Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Go Zen, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Veganism is becoming popular among young people.”
William Ge was born in Shanghai, and had been working in vegan restaurants for several years before opening his own vegan restaurant in 2016. Nestled amongst the trendy streets and storefronts of New York’s Greenwich Village on West 4th St. sits Go Zen, where William crafts his unique vegan cuisine with a global flair. “It turns out that most of the vegetarians in Shanghai are elderly people,” said William. “Many of them rarely eat outside, they prefer to buy vegetables and cook on their own. Things are different here in New York. Many young people are willing to go for a vegan diet and bring their friends to try it as well. So I have many young people gathering in my restaurant.” William’s menu also takes into consideration the varied tastes of his customers: “We have American-Chinese food, we also have burgers, pasta, and of course we also have traditional Chinese food, such as vegan Xiaolongbao (Shanghai Soup Dumplings).”
During the pandemic, however, Go Zen lost 80% of its business. William worked hard to establish a system for delivery, and was also delighted to join Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement. He looks forward to promoting better access to vegan alternatives and additionally encouraging more people who wish to try Go Zen’s scrumptious vegan food.
Strolling through New York’s Greenwich Village, from the narrow and intertwining streets, to the classic red brick buildings, to bookstores, vintage clothing stores, record shops, cafes and bars, each brick and tile is imbued with a certain artistic atmosphere. Artists, writers, and musicians who drive the creative American spirit gather here. Pedestrians on the street young and old are often stylishly dressed, boldly expressing their personalities. Like many of the shops in Greenwich Village, Go Zen is located on the ground floor of a classic red brick building. The vegan eatery was originally called “Vegan Paradise 2.” In 2016, William Ge purchased the restaurant and created his own vegan paradise: “In this community, veganism is a way of life for many people. They love to go out with their families and friends to enjoy vegan food in a cozy restaurant.”
Expertise in Vegan Restaurants
“I came from a vegetarian family. My father is a vegetarian, my wife has been a vegetarian for many years and my daughter is also a vegetarian.” William Ge operated two restaurants in his hometown, which were both successful. At the age of 27, he came to the United States and entered the vegan catering industry by chance, and has been dedicated to this path for more than 20 years. “I had worked in many vegan restaurants, including those in the Chinese community and also very famous ones in New York. I used to work in a vegan restaurant called Nuage in Texas, which Laura Bush, the First Lady at that time, loves to eat at. She visited the restaurant every time she returned to her hometown.”
By the time William opened Go Zen on West 4th St. in 2016, he already had 17 years of experience in vegan restaurants. “I think it’s nice to open a vegan restaurant in this community, because many people here are inspired by the vegan movement and regard veganism as their way of life.” William explained his observations on the difference between vegetarianism in China and veganism in America: “I remember when I was in Shanghai; vegetarians were generally older people, and they usually won’t spend a lot on eating. Most of the time, they bought cheap vegetables from markets and cooked them on their own. But things are different here in America, in West Village, New York. People love to enjoy tasty vegan foods and they will go with a group of friends to eat in the vegan restaurants.”
A Menu With a Global Flair
In order to adapt to the multicultural community and cover the diverse customer groups in the West Village, William designed a menu that blends Eastern and Western cuisine. From burgers, to french fries, pasta, Pai Thai, and American-Chinese foods like sesame beef and sweet and sour chicken, or authentic Chinese foods like Xiaolongbao and Shanghai soup dumplings, Go Zen’s menu offers a wealth of choices for vegan food lovers.
“Many of the dishes in our restaurant are innovatively designed by ourselves,” said William as he introduced his menu. “For example, our best-selling American-Chinese classic dish, Sesame Seitan, is a vegan version of Sesame Beef. We use whole wheat flour to imitate the chewiness of beef. The seitan is marinated in pineapple and ginger water, then wrapped in cornstarch and fried until crispy, so the dish is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. With our special sauce, it is very delicious.” Other American-Chinese classics, like “Sweet and Sour Divine” and “Soy Cashew Saute,” are all very popular. William made these dishes into set meals with refreshing side dishes, rice or noodles, and a small after-meal snack.
“Of course, we also have very authentic Chinese vegan food, such as our ‘House Special Buddha’s Delight,’” said William. In addition to traditional Chinese vegan dishes, William also enjoys inventing brand new dishes. The restaurant’s most popular dim sum, Xiaolongbao, is a vegan version of the famous Shanghai Xiaolongbao. “I use vegan soy paste to imitate the taste of minced meat, and agar to make the broth in the soup dumplings. This dim sum dish tastes as delicious as the original Xiaolongbao. It’s a must-try in our restaurant.”
William Ge said that many people think that vegan ingredients are cheaper, but oftentimes this is unfortunately not so. For example, the cheesecakes and chocolate cakes at Go Zen use vegan butter, which is more expensive than regular butter. “You need to pay extra attention to the ingredients. For example, people use honey for making barbecued pork. We have to switch to maple syrup when making the barbecue sauce. The ingredients are not cheap, and we go to markets like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to ensure the quality.”
Veganism on the Rise
High-quality foods and tasty vegan meals built up the reputation of Go Zen in West Village. However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely impacted the restaurant’s business. Greenwich Village, which used to be a destination for tourists from all over the world, has all but become a ghost town. “The business has dropped by 80%. We can only rely on takeaway.” Thinking of the restaurant business in the pandemic, William couldn’t help but look a little downhearted. “Although the government allows restaurants to build outdoor dining areas, for a restaurant that has a small entryway like mine, it’s going to be hard to put more than two tables in front of the restaurant. I can’t invest thousands of dollars to build a dining area with heating equipment and rely on a business of only one or two tables.”
When he first came to the U.S., he learned how to cook vegan and vegetarian food from Tzu Chi volunteers, and has cherished his friendship with Tzu Chi for more than 20 years. During the pandemic, a Tzu Chi volunteer invited William to join the Very Veggie Movement. He happily agreed: “Veganism has great potential. I think this trend will become stronger and stronger. Why? Because I see many guests in my restaurant are young adults in their 30’s and 40’s. And there are also many young people in their teens and twenties, such as students from NYU, coming in groups. Vegan food became more and more popular and veganism is on the rise.”
William said that the pandemic is like a natural disaster, reminding people of the sanctity of life all around them, but it also prompts people to consider a change in lifestyle. In the past, there have been several animal-related epidemics that could suggest humans need to change the way the food industry works. “Now I just hope that we will take good care of our health during the pandemic. After it has passed, when the weather is warmer, please come out to my restaurant and try a vegan meal, maybe you will fall in love with veganism,” said William with a gracious smile. Although the pandemic is still ongoing, William has not lost hope for the future.
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