Chef Nick Erven Talks About His Amazing, Award-Winning 2016

Nick Erven, Santa Monica, Los Angeles
Socially You
Socially You

It was no small decision to name Nick Erven's all-vegan eponymous restaurant our Restaurant of the Year, but it was definitely the right one: Though there's not even a hint of meat on the menu, Erven has proven that it's one of the most exciting -- and flavorful -- openings this year. We spoke to Nick Erven about whether he's ahead of or riding the wave of the vegan trend, why Santa Monica was the perfect home for him, and what he's looking forward to next year.

What has 2016 meant for you?
Nick Erven: This year's been fucking insane. This year I partnered with Eric Greenspan and Jim Hustead and James Moon of Midcourse Hospitality, who also own Greenspan's Grilled Cheese and Maré. I'm now within that group, and we opened Maré first over in the old JiRaffe space. Then two weeks later we opened Erven four doors down. That's been sort of a crazy situation. And four days after we opened Erven I had a baby. It was the worst timing you could possibly imagine, but it was great. I was actually kind of anxious to get it all done at the same time, to be done with it.

It's been crazy running back between and trying to raise a human being. It's been kind of a humbling year, in a sense. This industry ebbs and flows, and sometimes there's a lot and sometimes there's a little. I'm super-grateful for what I've got right now.

It seems like you guys are at the forefront of the plant-based cuisine trend -- there are a bunch of people doing it, but, you guys have heightened it in a real way. Tell me about getting involved with that style of cooking and what that's been like for you.
Erven: I think it's been challenging, But not as challenging as you'd think. When we first decided to do a plant-based restaurant, I initially was overthinking everything. I was coming from too much of a cerebral aspect of what the food should be. It should be this and this and nine different ingredients on the plates. Then as I started cooking it, I started taking things away.

This is probably the simplest food I've ever done in the sense of its base ingredients and the base ideas behind the flavors. It's also the most challenging because I have to figure out different ways of approaching it. There's no butter, there's no cream, there's no egg. You're having to approach it from a different mentality but still want the same end result of the diner being happy.

It's been fun to put myself in that box and see how it turns out. It's forced me to be more creative, but at the same time reign in the chef-y quality of a lot of stuff.

Do you feel like you're part of a group that's doing it? Do you feel like you're an outlier in some way? Do you see it as a trend, or do you see it as a think that you guys are outside of that?
Erven: I think there certainly is a trend to that. I think you've seen in the past couple years more of a trend of people wanting to eat less meat and more vegetables. We also live in Southern California, so we have great produce.

There's a lot of restaurants that are doing really good plant-based cooking, but they also happen to have some meat on the menu. I think of Gjelina. Gjelina cooks vegetables really really well. They also have octopus and duck on the menu.

I think restaurants are probably moving towards that more and more. I don't see there being an explosion of vegan restaurants, per se, but I do think more and more chefs are moving towards that. At the same time, it's fun. It's fun to cook with vegetables.

Tell me a little bit about being in Santa Monica which seems like it could be a challenging market in some ways.
Erven: Santa Monica is a great city to cook in. I was the chef of The Huntley Hotel for about five to six years. I certainly understand on some level what people of Santa Monica want.

It's a slightly insular place in the sense of people who live in Santa Monica are not necessarily driving to the Eastside or Hollywood, or sometimes even Venice. It's about the local diners. It's about building those regulars and, on some level, giving them what they want.

In the sense of this being a humbling experience when we first opened, like I said, we were kind of doing things a little too chef-y and too much. There was a little bit of a backlash to that. Now I think we've hit a good stride of it being approachable and comfortable and a place where you can come and stop in and have a glass of wine and a couple snacks and not feel like you have to be involved in this lengthy dining experience which is not necessarily what the people who live and work around that area necessarily want.

What are you excited about for 2017?
Erven: Hopefully a new restaurant. We're opening another Maré in Silver Lake in the next little bit. We have another concept that Eric and I and Midcourse are working on that's sort of a delivery only thing. There's other irons in the fire, but right now I just want to make sure that the guests who are coming to Erven are super happy.

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Jeff Miller can't wait to eat that cavatelli again. He's at @jeffmillerla on Instagram and Twitter.