of the chef’s roots.
Chef Santiago Astudillo’s plant-based roots
Astudillo’s inspiration is deeply rooted in his Hispanic heritage. A native of Ecuador, the chef also uses his travels, including to Peru and the Caribbean, to inform his culinary point of view.
He infuses his dishes with the flavors of sweet and spicy peppers and the traditional acidic components prevalent in Latin cuisine. Classic family ingredients such as cilantro and cumin also find their way into his creations, bringing a touch of nostalgia and authenticity.
From this, dishes such as his Graffiti Eggplant are born, which come seasoned with tandoori spice, sunflower seeds, and salsa Criolla—a classic Peruvian condiment made with a base of red onions, ají amarillo peppers, and cilantro.
Astudillo’s work experiences in renowned kitchens, which include Le Bernardin and Daniel, shaped his flavor-forward, creative cooking. “I see myself using a variety of different techniques now being applied to my vegetable cookery,” Astudillo reflects, recalling how working the sauce station at Le Bernardin was a significant turning point in his career.
This experience helped him understand balance within sauces and how they complement a dish.
On the plate, this translates to dishes such as Brussels sprouts served with scallions, cashew gochujang, and a cider reduction or Pressed Maitake, a main dish that features harissa, turnip, cocoa nibs, and saba—a sauce made from cooked wine.
The greening of fine dining
Since Astudillo’s tenure, things at Le Bernardin have also edged toward the plant-based direction. While not a vegan restaurant by any means, the French culinary hotspot offers a fully vegetarian-tasting menu. Its proprietor, Michelin-starred chef Eric Ripert has taken an interest in animal-free innovations.
Last year, Ripert signed on as Culinary Advisor for Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd—which uses a unique fungi protein, called Fy, to formulate vegan products such as breakfast sausage, cream cheese, and, most recently, yogurt.
Ripert created vegan desserts for Le Bernardin’s summer tasting menu using Fy. He also worked with the company on a bottled sauce line, which was developed at the same sauce station where Astudillo found his bearings.
For Astudillo, sharing a focus on plants with chefs such as Humm and Ripert—and a growing number of others—is an honor. But he continues to chart his own path into the plant-based realm, which has been more about personal discovery and experimentation with ingredients and techniques, fueled by an ever-growing curiosity about food origins and cultivation.
Looking towards the future, Astudillo sees vegetables continuing to crop up on menus.
“I see the role of chefs and restaurants promoting more plant-based eating by answering the call coming from guests—the people are more caring and conscious of what they put into their bodies,” Astudillo says.
The chef anticipates a “sustainable renaissance” in the culinary world, marked by a “tremendous leap of creativity” in vegetable preparation and a closer connection between restaurants and their food sources, such as having dedicated gardens or farmers.