Alchemy Chef Ken Aponte doesn’t sacrifice flavor in creating a vegetable-forward menu.
by Vanessa Infanzon
When the owners of the newly opened The Restaurant at Alchemy asked Ken Aponte to join the team as executive chef, he wasn’t sure if the idea would work. The vegetarian-focused restaurant is part of C3Lab, the South End arts incubator and coworking hub owned by Glen and Maria Nocik.
Aponte has never been impressed with legume-only dishes — they’ve always seemed like an afterthought, he says.
“I didn’t think doing a vegetarian-focused restaurant was going to be possible to sustain because of all my experiences with vegetarian-focused food,” says Aponte, 31. “It’s unappealing, unappetizing,” he thought.
Aponte’s competitive nature convinced him he could do vegetarian better. Not being a vegetarian could give him the upper hand, he says. His experience as a meat eater can be used to pair texture and flavors for a gastronomical delight.
“I see it as a challenge,” he says.
Aponte was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, but raised in Charlotte. In high school, he joined the culinary program at East Mecklenburg High School. He attended Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, earning an associate degree in culinary arts in 2010. Aponte worked at Taverna and Zebra and gained experience in molecular gastronomy at Chicago’s Alinea. He spent six years at Napa on Providence, working his way up from sous chef to executive chef.
Dining at Alchemy is meant to be an experience. Guests stroll through the adjacent gallery featuring works by local artists, then are seated in the midcentury industrial-style restaurant or on the outdoor deck. Before the meal, diners are treated to pickled vegetables and house-made lavash (an Armenian flatbread) to tickle the taste buds and cleanse the palate.
“It’s a health-conscious amuse-bouche,” Aponte explains. “It makes more sense on a food-science level than giving bread. To make someone hungry, you give them something acidic. It gets the metabolism going.”
Alchemy’s menu is designed to accommodate both meat lovers and vegetarians with items such as fried Lion’s Mane fettuccine, grilled eggplant, seared cucumber scallops, and seitan over polenta. Each entrée has a meat or seafood option for omnivores.
The dinner menu also includes 13 small plates. Classic Italian braciole with pounded flank steak is stuffed with mozzarella and parmesan, rolled and cooked in a tomato sauce. Vegetarians seeking a similar dish might choose the eggplant rollatini.
Mixologist Bob Peters developed the cocktail menu, and the coffee program is provided by Enderly Coffee.
Brunch will never be the same after the vegetarian “chicken” and waffles with Lion’s Mane mushrooms. Meat eaters can order it with chicken sourced from Salem Hill Farms in Marshville.
“I want everything to look and feel the same as its nonrestricted counterpart,” Aponte says. “I want two people who have different eating habits and order the same thing and not feel like one person got the shorter end of the stick.” SP
The Restaurant at Alchemy is open for lunch on weekdays, dinner Wednesday through Sunday, and brunch on Saturday and Sunday. 2517 Distribution St., c3-lab.com/alchemy/restaurant-bar