You won’t find the word vegan in any of their communication and promotional media, although every ingredient of their meal is of vegetable origin. Instead you’ll be greeted with relaxed ambient, a freshly baked flat cake, made from locally produced spelt, a juice from surplus lemons that can’t be sold in a store, a cake from ripe bananas that were saved from being thrown away, a stew from seasonal vegetables, home-fermented cheeses, tacos with guacamole made from mashed zucchini instead of avocado, and much more. It’s Kucha, a “home for semi-responsible hedonists” in Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, where veganism and care for the environment are lifted to another level.
“We strive for Kucha to become an institution that deals with food on many levels, to be a crossing point of different talents and knowledge, all revolving around food,” explains Vladimir Mićković, one of the founders of Kucha. The founders united about two years ago to put into reality their idealistic belief that a better world is possible.
Kucha was never meant to be just another vegan restaurant, but rather a complex, thoughtful solution to the current environmental crisis. “It’s not enough to be a vegan; you can still hurt yourself and the planet. The answer is deeper, part of it is returning to self-supply.” For Mićković, it’s essential to shorten transport routes and decrease their environmental footprint, so Kucha serves almost exclusively seasonal and locally produced vegetable food. The group also experiments with food surplus. “We’re extreme idealists,” Mićković explains.
“Due to legal regulations and the restaurant business in general, it’s very difficult to achieve zero-waste standards, but we strive to get closer every day.”
Kucha receives up to 90% of its raw ingredients from 40 local suppliers, small and medium-sized ecological farms. Most of them are from around Ljubljana, and some are from neighboring Italy and Croatia. The other 10% are surplus produce, vegetables, and fruits that are too ripe to be sold in a store or that don’t meet supermarket aesthetic standards. “We’re not talking about products with an expired date of use, or products that haven’t been sold in a store. We’re talking about an ecological lemon that has a black spot or a strange form; it’s something buyers don’t like to see on the shelves, but it’s perfect in terms of nutritional standards, so it’s perfect for our lemon juice.”
To reduce the waste as far as they can, the team even makes use of organic waste, such as vegetable peels, ends and cuts that are distilled and reduced into demi-glace sauces. “Due to legal regulations and the restaurant business in general, it’s very difficult to achieve zero-waste standards, but we strive to get closer every day.” The restaurant has also connected with local foragers who supply them with edible wild flowers and herbs.
Kucha’s menu is a creative mixture of soups, salads, burgers, pizzas, sandwiches, and cakes. According to Mićković, they wanted to include both what the human body needs, and what’s good for the soul. The “responsible” parts of the menu are Sise, seasonal bowls that are prudently composed of highly nutritional ingredients: a fresh component, a fermented component, proteins, carbohydrates, and oils. One of their most popular ones includes smoked buckwheat pastrami, chickpea cheese in garlic oil, potatoes with herbs, seasonal lettuce, carrot, pumpkin seeds and a dressing made from roasted pumpkin seeds.
On the other part of the menu, there are “hedonistic” things such as hot dogs, pizzas, hamburgers and tacos, that fall more into the category of a “pop food,” Mićković explains. “They are much healthier than the classic versions, but it’s still food we wouldn’t recommend eating on a daily basis.” The menu changes every three months; that’s when the team meets up to visit the local market, talk to the suppliers and foragers, and then to retreat to the peacefulness of nature, where ideas for new dishes emerge.
While most food businesses turn to almonds and cashews for vegan cheese production, the team decided to follow its ideology of environmental responsibility and opted for more local ingredients. “Almonds use enormous amounts of water while cashews are from India so they were out of question. Finally we decided on chickpea and buckwheat.”
To the right of their restaurant, Kucha has opened a small deli with regionally produced vegan products. 30% of them (chili sauces, Slovenian ecological wines, chocolates) are made by local producers, while the rest are produced in Kucha’s development department. Vegetable yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, feta, tofu, tempeh, kombucha and meat substitutes are the result of a long and arduous process.
“When we started to develop our own line of vegetable cheeses we experimented with a great variety of legumes, nuts and seeds.” While most food businesses turn to almonds and cashews for vegan cheese production, the team decided to follow its ideology of environmental responsibility and opted for more local ingredients. “Almonds use enormous amounts of water while cashews are from India so they were out of question. Finally we decided on chickpea and buckwheat.” Chickpea grows in the region, is very resistant and durable and doesn’t need a lot of resources. “It also gives great results, so it became a base ingredient for our feta and ricotta cheese while buckwheat is used for pastrami, burgers and sausages.” Currently the department is developing aged chickpea cheese which should find its way to the deli shelf next year. All their products are fermented following ancient techniques that require only bacteria and time.
All meals in the bistro and takeaway menus are served in biodegradable materials, except for products sold in the deli. Cheeses, sausages, pastramis are all packed in vacuumed plastic, but the Kucha founding team is determined to change that too. “Our main challenge, alongside developing the purest possible product and having short transport routes, is figuring out how to package truly responsibly.” They have linked up with young innovative students and the Slovenian Faculty of Polymer Technology to collaborate on developing alternatives. “Currently there is no machinery that is able to pack up thousands of pieces in a biodegradable packaging that would keep the healthy cheese bacteria alive without product rotting, but that at the same time wouldn’t decompose because of the food’s moisture levels. We want to invest in the development of a truly biodegradable material.”
“Kucha has the power and the knowledge to make a change. We want to be an example and create a model that could be reproduced by more institutions.”
Kucha has also an altruistic component, a result of the team’s conviction that every business making profit is obliged to return something to the community, “otherwise it’s not worth much.” Together with Food for Life, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that advocates for a healthier and more sustainable diet, and Avant2Go, an electric car sharing system, they developed a charity project called Kucha Chasti. This is a musical and culinary event where, for every meal sold, Kucha prepares an additional one that is donated to underprivileged individuals and families.
All the meals are prepared from vegetable ingredients and 90% of them are surplus products. “We want to demonstrate that it’s possible to make good use of surplus food. A lot of times the government donates nutritionally disastrous meals, powders and food with questionable value. We prepare hot and tasty meals, the very same that are served to our customers in the bistro.” Mićković says it’s outrageous that while millions of people suffer from hunger, a third of produced food is thrown away. “Kucha has the power and the knowledge to make a change. We want to be an example and create a model that could be reproduced by more institutions.”
Every two months, the organizers of the event, which includes live music and is open to the public, prepare additional meals that are delivered that same day by electric cars to people in need. In the opening year, they distributed more than 1,500 meals with zero additional funding, all with the power of the community. Their aim is to expand the project; they want to donate meals every day.
“People eat vegan food all the time without even realizing it. When they prepare themselves a simple pasta with tomato sauce, nobody calls it vegan although it is. But as soon as you throw ideology in, people start to feel reluctant. Who wants to swallow a whole ideology when eating a single meal?”
Preparing tasty, locally-produced vegetable food is an important component of success, but a proper communication strategy is crucial, says Mićković. The key was finding the right answer to a question: How to effectively communicate that this is more environmentally responsible food, without making people feel threatened? “It’s obvious that crucifying people for their lifestyle and ordering them how to live properly doesn’t work. We don’t want to be divisive, we want to bring people together.”
Mićković mentions that no place serving meat is called “meat restaurant,” so there’s no need to put a vegan label on Kucha either. “People eat vegan food all the time without even realizing it. When they prepare themselves a simple pasta with tomato sauce, nobody calls it vegan although it is. But as soon as you throw ideology in, people start to feel reluctant. Who wants to swallow a whole ideology when eating a single meal?” Mićković explains that they take big issues seriously, but they prefer saving the planet with humor and fun.
The result of this inclusive strategy is that 80% of the bistro’s customers are omnivores, “and we’re proud of it. We just want to serve tasty, environmentally-responsible food, and not take it too seriously. That’s why we call ourselves semi-responsible hedonists: we love good food and are trying our best to be nature-friendly, but at the end we can’t be responsible for every single thing. I think people can relate.”