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When we talk about the history of vegetarian cuisine and lifestyle, we have to talk about Moosewood. The restaurant was founded in 1973 in Ithaca, New York by a collective of like-minded eaters, cooks, and stewards of hospitality, some of whom went on to publish a trove of enormously popular cookbooks under the Moosewood umbrella. It was a pioneer of the natural foods movement within the counterculture of the late 20th century, putting into praxis values about sustainable agriculture, local and seasonal eating, and cooperative organization. As the institution embarks on its 50th year in business, these ideas are now mainstream in contemporary food culture, a fact that one of the original collective members, Wynnie Stein, calls “a dream come true.”
But there’s been one major change at the illustrious vegetarian restaurant: earlier this year, the 19 members of the collective sold the restaurant to Danica Wilcox, who is now the sole owner of the iconic institution.
There was no drama in the sale, the catalyst was simply that most of the collective members are in their 70s now and wanted to retire. As Wilcox points out, working in and running a restaurant is physical, demanding work. “They were just ready for the next chapter,” she says. Still, it was a vetting process. There were many long conversations about how it would work. “It wasn’t handed over blindly,” Wilcox says. “They were very specific about what the aim of the restaurant is, while at the same time giving us a lot of creative freedom.” The collective still retains the rights to the brand name and will be involved in any future cookbooks and non-restaurant-specific Moosewood projects. And the eatery will stay in the family.
Wilcox is the daughter of Kip Wilcox, a member of the original collective. Kip was known for her contributions to the dessert program at Moosewood, and Danica spent much of her childhood at the restaurant. The family lived in an apartment in the Dewitt Mall, a former school building that also houses Moosewood. The younger Wilcox and her brother often ate breakfast there while their mom was prepping poached pears, fudge brownies, and panna cotta. When she was 15, Danica started working at the restaurant washing lettuce and dishes, which was the typical introductory shift for all new employees.
Although the elder Wilcox had a specialized role in making sweets, the majority of the Moosewood staff had fluid positions in the organization. Everyone on staff was required to spend time in every role — from prepping to cooking to waiting and bussing tables. “It was an interesting place to grow up in because it was mostly female-dominated and also there wasn’t a hierarchy,” she recalls. “It was primarily women in the kitchen, of all nationalities and backgrounds.”
Moosewood was originally built by a group of friends as a place to feed their community. The vision was to put forward ideas about sustainable farming and environmentally friendly food systems but to do so in a delicious way. Several of the founding members of Moosewood were also founding members of Lavender Hill, a gay commune that thrived in nearby West Danby from 1973 to 1984. That group included David Hirsch and Ned Asta, who still works at Moosewood as a waitress today (her son, Tazio, is also on the team, as a cook).
“The first people who were involved were very idealistic, none of them had any restaurant experience. They were just great cooks and they loved to cook,” founding member Stein recalls. “We were really interested in food being not just helpful or good for you, but super creative and delicious, and I think that’s what set us apart from the rest of the natural foods movement.”
She says that the recognition that Moosewood received over time, for both the restaurant and its cookbooks — including three James Beard Awards, one for being an America’s Classics restaurant (2000) and two cookbook awards, for Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites (1997) and Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home (1993) — was an added bonus. “We never took this for granted,” Stein says.
Stein has long managed public relations for the Moosewood brand. She played a big part in developing a line of food products of dressings, soups, and frozen meals put out under the Moosewood name in the early-aughts.
Today, she’s acting as the liaison between Wilcox’s team and the collective. And she says that it’s folks like Asta who have stuck around that are essential in the transition. “These long-term employees really carried the ball forward when some of the collective members needed to step back because they were aging out.” Another collective member, Sara Robbins, continues to make soups at the restaurant, a role she’s been in since the beginning. Tim Mooney has been the head chef at Moosewood for 16 years; front-of-house manager Karen Sbamgati has been around for 10.
Wilcox didn’t make the decision to take ownership of Moosewood lightly, nor was it an obvious choice. After leaving Ithaca to attend college in New York City, she worked in the art and fashion industries, launched her own jewelry company, and then moved to Majorca, Spain for a decade where she owned a design store. She always did a lot of cooking at home, but she didn’t make a career in the food world.
When she heard that the collective was very seriously considering a sale during the pandemic, Wilcox immediately became invested in making sure it landed in the right hands. “They had listed it with a local real estate agent, and I was like, ‘wait a minute, let me try to find somebody who might be interested in buying this restaurant. Don’t give it up, don’t close it, and don’t sell it for peanuts, let’s be strategic about it,’” she says. Eventually, the most fitting answer revealed itself: she would move back to Ithaca with her family, and become the next steward.
“I think of myself more as a successor, or the caretaker of Moosewood. She is almost exactly the same age as me, and I felt like she deserved some dignity, and to be a little more grown-up,” Wilcox says of her approach to running the restaurant.
That it’s no longer a collective means that some things have changed, but her admiration for the cooperative model and experience working within it influences how she operates Moosewood today.
In the past, every time there was a decision to make, everyone in the collective had to come to a consensus. “To imagine they were successful at that to the level that they were and remained in business for 50 years is a very radical idea, people have written their Ph.D. theses about this equitable, Marxist model in the business school at Cornell,” she says. Now, there is more of a procedural, streamlined approach to the operation. “Whereas in the past, you had ten people telling you how to do the recycling, now there’s just one way to do it,” Wilcox explains.
The dining model at Moosewood has evolved, too, to be a bit more refined and less like a casual canteen. The culinary focus, as always, remains on highlighting sustainable, local, and seasonal produce farmers, cheesemakers, and beekeepers. The wine, beer, and spirits program is entirely local, including wines made in the Finger Lakes and gin made in the Hudson Valley. “We’re introducing the restaurant to a younger audience who are mostly not familiar with Moosewood, their parents may have had Moosewood cookbooks, but I think the college students of today have a very sophisticated palate,” Wilcox says, recognizing that plant-based diets are more popular than ever and that Moosewood can continue to be an ambassador for healthy and delicious vegetarian eating.
As evidenced by its 14 cookbooks, Moosewood’s cuisine is vast and its recipe repertoire is rich. Mooney and his team pull from that repertoire often as they change the menu for each season. There is always a vegan soup and a creamy soup. The black bean burger from the original cookbook is still on the menu. He uses many of the classic Moosewood salad dressings, but oftentimes in different ways than they’ve been used in the past. Wilcox herself has revamped some of her mom’s recipes for the dessert menu. “She used to make marsala poached pears, I make them with saffron and white wine. She used to make rice pudding, I make a muhallebi, which is an Israeli milk pudding. It’s very nostalgic for me, and kind of sentimental,” she says.
Wilcox has also made some changes to the space, but nothing extreme. If anything, she’s brought it back to its roots, restoring Moosewood’s original sign, restaining the woodwork, exposing the concrete floors, and keeping it light and airy. Stein’s son lead the team that handled all of the interior work. As Stein says, “it may not be that they’re going to be a collective, but I know she’s going to be supporting local people and anybody who’s part of our circle to be involved, so it feels personal in that way.”