What does Maimonides have to do with vegan food? A new restaurant in Brooklyn draws unexpected inspiration from the medieval Jewish scholar.
Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher, scholar, and physician, can add another couple of titles to his CV: vegan restaurateur and comic-book superhero.
These latest associations come with last month’s opening of Maimonide of Brooklyn, a vegan restaurant on Atlantic Avenue. Never mind that the restaurant has shortened the legend’s name by one letter, or that the voicemail message pronounces it in three syllables that rhyme—vaguely—with “cyanide.” Brooklynites looking for a vegan eatery influenced by the teachings of the Rambam finally have a spot to call their own.
Chef Neal Harden is visible in the kitchen, churning out vegan specialties, with tattoos up both arms and a backward hat jammed on his head. While customers snack on complimentary baked kale chips and “M.O.B’s”—signature open-faced sandwiches served on plates shaped like the Brooklyn Bridge—they can peruse the restaurant’s eponymous comic book, featuring Barack Tomahawk. When this tough, baggy-pants-wearing pizza delivery guy falls into a pile of melons and becomes imbued with superpowers linked to fruits and vegetables, he transforms into “Maimonide of Brooklyn,” a “vegan version of the Green Lantern.”
The brains behind this operation? A French philosopher, but of course.
“To eat well is like being a superhero,” said owner Cyril Aouizerate one recent sunny Tuesday. He’d made his way to one of the restaurant’s four large communal tables after bestowing kisses and fist bumps to diners, only some of whom appeared to know him. (One surprised diner, post-kiss, said: “I’m not really a regular. But that made me want to become one. That guy is great.”) He reeked of cigarette smoke and, with his bowler hat, heavy leather jacket, thick glasses, and scruffy beard, looked the physical embodiment of the restaurant’s urban-bohemian Atlantic Ave. vibe.
Aouizerate had just flown in from Paris, where he lives most of the year, for a press event with his business partner Alain Senderens, the French chef of haute cuisine famous for returning his Parisian restaurant’s three Michelin stars in the name of simplicity and affordability.
“With the name of Senderens, I could have started a gastronomic restaurant for $100 a plate in Manhattan,” said Aouizerate, playing with the fist-sized Brooklyn Bridge pendant hanging off a heavy silver chain around his neck. (Engraved on the bottom of each bridge post are the names of his three children: Eve, Amos, and Noe.) But Aouizerate, who’d worked with Senderens to open France’s hip-affordable Mama Shelter hotel chain, wanted to use the chef’s expertise and influence for something a little more unusual.
Born in Toulouse to a Jewish family, Aouizerate first came to Brooklyn in 1986 when visiting a Lubavitch community and became enamored with the borough. When looking for the perfect neighborhood for his newest venture, he deemed Williamsburg “too hipster”—or, in Cyril-speak “eep-stair”—opting instead for Boerum Hill. Yet Maimonide of Brooklyn’s skinny-jeaned clientele, mix of jazz and rap playing from an old gramophone, and a memorial vegetable art wall (“R.I.P. Mr. Avocado, he died for guacamole”) certainly give Williamsburg a run for its money.
Aouizerate has been enamored with Maimonides nearly as long as he has with Brooklyn. (This passion is apparently infectious: Before answering Aouzierate’s Craigslist ad for a chef, Harden had never read Maimonides, but now he calls himself a fan.) When studying in Jerusalem in 1992, after earning his doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, Aouizerate came across a rare text Maimonides wrote when physician to King Saladin touting the salutary effects of various fruits and vegetables. This was his first encounter with the Rambam’s dietary philosophy.
“I was very impressed that he had written this a thousand years ago,” said Aouizerate, mentioning a particular passage about a carrot. “It was very modern. And I thought, well, ‘That’s fucking interesting.’ ”
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