What words would you use to describe a carrot to an alien from a distant planet? Orange? Crunchy? Nutritious?
By comparison, Planted owner/chef Jessie Essen, 26, sees the humble vegetable through a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope that knows no earthy definition. See, there’s a ho-hum carrot, and then, there’s a carrot sautéed with spices, sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and roasted with love.
Sweet and savory with crispy edges, these chunks of goodness might beg to be sprinkled atop a warm quinoa salad then drizzled with from-scratch ginger-lemon dressing.
“Once you roast a carrot, it starts to caramelize in the oven and it starts to become something so magical,” Essen said. “You just don’t need meat when you’ve got caramelized veggies on top.”
With her first restaurant, Essen aims to change the way locals see all kinds of vegetables: from the beans in her mighty black bean burger topped with house jalapeño cashew cream cheese to the sweet potato in her Dreaming Juice, brightened by ginger, apple, almond, cinnamon, and clove.
“I don’t want to get a canned chickpea to make hummus. I want to make it all myself, so, in that way, I can see it come all the way through fruition and know that it was done right, mindfully,” Essen said.
A Five Cities local, Essen moved to Boulder, Colo., to study holistic nutrition at Bauman College before diving headfirst into the culinary industry. First, she worked at a top-notch (although chaotic) vegan, gluten-free restaurant. Next, she cut her teeth at a fine dining Italian restaurant where the head chef ruled with an iron apron.
“The vegan restaurant was really in line with the food that I like to eat, and the Italian restaurant really taught me a lot about working in a fast-paced intense kitchen,” Essen said. “It was great to have both experiences, and it’s exciting to be able to apply what I know to what I’m doing here.”
Essen’s kitchen is certainly not a “hippie dippy” operation. Clean and organized with her hardworking team at the helm, this is “where the magic happens.” Here, almond milk is pressed, kale is massaged, and dark chocolate peanut butter balls are chilled to perfection.
The young health nut also gets quite a bit of business guidance and support from her family, who also own nearby CJ’s Cafe. Essen grew up in her family’s diner business, and you could say this experience is what led her to a more plant-based diet.
At 18, living on her own for the first time, she was able to branch out away from the food she had grown up with. Suddenly, microwave pizzas, sodas, and boxed pasta were relegated to the far fringes of her diet.
“Entering into adulthood and actually learning how to cook, that really changed me,” Essen said. “I gravitated toward whole ingredients; foods that are creative and fresh. It was almost like the veil was lifted. I knew I wanted to make all of my own food from scratch. I want to feed people more vegetables and I think it’s good for people to have that option, especially in the Village, where it’s a lot of hot pastrami sandwiches, burgers, and pizza. People want to feel good and move on with their day.”
Essen recently catered a bridal party, and was jazzed to hear positive feedback from the girls. She said they told her the food left them feeling clean, like they had done something good for their body.
“That is just so exciting for me,” Essen added.
That said, Planted isn’t about health in lieu of flavor. I mean, I would agree with the old adage, “food is medicine,” but who really wants their food to taste like medicine?
“All the dishes we have, they’re not boring. It’s not just a salad without meat or cheese,” she said. “There’s something for everybody, whether you want something light or if you want a really dank veggie burger that will leave you feeling stuffed.”
You might find this surprising, but Essen is not a vegan or even a vegetarian, although she’s worn both labels in the past. She’s just really interested in doing things slowly, methodically, with care.
“I love serving people vegetarian food because I feel like everyone could use more vegetables in their diet, but I’m more concerned with food that is made from real, raw ingredients,” she said. “My food is not made in a hurry, not made in a rush. It is there to nourish, but it’s also just really good food.”
Leafy green goods
Planted is located at 201 E. Branch St. in the village of Arroyo Grande and is slated to open within the coming weeks. For more information, hours, and menu offerings, visit the restaurant on Facebook.