The singer and songwriter opens up about his many years with the vegan mafia.
If you first heard the word vegan through the liner notes of Moby's breakthrough 1999 album Play, you're not alone. The singer-songwriter has been evangelizing on behalf of vegans everywhere for decades: first with his music and later via a handful of restaurants. In 2002, he opened the Lower East Side's Teany, a small café with a large tea selection; after selling it in 2012 and moving across the country, he opened L.A.'s Little Pine in 2015, a refined comfort food spot in Silver Lake, where all of the profits go to animal welfare organizations.
In his new memoir, Porcelain: A Memoir (out this May via Penguin Press), Moby writes of his youth in Connecticut, going vegan in 1987 while only able to afford soy milk and sprouted bread, and becoming an electronic music star as a small, balding animal-rights activist. We talked to him about how much better vegan food has gotten over the years, his new restaurant, and the vegan mafia.
F&W: What was the biggest motivation for you to go vegan in 1987, which was a much different, sadder era for vegan cuisine?
It was almost like a synaptic realignment. It felt like going to the chiropractor, but for my brain. You know when you go to the chiropractor and they adjust your back, and suddenly, "Oh!" Things are aligned when you hadn't even known they'd been out of alignment.
Growing up, like most people, I loved animals, but I also very happily ate animals, and that never seemed paradoxical to me. Then I had this moment in 1984, when I became a vegetarian, when I was petting a cat that I had rescued—his name was Tucker— and suddenly I realized that if Tucker the cat, with his two eyes and central nervous system, had a rich emotional life, every creature with two eyes and a central nervous system has a rich emotional life. My brain realigned itself, and I realized that I couldn't be culpable for the suffering of any creature that was capable of suffering.
F&W: Since then, what have been the biggest shifts in veganism that you've noticed—food-wise and culturally?
In 1987, when I became a vegan, I believe there were maybe three vegan restaurants in the whole planet. There was Angelica Kitchen in New York, there might have been one in England, there might have been one in Los Angeles or San Francisco. But for the most part, vegan food in 1987 meant the clichéd vegan food that Woody Allen would make fun of. Vegan food was mashed yeast and sprouted oats and runny tofu, for the most part. You could eat as a vegan in 1987, but it was challenging.
The thing for me that is the most surprising is the advances in veganism that have come from non-vegans. For example, Mark Bittman is one of my favorite vegan evangelists and he's not vegan. He wouldn't pass muster with the hardcore, 100 percent vegans with their ethical purity tests, but people like Ellen Degeneres, who's not a vegan, have done more to advance the cause of animal rights than most vegans I know.
F&W: In the book, you mention soy milk and sprouted bread a lot in the chapters about your early days. What would be your go-to buys today?
It depends on where I'm eating. The way that I cook at home actually is fairly monastic. When I'm home, I still eat the way I ate in 1988, very simple. My restaurant, Little Pine, is very indulgent. Our executive chef, Kristyne Starling, worked at Waverly Inn and she worked at Gemma on the Bowery, so her background in food is indulgent, normal people food.
F&W: So what do you cook at home?
Keeping in mind that I'm not a very good cook, I'll tell you that my favorite staple at home is something I call a kimchi pasta fagiole. It's organic orecchiette pasta that looks like little conch shells, this amazing kimchi that a company in Washington State makes called Little Kimchi—it's this pickled, gingery daikon, carrot, cayenne kimchi and it's just phenomenal. So I will make black beans with this kimchi and the olive oil and red pepper flakes, and I'll put in the pasta. If I'm cooking at home, about half the time, that's what I make. That does sound a little bit fancier than mashed yeast.
F&W: You also talk about Angelica Kitchen a lot—what's so special about it?
It's special because it's been there such a long time. Part of it is just the ethos of it: It's been a vegan, organic restaurant long before most people knew what those words meant. I think it's been open for 40 years now, and it was the first vegan restaurant I ever went to, back when it was this little hole in the wall on St. Mark's Place. Quite literally, every time I'm in New York, I have to go there. Even if I'm in New York for 45 minutes, 42 of those minutes I will have to spend at Angelica. It's just got a warmth and a comfort.
A lot of vegan food has become way more indulgent and in keeping with conventional tastes, and I find something comforting in that Angelica is still holding true to its original purpose. There's just that familiarity. As New York has changed, I really appreciate that Angelica has remained this one lasting outpost of the New York I grew up with.
F&W: Tell me about the inspiration behind opening Little Pine, which is your second restaurant.
Largely, the space itself. I used to have a little restaurant in New York called Teany, on Rivington Street.
F&W: Yes, I went there.
Oh, thanks. You didn't say you liked it, but thanks for coming in anyway.
F&W: I did like it!
Okay. Well, when I had Teany, it was really time-consuming and stressful, but satisfying to walk into a space that you'd curated and see a bunch of people happy and eating and feeling taken care of. I said to myself that if I was ever going to open another restaurant, I would have to own the building—which sounds absurd and bourgeois, but the thinking behind that is usually when you rent a space and open a restaurant, you spend a ton of money turning it into a restaurant, and if it doesn't work out, you just lost all that money. I thought that if I bought the building and built the restaurant, I could always sell the building if it didn't work out. That simply has decreased the anxiety around opening the restaurant. It's also this extremely odd, Art Deco, tiny battleship of a building. It's so weird and adorable and idiosyncratic.
F&W: Did you have input on the menu, or did you just pick the chefs and tell them to go for it?
In the year before I opened the restaurant, I spent a lot of time going out to dinner with people and simply observing how they ate. Some of this is going to sound egregiously self-evident, but I noticed that when people go out to eat, they want to eat something kind of indulgent that they can't do at home—even the most virtuous vegan. My friends who are vegan, who are eating brown rice at home, when they go out they are eating opulent meals. I thought there was this happy medium where we could create something that was both vegan and indulgent that would reach the vegans and normal non-vegans, so the food would feel sort of familiar to them.
F&W: Aside from Angelica and Little Pine, where are your favorite places to eat?
In New York, I love Candle Cafe and Candle 79. Another restaurant I have to go to every time I'm in New York is Souen, just because I think the first time I went there was in 1989 and it's like a little time capsule.
In L.A., I love Cafe Gratitude, even though some of my friends from New York have a really hard time with the affirmations. Instead of ordering a burrito, saying, "I Am Enlightened"—I have friends who can't go there for that reason; it makes them really uncomfortable. And of course Crossroads. What Tal Ronnen has done with Crossroads is miraculous, because there are so many non-vegans who have gone to Crossroads and that's their gateway: They walk in and it's elegant and there's a huge cocktail menu and the food is familiar and indulgent.
What's interesting with someone like Tal is that his background is actually pretty hardcore animal rights. He worked at Compassion Over Killing; he worked at PETA. Most of us in the vegan world, we do have an agenda. When we all meet up, there is a vegan mafia. Maybe I shouldn't be saying this; the first rule of vegan mafia is, don't talk about the vegan mafia. We all know each other and we're all working together, and the goal is ending animal suffering.
F&W: Considering how long you've been vegan and an activist vegan, what do you see in the future of the movement and the cuisine?
This is one of the reason Mark Bittman is my favorite vegan activists even though he's not vegan: He speaks with a degree of dispassionate objectivity that I don't have.
When I think of vegan food, I think of this food that doesn't contribute to climate change, that promotes more sustainable farming, that uses less water, that decreases rainforest deforestation, that decreases erectile dysfunction, that decreases heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, and also looks really beautiful and tastes really nice. To me, the future will be largely vegan even if people aren't aware of it. It just stands to reason that the future is gonna be a lot more vegan than it is, but I think it's important to present people with the information and let people do what they will.