By: Zach Brendza | Features Editor
In Pittsburgh, you can get just about any cuisine that comes to mind. Even strict herbivore can satisfy their hunger with everything from vegan cheesesteak to vegan ice cream. Veganism in the city continues to become more prevalent.
On Nov. 1, the Pittsburgh Vegan Festival brought some 700 attendees and 40 food, product and vegan service vendors to the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills. The festival was the second of its kind this year in Pittsburgh, put together by organizer Amy Cottrill. In 2011, she hosted a vegan market which drew 60 people. This year, she saw a massive increase in turn out, seeing hundreds come to her vegan festivals.
“To only get 60 people a few years ago and then to get 500 and then a few months later get 700 this year just shows in the past few years how it has dramatically changed, how many people know what vegan means,” Cottrill said.
Ever since Cottrill was a child she has been a vegetarian, then going vegan at 16. She often hosted vegan attending Carrick High School.
“I definitely could see when I was a kid there were barely any options. When I went somewhere I got a salad. People didn’t know what else to give me,” Cottrill said.
The lack of vegan options prompted Hilary Zozula to get involved in 2011. The chef and owner of Eden in Shadyside decided to open the vegan and gluten-free restaurant because she felt that the city was lacking a place that catered to people with specific dietary needs; veganism, gluten allergies etc. She wanted Eden to be that place.
“I kind of just wanted to create a place for someone who had concerns and questions about ingredients [to] feel safe and trust that the chef knew exactly what was going into the food,” Zozula said. “There were no places where vegans could go and have a nice meal. Like a nicer experience.
There are lot of cafés and places with vegan options, according to Zozula, but a place where you could go out for a special occasion or nice dinner was something the city needed, hence the way dishes are presented at the Shadyside eatery.
Raised as a raw vegan, Zozula specializes in that facet of vegan cooking. She was homeschooled and her parents incorporated art into much of her schooling, which shows through in her restaurants dishes. With a passion for cooking and experimentation, Zozula uses her artistic background and skill at vegan cooking to make edible art.
“I’m a trained artist and I look at food in that way, more than a chef’s point of view,” Zozula said. “I like food I like flavors, but I also really love colors and I really try and design the plates so that it’s art.”
While Zozula created something new, Tiffany Ford rebranded her vegan tea shop, Fortuitea Café in Washington, Pa. The previous owner was selling the space and Ford didn’t want to see a café in her hometown close. After purchasing the shop in August 2013, she transitioned it into an afternoon tea shop and vegan café, something she considered doing for a number of years.
“It took a little bit of time to transition the café into not having any animal products in it, to being just a vegan menu,” Ford said. “It’s going to be constantly evolving, that’s for sure. Its definitely closer than it was this time last year. When I bought the place, there wasn’t much in the way of food offerings.”
While menu at Fortuitea is completely vegan, there’s nothing “exotic to the palate of a non-vegan,” according to Ford, just bean-based and vegetable-based dishes, like black bean burgers and spinach salads.
“[There’s] no weird vegan food, faux anything. Aside from vegan cheese, kind of as exotic type of vegan food [as] we’re incorporating, want to keep it recognizable food items,” said Ford, a long time vegetarian turned vegan.
Indian dishes also fill out the menu, form rajma to chana masala and naan, dishes Ford enjoyed while living in India, where she will be living for the majority of 2015. Living in London, New England and most recently Seattle.
“We want to grab everybody not just focusing on vegans. We want to make food that tastes good period.” Ford said. “If you’re vegan, you won’t believe that the
cake you’re eating is vegan because it’s too good.”
Fortuitea baked a four layer vegan yellow cake for the Pittsburgh Vegan Festival, with belly dancers topping the dessert. While Cottrill sees an increased in vegan restaurants and awareness, she thinks more vegan desserts are needed in eateries, especially for the little vegans out there.
“I have kids and when we go out to places that are mixed, even if they have nice vegan options, the non-vegans at the table get to have dessert and my kids don’t get to,” Cottrill said.
For Zozula, demand was what fueled the opening of Eden. As more citizens move to Pittsburgh from more progressive cities, the demand for more specialized dining continues to grow.
“[I] definitely have seen it grow immensely, not only just seeing it but experiencing it with seeing more and more customers coming in with the same needs, veganism, health issues, trying to figure out if they can even eat off the menu because their restrictions are so strong,” Zozula said. “The city seems to be needing more places like us.”