When they opened Clean Plate Kitchen in Clinton in 2015, Nicole and Anthony Piazza weren’t trying to get ahead of some gluten or vegan “craze.” If anything, their goal was to not scare people away with “health food language” while cooking mostly gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan dishes. Little did they realize, within just a few years nutritional qualifiers like “gluten-free” and “vegan” would be culinary buzzwords, attracting new customers instead of scaring away old ones. The restaurateur couple (Nicole’s the chef, Anthony runs operations) will be the first to tell you they’re not in it for any trend points. But the current surge in diner health-savvy does put them in a prime position to grow, maybe exponentially more than they’d ever planned (especially since they’re now also in school—see below).
We caught up with Nicole to see whether their (clean) plate is at all too full.
Table Hopping: You guys have two little kids and a restaurant and now you’re in culinary school?
Nicole Piazza: Yes! We’re both in culinary school. It’s a health-supportive culinary arts program at [the Institute of Culinary Education]. We started in May. It’s the first year that they’re offering it. The Natural Gourmet Institute had a health-supportive program and ICE incorporated it, now it’s an ICE-approved program. We’re learning a lot of cool cooking techniques! And we’re doing it together, which is awesome.
TH: A culinary school as big as ICE is incorporating health-conscious cooking. Do you take that as a good sign for Clean Plate?
NP: The fact that ICE Is acknowledging that this is not just a trend, that it’s here to stay, is huge. It’s cutting-edge for a culinary program to offer something like this—something plant-forward. But people are looking for foods that complement their lifestyle. Everyone’s on some kind of diet, from keto to heart-healthy, maybe they have diabetes. We’re learning how to cook to accommodate all those diets without compromising.
TH: You opened in early 2015, as health-consciousness was just cresting in to public consciousness. Was “allergy-sensitive” and “gluten-free” always part of the plan?
NP: I’m a registered dietician and I have a masters in nutrition. In my nutrition practice, I specialized in allergies and gastroenterology, so I thought “Let’s make this [restaurant] friendly for that type of customer.” Because I have nowhere to refer my clients! I tell them to go to restaurants and modify menus. That’s all I could do. So we made an allergy-friendly, plant-forward restaurant, predominantly gluten-free. But we don’t make health claims or say that we’re “healthy.” That’s woven through the menu, as opposed to us being a “health food restaurant.”
TH: Why avoid the “health food” label?
NP: We want to be a place everyone can enjoy. One person on a diet has an allergy, okay, but I want the person who’s a meat-eating carnivore to give it a try, too, so we offer locally-sourced meat. In fact, our meatloaf is our best seller.
TH: What’s your take on the current prevalence of “gluten-free” and “vegan” on so many restaurant menus? Do the terms lose credibility with trendiness?
NP: My view on our menu being [mostly] gluten-free is not about a trend. We’re just using different ingredients altogether. People who care notice, people who don’t care don’t notice. That’s the main thing with our food. As far as any vegan “trend,” we’re not really 100 percent invested in that. We want to have really high-quality vegan options, that’s all. For a lot of restaurants, the protein is the star of the show. We’re letting the plants do more of the talking.
TH: Speaking of plants, you source locally, so I’d assume you change your menus often?
NP: We’re actually changing again in two weeks. We change the menu seasonally. Sometimes more often. It’s a process.
TH: When creating a menu, how do you counter the idea that health-conscious means deprivation?
NP: I try to keep an approach that’s playful. That’s our take on everything. Colorful uniforms, eclectic plates on the walls—we intentionally try to keep it not intimidating, keep it light and not over-emphasize health. It’s not an in-your-face stick and twigs kind of menu. And that’s part of why we’re at school. Anthony and I want to take things to the next level, to be able to utilize more unique ingredients and methods to bring flavor and still maintain the health focus we’ve worked so hard to achieve. And now we can take what we learn and literally apply it the next day.
TH: Can you give an example?
NP: Something as simple as black rice, utilizing it for larger quantities in restaurant service. There are challenges because it’s a hearty grain, but we learned little tricks for how to hold the rice better, some larger quantity cooking techniques. Or using a new ingredient, like sea vegetables. We did a course two weeks ago. Now we’re using them in our kimchi because we don’t use fish sauce.
TH: What about demand—has it risen in the past few years?
NP: We did have a New York Times review the first year we were open, so we blew up right in the beginning, before we were really ready to handle it. Our customers still drive an hour an hour and a half, from all over the state. They’re loyal and devoted. But it is spreading like wildfire. In fact, one of our biggest challenges is being unable to accommodate all the diners.
TH: Does that mean there’s real opportunity for you guys to grow right now?
NP: We do have some ambitious goals. We intend to do significant renovations in the restaurant and step up our food. After school is finished! We have pretty cool plates right now. We’re honing in on different techniques, amping up our game with our food. But yeah, behind the scenes, we’re working on plans for renovation and being able to do things like catering.
I also have another business, Nourish to Heal. It started with more of a social media focus right now but I’m looking to reach a larger audience, potentially cookbooks, social media, possibly TV. Doing it together, even, Anthony and I, teaching the world how to eat clean.
TH: No small task…
NP: I did say it was ambitious!
Clean Plate Kitchen is located at 49 Main Street in Clinton; 908-200-7610. Open Wed-Sun.