If there’s an opposite of sibling rivalry, it might be what’s going on at 17 Summer in Lodi. At the four year-old, 22-seat restaurant, co-owners and sister-brother team Jenna and Joseph Cuccia offer seasonal creativity that is equal parts respectful and daring. The siblings don’t chase trends (one thing they don’t claim to be is exclusively “local”), but they do listen to guests, which is why a restaurant with a wild game “Odds and Ends” menu staple is now hosting a popular Vegan Chef’s Tasting dinner series. (It costs $75 per person, and includes five courses.)
We caught up with the duo to talk about how the vegan tasting series got started and how guests have responded to it.
Table Hopping: What inspired a vegan tasting menu?
Jenna: We are constantly inspired by our guests. [Our guests] Joel and Jennifer really did inspire us. They were sick of having to go into the city to find great vegan options and we thought, ” Well, they can’t be the only ones.” Joseph and I decided to put the Vegan Tasting out to see if anyone would bite—on social media, our website and email list. We sold out in days.
TH: How did the Vegan Tasting series grow to what it is now?
Jenna: Joel and Jennifer requested a Vegan Tasting in January 2018. We cooked vegan tasting [menus] for them at the restaurant and after every tasting they had, they said ‘You should open this up to the public.’ [But] we didn’t think there was a market. Around July, we hosted a six-seat Vegan Chef’s Tasting where we had other clients join and they really loved it. Joel and Jennifer said, “Now will you open it to the public?” In August 2018, we hosted our first sold out monthly Vegan Chef’s Tasting.
TH: Is a vegan tasting menu harder to develop? Are there any unique challenges?
Joseph: Creating the vegan menus, the same philosophy is carried through: let the ingredients speak for themselves. We are passionate about not using ‘fake meat,’ so these meals are 100 percent plant-based. And much like utilizing whole animals, we utilize whole vegetables.
TH: What does that mean, utilize whole vegetables?
Jenna: We use every part of the vegetable. There are cooking techniques we use to ensure we don’t throw anything away, i.e. making an ash out of onion skins, juicing carrot peels, roasting skins, tops and bottoms of vegetables to make stock, zest of citrus to infuse oils, vinegar, salts, and sugars. When we think about using whole animals, it’s exactly the same. Nothing goes in the garbage.
TH: Joseph, how has cooking vegan impacted you as a chef?
Joseph: Cooking vegan does make you more creative, because you’re forced to work outside of your comfort zone. To get a full flavor out of a dish, chefs traditionally go for the cream and butter. With vegan dishes, we can still achieve richness and deep flavors of an ingredient, we just must think about it in a different way. Being able to cook vegan is not a constraint by any means. It allows us to push our skills and hone in on the flavor of a particular item.
TH: You’re Sicilian, proudly. Is there any useful overlap in Sicilian and vegan cooking?
Jenna: Sicilian cooking, in general, is based in seasonality, simplicity, and balance. Growing up we ate from our garden and went to the markets daily to find the best ingredients, even if they weren’t the most popular. Three to four times a week we ate ‘meatless,’ and that did not mean we ate pasta. We never considered this to be ‘vegan cooking.’ It was dinner.
TH: You work with a forager for your menus. How much does foraging impact what you’ll be cooking?
Joseph: Our forager is very near and dear to the evolution of 17 Summer. We work closely with them. We are now in the dead of winter, so there’s not much popping up other than some winter cress. [But] Japanese knotweed, nettles, many varieties of mushrooms, black locust, juniper, and milkweed are all prevalent in this area. [And] we will build an entire dish around our foraged ingredients. Sometimes even full menus. We never know what our forager is going to bring us on a specific day, and that is why our weekly six-seat Chef’s Tastings on Wednesday nights are so exciting. There is absolutely no menu, and we create dishes around the ingredients we get that day.
TH: What has the response been like?
Jenna: Every dinner is sold out. The overwhelming response from our non-vegan guests is ‘You’re going to turn us vegan!’ We have many clients that consider themselves ‘flexitarian’ and join us monthly. Realistically speaking, those who choose to be vegan just want to eat dishes that are thoughtfully executed and composed.
TH: What can you tell us about your planned vegan dinner at the James Beard House in June?
Jenna: We cooked our first solo dinner at the James Beard House just months after opening [in 2015]. Joseph was nominated for the “Rising Star Chef” award in 2016. We’re always humbled and honored to be asked to cook at the house. The James Beard Foundation reached out to us when they saw we were doing monthly vegan dinners and wanted us to kick off their monthly Vegan Series. But it was a quick turnaround, so we decided to hold our dinner in June to really celebrate our foraged ingredients.
TH: You’re also participating in the Steinbeisser: Experimental Gastronomy dinner series with the James Beard Foundation, featuring serious culinary talent in collaboration with artists to create two unique nine-course dinners. How are you guys involved?
Jenna: We are participating both nights. We will be cooking alongside the chefs in the kitchen. We are obviously not named [on the Event listing] because we are nobodies in the grand scheme of things but have developed a wonderful relationship with Martin, the coordinator at the James Beard Foundation. Through our work with the James Beard Foundation, this opportunity came to us to help the chefs cook and we jumped at the opportunity.
17 Summer Restaurant is located at 17 Summer Street in Lodi. Their regular menu changes every six weeks. Their next Vegan Chef’s Tasting Menu is March 20. 973-928-4780 (The James Beard “Sibling Edition” dinner is June 11; the Steinbeisser series dinners are May 18 and 19. Tickets are $875.)Click here to leave a comment