April 26, 2021
You may know of vegan chef Guy Vaknin from his first restaurant, Beyond Sushi, which now has multiple locations throughout the city. Willow, his latest venture, opened in Chelsea earlier this year. We spoke with Catherine Aust, the Marketing and Events Director for Beyond Sushi and Willow, about Willow’s vegan comfort food menu, the cozy-yet-chic atmosphere, how the restaurant gives back to its community, and what you can expect when you visit!
As told to Ace Natural
Beyond Sushi is focused on bright, fresh, fun flavors. And something that we noticed a lot of our customers asking for was comfort style food—food that is super hearty and filling. And that’s something that Chef Guy wanted to bring to Willow. With the pandemic this past year, I think people are really craving comfort food—something that is nourishing and fun to eat. Vegan Buttermilk Fried Chick’n, vegan ‘Steak’ Frites with a creamy red wine sauce, all of these dishes are classic bistro favorites that we’ve turned plant-based for our customers.
Chef Guy has been leading the charge with Beyond Sushi for the last eight years—he’s the executive chef and also the owner—so he has been making food in the same concept for a long time. As a chef, he wanted to flex his creative muscles and be able to put out a totally different concept, one that is still 100% vegan, and celebrate plant-based food and where it is going.
We opened just this year in January and we’ve had such an incredible response. People have been really excited to support us and see what Chef Guy is up to. But it even goes beyond that. I would say customers that aren’t even familiar with Beyond Sushi are now regulars at Willow. It’s been a cool experience to see the response and how we’ve been able to build up a different customer base.
Our Buttermilk Fried Chick’n sandwich is definitely one of the best sellers and I think it’s pretty self-explanatory why—everyone loves fried chicken! And the vegan version is super crispy with pretty toppings and sauces, it just hits the spot. We’ve also gotten really amazing feedback on our Truffle Mac and ‘Cheese.’ Just like Beyond Sushi, we get a lot of customers that aren’t vegan. They come with their vegan partners or they’re looking to incorporate plant-based foods into their diet. And it’s funny to hear their response to a dish, like our vegan Truffle Mac and ‘Cheese,’ where they’re like, “You really could not even tell that it’s vegan.”
We use NUMU vegan cheese. It’s a mozzarella-style product that’s pretty new. We use that in our Eggplant Lasagna and also in our French Onion Soup. We use Blackbird Foods’ seitan, which is amazing, we also use it at Beyond Sushi. They have such a good product and we make it our own—we smoke it and grill it and marinate it and put our own spin on it. But the texture itself is just amazing, so we love working with them.
We are partnered with Support + Feed, which is an organization that was essentially founded as a response to the pandemic. It was founded by Maggie Baird, who is actually Billie Eilish’s mom, and a vegan activist. We were one of their first partners in New York. We’ve been working with them through Beyond Sushi for the last year and when we opened Willow, we also started contributing from that restaurant. The goal is to support vegan restaurants by having us create meals for different food pantries, shelters, and organizations around the city. We essentially turn into a kitchen that’s creating meals for people that need it. So that’s been a really cool initiative.
Willow first started as takeout/delivery only and then indoor dining came back in February. So that was awesome, to actually be able to welcome people into our space for dine-in. The atmosphere is really cozy. It’s a chic space that’s still very comfortable. Willow is a neighborhood bistro where you can celebrate your birthday or go on a nice date, but then also come for lunch. So it’s a casual environment that still feels elevated. And we have a great time on the weekends. It’s definitely fun and great energy in there, with a lot of people celebrating events.
We’re really excited about the future. I think brunch is on the horizon, that’s something that Chef Guy is working on. We’re just excited to continue building out the space and making it a great place for people to dine in Chelsea.