Shaun Hergatt is the executive chef of Juni, a boutique restaurant which celebrates the height of the season. With over 20 years experience–not to mention three stars from the New York Times, two Michelin stars, and an across-the-board 29 of 30 ranking in Zagat–Hergatt is not new to the local, fresh food movement. After all, he’s been enjoying just-picked, perfectly ripe ingredients since his childhood, growing up on a farm in Australia. Meatless Monday met with Chef Shaun on a recent afternoon in Juni’s midtown location.
Meatless Monday: When an individual participates in Meatless Monday, we like to say “move the vegetables to the center of the plate.” You seem to have moved vegetables to the center of your restaurant.
Shaun Hergatt: Well, that is the philosophy behind Juni. Obviously it’s about local and as much organic as we can buy. The Union Square Greenmarket is a big segment of our ordering system because it’s literally up the street so I get to go the market three times a week. A lot of the food we purchase, a lot of herbs, the vegetables, we buy from the local area. My approach is: we only use premium products. They are expensive and we pay well for them.
MM: For our readers who want to enjoy the very best seasonal products, what kind of dining experience should they expect at Juni?
SH: For lunch, have a regular a la carte menu and also a tasting menu. For dinner, we only have a tasting menu. The tasting menus are designed to celebrate what we call the “micro-seasons.” The way the weather patterns change now, the way the dynamic of global warming is, we don’t have specific, segmented seasons anymore. People think: fall is fall, winter is winter, then spring and summer. It doesn’t work that way. A very simple example that I use often is ramps. Ramps are only in for about a month. Fiddlehead ferns are the same way. Or a very specific thing like a Fava Blossom that will only grow for two and a half months.
MM: Are people surprised to see an all-vegetarian tasting menu priced at $50?
SH: That’s a good question. People have this perception that vegetables are less costly. That’s incorrect. It costs me the same amount of money to produce these dishes as it does meat dishes. I’ll give you an example: morel mushrooms at the moment are $49 a pound. Toro, from a bluefin tuna, will cost me $50 a pound. So they’re equal on par, and you’ll probably eat just as much mushrooms as you’ll eat protein on the plate. So when we design our vegetarian tasting menu, we’re doing it as a promotional situation. We are saying: we respect vegetables, we are a seasonal restaurant, and we’re a very local restaurant. Everything on the plate is a superior product, so it’s a very special occasion when you eat these vegetables.
MM: There seems to be an uptick in interest in plant-based meals in recent years. Are you hearing this from your customers?
SH: Yes, we have a lot of customers requesting an all-vegetarian meal. And it’s not just on Mondays, it’s all week long. It’s probably 20% of our customers. So whether someone wants to come in because they participate in Meatless Monday or they just want to taste what’s in the market on any given day, what you’re finding now is people who are carnivores, who aren’t vegetarian, still want to try a vegetarian tasting menu.
MM: Where does your passion for fresh, seasonal food come from?
SH: Growing up in Australia, I grew up on a farm, so vegetables probably mean a lot more to myself than to most people. I think I have a very different way of looking at food. It’s just fun to eat vegetables. I know how to grow products, because I’ve grown them my entire life, but the thing is: we always react to our childhood memories, right? So that’s what I do. Yes, there’s a movement in America that people are starting to understand that vegetables are good for them. I can recall being a kid in a watermelon patch, opening a fresh watermelon and eating it all day. I know how a freshly picked watermelon should taste. So when I reproduce a watermelon dish, if it doesn’t have the proper flavor balance and texture–for one, we won’t use it–but when I do find it, I know how to enhance that flavor profile so it gives the customer the experience of a very high level product.
MM: The idea of having childhood memories related to food is a concept that, unfortunately, not a lot of kids in America will have. We have an initiative called The Kids Cook Monday dedicated to getting more families cooking and eating together, in part, to create those memories.
SH: That’s something that should be encouraged. Ultimately it starts with parents and it starts with schools. Children should be––not forced––but driven to understand what they are eating. But it’s not just what they are eating; it’s the whole package: it’s food, it’s exercise, it’s also mind exercise. Children need to be guided and educated; you have to build children so they have something to carry from their childhood and they have an understanding of what their goals are. Exercise is just as important as having a healthy diet. A healthy mind is just as important as exercise. So there are a lot of aspects that go into that, it’s not just the food. It’s the whole package.
MM: I think we agree. And I think that’s why a movement like Meatless Monday has taken off. It’s very moderate. It’s about a small reduction in meat consumption, for your health and the health of the planet.
SH: I’m not anti-meat; I’m all about balance. When I was a kid, we would eat meat nearly every day. It’s just the way Australians are. But the portions are quite small, and the rest of the meal is vegetables and starch. In America, when you eat a piece of meat, traditionally you go to a steakhouse and you get a piece of meat, it’s a brontosaurus concept. Instead, maybe you should eat a quarter of that amount of meat, along with a lot of vegetables and maybe you’ll be okay. I don’t think a vegetarian’s diet is necessarily more healthy than an omnivore’s; it’s all relative. Everyone has to find their balance.
MM: Juni—Latin for June—seems designed for the peak growing months of summer. Your website says your cuisine is ‘very much grounded by nature.’ Can you give an example of what that means?
SH: Here’s one example: soon, the all-vegetarian tasting menu will be replaced by an all-tomato tasting menu. Once the sun is a little stronger, and the tomatoes are a little riper, we will go to five-courses of tomatoes. People really identify with menus like that. If the food is too avant-garde, they don’t know what it is. But if you pick a tomato, everyone knows it’s a tomato. There are certain things people understand, it’s about hitting their memories. It’s all connected.
MM: Last question: it’s prime farmer’s market season. Any tips on how the average consumer can navigate their local market?
SH: First, you should look for an organic stall. Two, have a look at the product, smell it, feel it and taste it. And if it tastes amazing, it’s ready to go. You want something at the pinnacle of perfection. You want to pick products at their supreme ripeness.