The man behind the award-winning food magazine no one has heard of (yet)
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — In May, when a Jarry magazine article won a James Beard award, few in the audience had heard of the publication, which put out a single issue in 2015, let alone its cofounder, Lukas Volger, a cookbook author and food entrepreneur here.
Besides putting out the magazine, and distributing “Made by Lukas” veggie burgers served at some New York restaurants and carried by various Whole Foods, Volger, 34, is the author of a cookbook that came out earlier this year, “Bowl: Vegetarian Recipes for Ramen, Pho, Bibimbap, Dumplings, and Other One-Dish Meals.” In his kitchen here, in a prewar building on the south side of Prospect Park, he is making ramen for lunch.
Vegetables come from his local farmers’ market — Fort Greene, Grand Army Plaza, or Ditmas Park — and include slender asparagus, shaved lengthwise, and ramps (he swaps them for the snow peas he calls for in the book). Both are cooked in a little oil, then added to a vegetarian broth based on the dried sea vegetable kombu, dried shiitakes, and miso, with soft-cooked eggs and fresh ramen noodles. He figured out which brand of kombu to use, he says, when he asked Asian cookbook author Corinne Trang what to buy. “The most expensive,” she answered. This one is made by Emerald Cove.
Volger’s kitchen is a typical small New York space, but he’s organized, and in a green T-shirt with a towel over one shoulder, the likable, easygoing chef moves around in a balletic way. Golden frizzled shallots for garnish are ready and bowls are stacked up. Fresh ramen noodles take only a few minutes to cook, and when Volger drains them, he rinses them thoroughly with cold water to remove excess starch, then switches the rinse to hot water or returns them to the boiling water to reheat.
This is Volger’s third book, all vegetarian. “I’m vegetarian 95 percent of the time,” he says. Once in a while, he eats meat “because I want to see what everyone is talking about.” He was raised in Boise, Idaho, went first to Willamette University in Oregon, then to Hunter College. “I always wanted to be in New York.” Friends who made the same move sometimes told him the city wasn’t what they expected. “But I had no expectations,” he says. He took jobs as a prep cook, baker — he had some high school experience — waiting tables, and catering. Then, after several publishing jobs, he landed at Atlas & Co., an independent house where he did “a little bit of everything.”
When an editor friend asked if he knew anyone who could write a book on veggie burgers, Volger volunteered. “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way” came out in 2010. “I thought it would disappear into thin air,” he says, but it sold well. His second volume, “Vegetarian Entrees That Won’t Leave You Hungry,” wasn’t as successful.
Jarry is a passion project. The word comes from Polari, British slang once used by performers and gay men, and means a man who loves men and food. As such, the magazine tagline is “Men + Food + Men.” The winning James Beard story, by John Birdsall, ran under the headline “Straight-Up Passing,” and explores why gay chefs won’t out themselves (many pass as straight and see no reason to). Volger and cofounders Alex Kristofcak and Stephen Viksjo raised $30,000 on Kickstarter for the first issue, which was printed in Vancouver on high-quality matte paper with as many photos of men as of food. The second Jarry features Howard Helmer, 40-year veteran of the American Egg Board; cocktails by LA-based winemaker Blake Bachman, a friend of Volger’s who is at lunch with us; and the planning for a food-photo shoot by Vancouver photographer and stylist Gabriel Cabrera.
“Bowl” took five years and began on a wet spring night when Volger decided to have a vegetarian bowl at Chuko Ramen in Brooklyn. Vegetarian versions were mostly afterthoughts, he writes; the Chuko bowl was well thought out. He made one at home, other classics like pho and bibimbap followed, and as the bowl craze emerged, Volger made what he calls “on-trend” recipes, like cauliflower “couscous,” in which the white vegetable is pulsed in a food processor until it looks like the tiny grain, then topped with tofu, arugula, celery, and pomegranate seeds.
He serves the steaming ramen with chile oil mixed with dried grapefruit rind, ginger, and garlic, and togarashi blend (“Japanese chile pepper”), a mixture of nori, sesame seeds, dried citrus rind, and crushed red pepper. The ramen is pretty and delicious, with oniony ramps, asparagus, hot pepper, and a broth that manages to be both light and intense.
At the table, faced with chopsticks and a small, bright-yellow enamel spoon, a visitor asks Volger the proper way to eat ramen. He shrugs, amused, and quotes New York restaurateur David Chang: “Just make a mess.”