From practical to playful, inspired recipes that reveal the hidden potential of plants
At the award-winning restaurant, The Acorn, plants are celebrated: explored, enhanced, coaxed with creativity, and dressed for a night of being the center of attention and the phenomenal focus of every plate. In their first cookbook, Shira Blustein and Brian Luptak—The Acorn’s owner and chef—share their truly unique recipes, highlighting the endless possibilities that come when cooking with the seasonal and wild-crafted ingredients gifted to us by nature. Defying categorization, with dishes that are anything but predictable, this cookbook will leave even the staunchest of meat eaters satisfied.
The recipe chapters are structured by season, with an Essentials chapter at the start of the book—full of pickles, vinegars, oils, and plant-based alternatives—and a Cocktails chapter at the back. All the recipes are broken into components, and range from the simple but sublime Spring Radishes with Ashed Spring Onion Almond Sauce, Fried Garlic Scapes or Stinging Nettle Soup, to the intriguing Fried Zucchini Blossoms with Fermented Zucchini Purée and Apricot Chili Sauce, Smoked Caramelized Parsnip and Potato Pâté, or Squash and Chanterelle Gnocchi. And the recipes focus on minimizing waste and maximizing the potential of each plant—as the stems of one recipe become the pickled star of another.
Encouraging us all to be adventurous with our vegetables, Acorn offers a year’s worth of seasonal recipes, infused with brilliant creativity. Visually compelling, and masterfully thought through, Acorn takes vegetarian cooking to the next level, and is a cookbook to read, admire, and inspire.
About the authors
SHIRA BLUSTEIN is the owner and founder of The Acorn, an award-winning, vegetable-forward restaurant and bar located at the heart of Vancouver’s Main St. Since opening in 2012, The Acorn has picked up national awards for excellence—including enRoute magazine’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants—and been featured in The New York Times and Bon Appétit. It has been deemed one of the best vegetable-forward destinations in the world by CNN and The Daily Meal, and the Number 1 vegan restaurant in the world by Big Seven Travel. In 2016, Blustein opened The Arbor, a casual sequel to Acorn, on the same Main St. block, and with the same uncompromising attention to quality, detail, and plant-based deliciousness.
BRIAN LUPTAK was head chef at The Acorn for five years. Prior to this, he spent a decade cooking in some of the Canada’s finest hotels and resorts—from remote getaway locations to urban centers. By combining the structure and discipline he gained from larger institutions, with the freedom of creativity and experimentation afforded by The Acorn, Luptak raised the bar for the restaurant’s innovative dishes with his exceptional palate and discerning eye for detail and presentation. He lives in Vancouver with his partner, Christine, and puppy, Bowie.
Excerpt: Acorn: Vegetables Re-Imagined: Seasonal Recipes from Root to Stem (by (author) Shira Blustein & Brian Luptak; foreword by Julia Stiles)
I always wanted to open a restaurant, a dream I have come to realize I shared with much of the world. My mom claims it’s in my genes. Her father was the head caterer of a synagogue in Toronto, and they say the “crazy” skips a generation.
I grew up in the largest city in the Canadian prairies, Calgary, Alberta, which, when I was a teen in the 90s, felt like a never-ending suburban sprawl designed solely to prevent my escape. My youth was spent finding creative ways to release the pressure of being an enraged and hormonal teenager. As luck would have it, my instinct to rebel against suburbia led me to a group of like-minded ratty teenagers looking to differentiate themselves from their conservative-leaning parents.
In my punk beginnings, I distinctly remember an old beaten-up VHS of Faces of Death, a pop-culture relic from the 70s whose controversial subject matter made it a must-see among the young, curious, and disillusioned. The film got passed around and was dubbed so many times that the video footage was full of static, often skipping and distorting, which was probably for the best. I found out only recently that most of the video was staged, save for the slaughterhouse footage. Still, it was enough to convince me that going vegetarian was a moral imperative, and I’ve never looked back.
I was 14 years old, loitering outside Megatunes, Calgary’s independent record store, killing time with friends before a punk show was set to start. As memory serves, the bands were DBS, from Vancouver, and Anti-Flag, from Pittsburgh. Word carried that the show was canceled, that they had walked out of the venue after a fight with the promoter and had nowhere to play. Friends offered them their jam space as a makeshift alternative so their trip to Calgary wouldn’t be a total bust. We piled into our friend’s car and trekked out to the industrial suburbs. The circumstances and intimacy of their performance that evening encapsulated everything I was initially drawn to in punk rock—a community that supported one another creatively and stood up for what they believe in—and it cemented in me a set of values I carry to this day.
Between sets, everyone went outside for fresh air except for my girlfriend Mandy and me. Mandy, with a perfect Chelsea haircut and enough sense about her that we called her “Ma,” pointed out that the PA system was still live and buzzing. Feeling inspired, we jumped on the mics and sang an a cappella version of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which quickly turned to death metal screams and growls. Unsurprisingly, someone heard our wails and interrupted us to identify which scream belonged to whom. Mandy let out a deep, throaty, guttural growl and I unleashed a shrill, high-pitched, nails-on-a-chalkboard scream (later likened to that of a banshee in a show review). Unbeknownst to me, I had just participated in—and aced—my first band audition, discovering the secret door out of Calgary.
Touring North America as a DIY punk band in the 90s had a unique set of challenges. You had to cold-call and snail-mail cassette tapes of your music to promoters listed in Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life—a resource guide published by the venerable Maximum Rocknroll fanzine— while plotting a tour route on a heavily creased road map. Often music venues were nearly condemned punk-house basements in yet-to-be-gentrified neighborhoods, where it fell within the realm of reason that the volume of our amps would bring an unwelcome start to the inevitable process of demolition. The drives were long and sleep was where you could f ind it, often under someone’s kitchen table, packed like sardines in our sleeping bags. It was the furthest thing from glamorous, but glamor wasn’t exactly on the menu.
Most of the meals we had on tour were fast and cheap. Sometimes, if we were lucky, a free meal would come by way of a co-op or collective like Food Not Bombs, or the promoter would make a huge vat of veggie chili. Admittedly, food was a low priority in those days, but on tour in the 90s, vegetarian was still treated as a four-letter word and vegan was another language altogether. We would occasionally come across a gem of a restaurant that would offer something beyond the side plates we relied on at mega-chain diners—and finding a hippie-run, vegetarian holein-the-wall in most of the United States and Canada was like finding an oasis in an arid desert. When a delicious morsel hit your tongue, the sensation rang deep, making the fact of our deprivation of basic nourishment even more evident.
After touring, coming home was another depressing reminder of how little people cared about vegetables. Calgary was, and still is, lauded as the beef capital of Canada. My mom, empathetic toward my vegetarian “condition,” adapted her recipes and taught me how to cook. Our diverse multicultural background made for interesting dishes: Persian, Indian, Iranian, Polish, and Russian (all 100% Jewish) played their respective roles in the kitchen.
By 2002 the band had disbanded and I moved to Vancouver for film school. The intensive program only reminded me how much I missed playing music. I picked post-production sound to stay close to my auditory passions and eventually joined a band with several other Calgary expats. The music industry was still strong: record labels had money, CDs were selling, our band signed with an outfit from the United Kingdom, and I quit my film job to tour again. Funded with daily stipends and being slightly more mature made for food experiences that were more profound this time around. I was excited that views on vegetables seemed to be evolving beyond what amounted to a splash of color accenting the protein on the plate.
I would still return to Vancouver as a frustrated diner, though, knowing there was so much more potential and a niche to be filled for uncompromising plant-forward cuisine. Working the odd serving job in between tours, I knew the skills acquired from being in a restaurant, although incredibly valuable, were completely different from the skills required to open a restaurant. Intent on learning more, I studied business foundation courses at night. One of my bandmates, upon learning of my restaurant ambitions, introduced me to Andreas Seppelt, a Vancouver restaurateur driven by both passion and the mantra “work hard, show the love.” Through his generous spirit, he offered endless resources and decades of experience. His vote of confidence gave me the push to open The Acorn.
The cards lined up on a well-loved corner at Main Street and 24th Avenue, blocks away from home, and I set out to realize my dream. Leaning on my community, I used all the goodwill I could muster calling upon friend after friend to come lend a hand in exchange for pizza and beer. The design was dark, angular, and edgy, inspired by the abundance of forest trees surrounding Vancouver and the dark artistic sensibilities I had been feeding for nearly three decades.
We opened in July 2012 to a flood of people who had that same hole in their heart for an elevated plant-based experience—or vegetable-forward, as we called it at the time. We were eager to fill that void. Our menu was simple, small, clean, and colorful. We were open until 2 a.m. and our friends DJ’d late in the night every Thursday. In 2013, we earned a spot on enRoute magazine’s coveted “Canada’s Best New Restaurants” list, the first time a plant-based restaurant had ever been acknowledged, cementing The Acorn as a restaurant of national regard—and a f lag bearer for what would eventually become a larger cultural shift toward more conscious, vegetable-forward dining.
Year after year our global reach and recognition has grown. It has been incredible and humbling watching The Acorn evolve over the past 8 years. Our adventures have taken us from countless accolades and awards, to collaborative farm and wine dinners, to an edible art installation at the Vancouver Art Gallery, to opening a pop-up restaurant in the Lower East Side of New York City, to endless galas and fundraising events. We opened a sister restaurant called The Arbor in 2016, a less austere and more playful eatery on the same block. And my own family has grown, expanding from my husband, Scott, and me to include two young daughters.
The passion and focus of the team at The Acorn to source local, seasonal, foraged, and quality ingredients have deepened with every passing year, to what we can now proudly exclaim is a nearly 100% organic menu. The relationships we have with farmers, wineries, breweries, distilleries, foragers, and the neighborhood shopkeepers are the rewards for our hard work and dedication. I’m so proud of our front-of-house team who enthusiastically guide our guests through The Acorn experience, our dishwashers who are the backbone of service, and every cook who pushes our menu to be better through their collaborative spirit.
Since there are no rules with vege tables, we have limitless possibilities—as long as we continue to learn and grow together. It brings me back to that sweaty punk practice space 25 years ago, when I saw complete strangers working together, generously offering support to one another with a shared passion for community, creativity, and integrity. The Acorn’s journey is just beginning.
Reflecting on the influences that have made me the chef I am today, brings me back to my youth. I grew up surrounded by agriculture. Many of my friend’s families were farmers, and much of my childhood was spent playing on those farms. Our small town sat right in the heart of apple country, and the first job I ever had was picking apples in the orchard right across the road from our house. Our town also butted up against Georgian Bay, which filled the nearby lakes and rivers with fresh fish. It is safe to say that my knowledge of where our food comes from was instilled in me at a young age. That knowledge is something I’ve kept with me, but never had an outlet for it until I became a cook.
Food was never a big focus in my life growing up. I am the youngest of three children, two of which were not the most adventurist eaters. As for my parents, they had their hands full trying to get us kids to all of our extracurricular activities. Time never seemed to be on their side, so convenience in the kitchen was key. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is amazing in the kitchen, and went out of her way to make delicious dinners and elaborate holiday feasts. If it were left to my dad, we would have had toasted tomato sandwiches and canned soup seven days a week. I imagine my passion for cooking is a trait inherited from my greatgrandmother. I was too young to ever know her, but the story of her journey from Slovakia to Canada and the tales of her cooking always amazed me. If there were one person I could cook with now, it would be her, hands down.
After countless random jobs as a teenager, I finally found one that opened my eyes to a world of endless possibilities, and to an industry that I would return to years later. That job was dish washing. It was my gateway to the restaurant industry, and it led me to my first mentor, a Slovak chef with a strong demeanor and an even stronger handshake. People say that working as a dishwasher makes you a better chef, and it’s true. This is where you learn to grind it out. Where you learn by observing how the cooks move and how the chef speaks. You’re watching how the front of house works in cohesion with the back of house—like hearing the serving staff come to the back to vent about the guests at table 12. It taught me a million invaluable little lessons that lay the groundwork for what would become my career.
From that first dishwasher job, I had some amazing opportunities to explore western Canada, going to places I never thought I would see, and all along the way working alongside some amazing cooks. Cooks from different backgrounds, of different nationalities, and with different skill sets. Cooks who showed me the discipline, speed, and creativity I’d need to grow in my own career. I’m forever indebted to those I have worked with over the years.
I found it trying over the years, to work my way up through the ranks at high-end hotels and never be able to truly, unapologetically express my artistic side. I reached a standstill in my career and knew that an independent restaurant was where I needed to be, so I reached out to The Acorn. I imagined that transitioning to a vegetarian restaurant would broaden my thought processes and inspire my creativity, and it did just that. However, I could never have foreseen just how much I would learn. Not only as a chef, but also as a consumer. A large shift in my approach to food and my perspective on the culinary arts started when forager Lance Staples came by the door for the first time with an assortment of wild edibles. Edibles that he had gathered from where he was living on Vancouver Island. Ingredients that I had never heard of. The farmers we work with, such as Klippers Organics, North Arm Farm, and Cropthorne Farm, have at times been mentors, as influential as the greatest chefs I have ever worked with. The respect, heart, and soul that they have for the land inspires and motivates me to pay homage to their product.
It has been an unbelievable voyage. One that has provided inspiration in the form of greens, mushrooms, blossoms and berries. My journey through the restaurant industry, and my years at The Acorn, have ultimately led to the creation of this cookbook, our giant art project. Writing the recipes in this book, and reflecting over my time as the chef of this oh-so-cozy 48-seat restaurant, has made me feel as though I am back in that small town where it all began.
“The Acorn’s recipes for elevated vegetarian meals, center plants and fungi in a gustatory spotlight that demonstrates, through deliciousness, just how potent and satisfying these living kingdoms can be.”
—DAVID ZILBER, chef and fermenter
“Eating at The Acorn made me feel like I belonged, and left me with a lot of positive questioning: It was my first time at a vegetarian restaurant where everything was so thoughtful and beautifully prepared. Shira and her team are a force of nature, and with this book we all get a glimpse into their world.”
“The Acorn is doing things to vegetables that put it on the cutting edge of the plant-forward movement. I’m so excited to finally get my hands on their cookbook so I can see how they make their magical food happen.”
—AMANDA COHEN, chef/owner, Dirt Candy
“This beautiful, exacting celebration of vegetables from one of North America’s most exciting and consistently surprising restaurants should prove essential reading for a new generation of casual and professional cooks. Never in the field of modern gastronomy have the grown goods of our green earth been so innovatively and instructively tamed to the page.”
—ANDREW MORRISON, Scout magazine
“At the award-winning Acorn restaurant in Vancouver, produce is the star of every plate. In their first cookbook, chef Luptak and owner Blustein get creative with plants, inspiring the home cook to think root to stem and create beautiful seasonal meals.”
—JULIE VAN ROSENDAAL, The Globe and Mail