An Interview With Kory Stetina, of San Diego’s Kindred Restaurant: Heavy Metal Vegan Is Now Officially A Thing
This is the sort of story you’d expect to read in The Onion, but once again, real life offers its own dramatically weird fare. Turns out that the owners of Cafe Gratitude, that massively-buzzed mecca of haute vegan cuisine in Southern California, is run by a pair of raging carnivores. In 2004, the Cafe’s owners, Matthew and Terces Engelhart, erected a cruelty-free restaurant empire, luring hungry vegans to their door with an exotic, creative and utterly scrumptuous menu. I can personally vouch — the food there is lip-smacking good and totally filling. As Grub Street recently reported however, there’s been a slight hitch in their self-professed mission of “sacred commerce,” and “honest and transparent communication” since it was discovered that for the past year, the couple have been raising and slaughtering cows on their farm. Not surprisingly, the Engelharts had withheld this rather salient development to their animal-adoring customers. Realizing that they’ve unwittingly been subsidizing this bovine bloodshed for a year, an outraged vegan horde has rallied its troops, stormed the social media gates and now Cafe Carnitude’s owners are neck-deep in cow blood, death threats and shitty Yelp reviews. It’s almost like somebody should write a song about this type of situation…
Meanwhile in San Diego, shit grew extremely real with the opening of Kindred, an upscale death metal vegan restaurant in South Park. Dig that again for a minute – a death metal vegan restaurant. Within minutes of learning of the restaurant’s imminent launch, I sorted out an interview with founder and merciless purveyor of neck-snapping hardcore and bone-rattling heavy metal, Kory Stetina. As soon as I entered the restaurant, I knew that I had just found Metal Hammer’s latest Defender Of The Faith — a small blurb that appears early in each issue, honoring metalheads from all over the planet who have found some unique fusion of heavy metal and some other vocation, passion or activity. Like Kindred, for example.
Kory walked me around his gilded palace of occult chic, pointing out some of Kindred’s more obvious hallmarks, such as the trouser-filling, Hyundai-sized black wolf’s head roaring out of the back wall, greeting diners with four sets of eyes, fangs bared and horns curling into two fanged, hissing pythons. Seriously, the only thing more metal than that would be Dio’s skeleton rising from the dirt and beating Kanye with a tire iron. The washrooms feature metal legends posing with cats as well as custom portraits of sinister felines in all manner of occultish poses, not to mention Kindred’s seditiously-clever wallpaper and the greatest playlist in the Great State of California. In this millennium, you can’t open an opulent new eatery and then turn around and serve the sort of cocktails your dad orders with his steak or the sort of beers advertised during football games, so they brought in bar manager David Kinsey, iconic visionary of mixology and dyed-in-the-wool Pallbearer fan, to conjure a transfixing range of cocktails, craft beers and other outlandish elixirs to slake the iniquitous legions amassing at their door on the weekends. Just to keep things festive, every Thursday evening is “Permanent Vacation” night, where they sling these exotic libations in ceramic, wolf-adorned tiki mugs and blast old school Hawaiian music all night long. Metal Hammer published the feature last month. However, given that the DOTF feature is only a paragraph, and in view of the fact that Kory and I covered so much ground, I’m running the whole shooting match here. If you live in San Diego or are sauntering through for a visit, you don’t have to be a vegan (or a metalhead) to have a hell of a good meal and great night out at Kindred. Check it.
So walk me through this drink menu.
Most of our drinks have playful, sort of heavy-handed names that reference music and sci-fi movies. There’s Unbearable Lightness, Sweet Leaf, referencing Sabbath, The Spice Must Flow, referencing Dune and Brain Candle is a reference to a Cave In song of the same name. All the drinks are all very elegant and well-crafted and almost feminine but we gave them these insane over-the-top names like Weapon of Choice, Faith Hammer, Ghost Chant and River Styx. Doomgazer is a beer cocktail with Le Fin Du Monde, that Canadian beer (9% alcohol content). Great Barrier Reefer is a reference to a Bongripper song. Kiss of Steel is for our friend Rob, from Unbroken, and one of their songs.
How’d you approach designing the menu?
Our goal was to provide diners with a truly high-end dining experience with decadent food and next level service, so there’s a lot of variety and we played around with flavors a lot. Deli Battle is our play on charcuterie, and then we’ve got char-grilled seitan skewers with chimichurri and horseradish aioli. The barbecued jackfruit sandwich is really flavorful and filling. Jackfruit is an Asian fruit like papaya that has a meaty, almost pulled-pork-like texture that takes on sweet flavors really well.
How’d you arrive at such a unique pastiche of cultures?
I was exposed to vegetarianism when I was fifteen or sixteen through the New York hardcore scene and I quickly became vegan. I’ve been vegan for 14 years and vegetarian for five. I’ve never been on a mission to convert people- it’s just a passion for me. I started a pop-up restaurant concept in 2011 called LOVELIKEBEER and metal geeks really enjoyed the Killing Joke reference (their song “Love Like Blood”). It was an intersection of my passions — vegan food paired with craft beer to raise money for charity. We initially planned on about 80 people coming in and 400 showed up. We ran out of food by 9 p.m.! [laughs] Kindred represents a celebration of all of my personal obsessions – rich, decadent, sexy vegan food, honoring the heavy metal and punk cultures where I came from and that shaped my entry into vegetarianism. And of course, my love for booze! Like really flavorful craft beers and decadent cocktails and exotic spirits.
Whenever I offer to take non-vegetarians to a vegan or vegetarian eatery, they inevitably respond with either an eye-roll or a tightening of the lips before agreeing. It’s like you’re watching their minds figure out what sort of food they have in the fridge so they can eat whey they get home. Could I take non-vegetarians here?
Absolutely. When I started, I was noticing that 80-90 percent of the people at the pop-up events were non-vegetarian and I think that’s because we were serving vegan food outside of an activist environment. It was about fun, partying, food and flavors. When the pairing of the beer and food is done in that indulgent sort of way, people don’t care about labels. Our flavors and portions and the utter fillingness of our dishes are just as indulgent as non-vegan food.
San Diego Magazine gave you a glowing review before you even opened the doors. Referring to the decor, the author wrote, “It looks like a satanic church.” What was your vision for Kindred’s ambience?
We wanted to deliver a beautiful space to enjoy this food with next-level hospitality and we wanted to do fun, ridiculous stuff like mounting a gigantic four-eyed wolf on the wall! We do more so Kindred is more than a place where just vegans go to talk about being vegans and eating vegan food. Sometimes vegans run into sort of a religious fervor… We’re not trying to convert anyone- we’re just trying to make indulgent food that people will really enjoy. We don’t even use the word “vegan” on our menu, even though the entire menu is 100% vegan.
Let’s talk about Kindred’s soundtrack.
The soundtrack to Kindred is almost 100% psych metal. Except on Thursday we do a Tiki-inspired night called “Permanent Vacation.” We did a badass tiki mug with the wolf and we’re playing old mid-century synth exotica, we’ll throw leis on the wolf to remind everybody that we don’t take ourselves too seriously by celebrating escapist tiki culture. Other than that, the metal playlist is central to who we are. Bands like Pallbearer and really anything with a fun, droney but melodic sound, works really well. The screeching vocals, even though on all of our personal playlists, aren’t on the house system, but you’ll hear Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, Pentagram, Sabbath. Late at night we move to bands like High on Fire, Torch, Baroness and obviously Sleep.
Speaking of Sleep, one of the restaurant’s most playful features is that you feature the hour-long Dopesmoker in the restrooms.
Dopesmoker plays on repeat in the restrooms all day long, but we put a little Easter egg in for fun. We have Dopesmoker on repeat eleven times, and then we throw in one Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, so every three or four days, you hear Cyndi Lauper in the restrooms.
The bathroom walls feature eye-popping photos of Immortal and Danzig with cats, cats with pentagrams carved into their foreheads and other felines of the grim and creepy variety. How did you arrive at the cat theme?
Well, Ryan Patterson, the singer of Coliseum, did the photo in the front corner, with the cats surrounding the skull and roses. That’s where the whole occult cat obsession began.
Kory and I discussed Kindred’s wallpaper and rather than attempt to describe it, I’ll simply encourage diners to look at the walls from a distance and to then get up close and personal to see what’s really happening. To commemorate Kindred, its jaw-droppingly delicious cuisine and its joyously-metal spirit, I put together this Kindred-friendly soundtrack.