A collective feast

Moosewood, Ithaca’s iconic restaurant, celebrates forty-five years



Kate Melton

Few restaurants in United States have enveloped the consciousness of food lovers quite like Ithaca’s Moosewood Restaurant. For nearly five decades, food lovers looking for plant-centric cooking have looked to the original Moosewood Cookbook and the Moosewood Collective’s subsequent fourteen cookbooks for vanguard natural foods cooking. It was farm-to-table before there was a phrase for it, and one of the earliest restaurants in the area to regularly feature New York wines. Fred Rogers, Frances McDormand, Gabby Giffords, Wavy Gravy, Carl Bernstein, and Henry Winkler are among the many celebrities who have dined at Moosewood over the years. Chefs from all over the world have done stints at Moosewood, studying its cuisine, and its cookbooks have influenced countless others. And, in 1999, Bon Appétit magazine named Moosewood one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the twentieth century.

It’s come a long way from its scrappy origins, which were sown in the Ithaca Seed Company, a macrobiotic café and bookstore in Collegetown that sold underground comics. Among those who worked there were Therese Tischler, a student at Cornell University, and Mollie Katzen, a recent graduate of Rochester’s James Monroe High School and also a student at Cornell. When the Ithaca Seed Company closed around 1971, the owners put Tischler in charge of an escrow account. The Ithaca Seed Company’s closure left a void for vegetarian dining; if you were lucky enough to get a ride out to Trumansburg, you could dine at Kosmos, a brown-rice buffet that also showcased art-house films and avant-garde plays. But within city limits, options were restricted to buying a grilled cheese sandwich at the State Street Diner and a “Vegetable Plate” served at the Home Dairy (descriptions of the Vegetable Plate suggest that of a bland variation on the garbage plate) at the Ithaca Commons.

At the time, a group of young friends dabbling in vegetarianism, among them Tischler, Mollie Katzen’s older brother Josh Katzen, his then girlfriend Kris Miller, Nancy McCauley, and Judy Barringer, found themselves deeply irritated by this void. They began talking of opening a “soup kitchen”–style restaurant, despite having very little experience in the restaurant business. One day, Barringer was walking down Cayuga Street past the old Ithaca High School when she spotted a sign that advertised space for rent. “I went back to our little group,” recalls Barringer. “And I said, ‘Hey! I might have found a space!,’ and we all went down and looked at it.” Tischler used the $1,200 escrow account given to her, and Barringer eventually poured $20,000 from an inheritance into the restaurant. “Judy was the prime contributor and gave the money to get it all going. She was the bank, basically,” says current Moosewood co-owner David Hirsch. The group got working on setting up the restaurant in the summer of 1972, doing their own carpentry. Toward the end of the year, Josh Katzen brought his sister Mollie aboard, who’d finished college in San Francisco and had been working as a cook at the Shandygaff, a trendy vegetarian restaurant there.

Moosewood opened on January 3, 1973. At the time of the opening, the group described its cuisine to the Ithaca Journal as “farm food.” In what might be a surprise to some now, Moosewood served red meat (there were separate pans for cooking it), fearing that a vegetarian restaurant might not fly in Ithaca, which still had a largely Republican political establishment at the time. However, after working out the kinks, they became confident enough to abandon meat (except for fish) completely. “The only chicken we could get was from places like Purdue,” recalls Barringer, “and we all got tired of unpacking chicken that was just gross.” The customer base grew and with it an interest in Moosewood’s recipes. But the staff kept losing track of how to make their dishes. So the staff began documenting the recipes and eventually decided to commercialize the resultant cookbook.

The original Moosewood Cookbook was about eighty pages long and printed by a company that had previously published left-wing political tracts. “Mollie hand drew the pages; there’s no question about that,” says Barringer, who also created the original cover illustration. “We all tested the recipes.” Released in December 1974, the book sold briskly at McBooks, a popular downtown bookstore. “People would write to the restaurant asking, ‘Oh, I heard you had this cookbook, can you send it to me? And we’d mail it to people,” Barringer says. It soon became apparent that the book needed to be handled by a larger publisher. Katzen began shopping the book around to publishers, and eventually it was picked up by Ten Speed Press. Ten Speed encouraged Katzen to expand the book from eighty to 300 pages, and The Moosewood Cookbook was released nationwide in 1977 and became a best seller. Mollie Katzen left in 1978 (Josh Katzen had left two years earlier) and returned to the West Coast.

By this point, only three of the original owners—Tischler, Barringer, and Miller—were left, and Judy Barringer remembers growing restless. “I was twenty-eight, twenty-nine years old and I had the world to see. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a busser for the rest of my life.” (Another owner, Nancy McCauley, had also moved to the West Coast.) They sold their shares to the staff, who took out a loan and paid Barringer back. Tischler and Barringer left Ithaca to study law and visual communication, respectively (both later returned; Tischler passed away in 2013). David Hirsch, who began working at Moosewood in 1976, was among the new owners.

Right around this time, the success of the cookbook began to impact Moosewood’s business. “Sometime in the early eighties, people would come in and say, ‘Oh, I got your book, I heard about this place!’” remembers Hirsch. “After awhile, we started noticing that people would come out of their way to come here. It became a destination. That was very exciting.” (A 1987 Democrat and Chronicle profile on Moosewood reports a group of Australians taking a side trip from New York City solely to dine there.) New owners joined the collective, including Tony Del Plato, who came to Moosewood after years of working odd jobs in Ithaca and Buffalo, most notably at the long-gone but legendary Ithaca restaurant Cabbagetown Café; and Wynnie Stein, a graduate of Temple University who’d moved to nearby Spencer. Stein, in addition to her restaurant duties, also discovered a talent for public relations and marketing. Both found their way to Moosewood through friends already working at the restaurant. Says Del Plato: “I worked hard, and I tried to work smart as well. After a year, someone nominated me for membership in the collective, and I was voted in. The rest is history.”

All the while, they continued to collect recipes, and people continued to ask for them. In the mid-1980s, the group decided to cash in on the popularity of the earlier cookbook and in 1987 published their first cookbook as the Moosewood Collective, New Recipes from the Moosewood Restaurant. “We were providing health insurance and covering daycare costs,” recalls Stein. “We were trying to be a forward-thinking business, and we needed to have revenue. Getting a cookbook contract was a revenue source for us.” Since then, they’ve published thirteen more cookbooks, including 1990’s Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, which featured recipes from their weekly Sunday night ethnic-themed dinners. That book sent Stein and a few others on a publicity tour and appearing on programs like the Today Show, Good Morning America, and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. Their most recent cookbook, The Moosewood Restaurant Table, was published last year. Reflecting their customers’ more recent interests, it features vegan and gluten-free recipes. “There are a lot more TV shows about food now, and there’s a lot more sophistication,” says Hirsch, who credits collective member and pastry chef Susan Harville in helping develop the cookbooks.

Only a handful of Moosewood’s nineteen owners remain active in the restaurant. Stein stepped away from the day-to-day operations a year ago and continues to handle public relations and marketing. Del Plato left in 2006 but remains a shareholder. Recently retired from Cornell University, he now runs A Stone’s Throw Bed and Breakfast in Interlaken and serves on Interlaken’s board of trustees. Hirsch serves as an ambassador of sorts for Moosewood, giving talks around the world about the restaurant and his work, but retired in 2015 from being active in the restaurant. Shareholders meet twice a year. “It’s no longer a collective; we’re a group of shareholders in a corporation,” says Del Plato. “But the collective culture certainly continues in how we relate to each other.” With shareholders stepping away from the day-to-day, they’ve streamlined the operations. The menu, once changed daily, now changes seasonally, though they’ve expanded the number of options and offer daily specials. The Sunday night ethnic-themed dinners immortalized in the Sundays cookbook are long gone, replaced with Sunday brunch.

One of Moosewood’s current challenges revolves around sustaining its legacy. In 1999, by customer demand, Moosewood launched a line of salad dressings and take-home frozen entrees that lasted well into the 2000s. The group ended the line when the parent company’s ownership changed hands, but they don’t rule out reviving it in the future. A few years ago, rumors began floating around that a Maryland-based developer had acquired the Moosewood brand with plans of expanding locations. Laura Branca and Nancy Lazarus wrote to the Ithaca Times, assuring readers that Moosewood would be owned by the collective for the foreseeable future. Hirsch and Stein acknowledge that the possibility of opening new locations is being explored, but nothing has been initiated as of yet. Right now, the shareholders’ priority is on maintaining worker morale and the health of the restaurant, and Stein considers the current staff to be “the best we’ve ever had.” In the long run, they hope to ensure Moosewood’s immortality. Says Tony Del Plato: “In Italy, there’s a saying, ‘A tavola, nessun s’inveccia’, which translates to, ‘At the table, one never grows old.’”

 

Erin Scherer wrote about Chef Marshall Grady in the July/August issue. A former resident of Ithaca, she now lives in Geneva.

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