Wisconsin chefs create innovative offerings for plant-based diets

by Zehra Topbas

Madison Magazine’s annual Best of Madison awards adorn the walls of the Green Owl Cafe in Madison. The cafe has won the magazine's Gold Award for being vegetarian friendly and vegan focused for many consecutive years. Photography by Perri Moran.

Crab cakes made from hearts of palm and chickpeas. A succulent “turkey” roulade made from seitan and soy. A banh mi inspired sandwich with lemongrass ginger grilled tofu. 


All are usually made with meat, but here, they’re plant-based, healthy and all delicious. 


These are just a few of the ways chefs in Wisconsin have created delectable vegan, vegetarian and plant-based dishes that live up to their more “traditional” counterparts. 


While we have long accepted the notion that the energy we need to survive must be acquired through something with a heartbeat — cheese from cows or eggs from chickens, for example, chefs and individuals have begun to push back. There are so many alternatives without a pulse that give us the nutrients and protein we need to move forward. 


Even in a state known for being one of the nation’s leading dairy producers, Wisconsin has grown in its number of plant-based and vegan restaurants. While some people choose to make the transition to a plant-based diet due to ethical concerns, others make the switch for health concerns. Whatever the reason may be, the shift is noteworthy.  


Through innovative techniques and unlikely combinations, chefs across the state have proven that a plant-based diet does not have to be boring.



Arielle Hawthorne felt alone and isolated when she first took the dive into a plant-based diet. In her journey to be more intentional about the food she was putting in her body, she discovered the difficulty in finding places that catered to her diet. 

“What I noticed was that there were not a lot of options for people who don’t eat meat and dairy when you are out and about,” Hawthorne says. “I found myself cooking a lot more and experimenting with different recipes.” 


In 2019, Hawthorne decided to start a food truck that would eventually grow to become what is now Twisted Plants, a full-fledged, plant-based restaurant located on the East Side of Milwaukee and in Cudahy, a suburb in Milwaukee County.


“It was just really important for my food to still be flavorful,” she says. Her favorite dish to make is delightfully simple — lasagna. “It tastes like meat. It tastes like dairy. But it doesn’t have any animal products in it.”


Erick Fruehling, chef and owner of the Green Owl Cafe on Madison’s East Side, likes to experiment with the unexpected. He uses seitan, a high-protein meat substitute made of wheat gluten, to create inventive dishes that explode with flavor. 


“[It] is a really versatile tool that has a really great texture, so you can kind of flavor it any way you like. It doesn’t really have a lot of flavor on its own, and depending on what you add to it and how you mix it, you can get different textures,” Kheuling says


Jordan Short has worked as a chef for 28 years and has been an executive chef for 16 of those years. In his almost eight years as executive chef and two years as general manager at Cafe Manna in Brookfield, a Milwaukee suburb, one thing has kept him constantly inspired: tradition. 


“When I go into creating menu items or specialties … I know what sells,” Short says. “Just real typical items. I just make them vegan.” 


Green Owl Cafe in Madison is one of many plant-based restaurants throughout the state that seeks to support the growing number of Wisconsinites adopting primarily plant-based diets. Photography by Perri Moran.

Currently available on the menu is what Short calls a plant-based spin on typical crab cakes that are made from hearts of palm and chickpeas and encrusted in panko breadcrumbs, seared until crisp, and served with sriracha aioli and cabbage curtido. 


“In all the other restaurants I’ve worked at, crab cakes sell and they sell and they sell. So I worked hard at that recipe to make it pretty much taste like the real thing,” Short says. 


Fruehling has a similar strategy. “I love that idea of finding something that is traditionally like a meat dish and finding a way to make it taste great to anybody,” he says. “I just want to create food that appeals to everybody and not a specific target.”


In Sage-Louise’s quest for a new dish as the chef at the Cheeze Factory Restaurant in Baraboo, in the Wisconsin Dells area, she draws from just about anything around her. From using seasonal produce and recipes in cookbooks to opening her ears to requests from customers, Sage-Louise loves every minute she can spend in the kitchen. Should someone have a craving for a barbecue-style sandwich, she is ready to devise a plant-based version of barbecue “beef” made from soy. 


Of particular interest, however, are traditional and ethnic variations on dishes from all over the world. “There are unlimited ideas to choose from in a global market of international cuisine,” Sage-Louise says. 


Fruehling turns to social media to get inspiration from others who have joined the plant-based community. “There’s a lot of cool cooks out there. People with really great ideas [and] it’s great to kind of pull off of,” he says. 


Whatever the reason may be, the shift to a plant-based diet is intentional. 


After 25 years as a vegetarian establishment, the Cheeze Factory transitioned to an entirely plant-based menu. 


The primary motivation for this decision was a desire to offer a cruelty-free dining alternative to our clientele,” Sage-Louise says. “After having witnessed numerous documentary films that exposed the horrific treatment of all animals raised in factory farms, we could no longer support or justify the consumption of all dairy products, including eggs.”


Carrie Richardson from Heartland Farm Sanctuary in the Madison suburb of Verona began her journey toward a plant-based diet very early on. 


For me, living plant-based was an ethical choice,” she says. “I have always loved animals. In high school, I started making the connection between my values and my actions and how my actions relate to those values. I valued animal life, and I realized I had a choice in whether or not to contribute to animal suffering in this way. It definitely wasn’t the typical small-town Wisconsin choice.”


While ethics and principle are a concern for some, others turn to veganism for reasons none other than health. 


Hawthorne gave up meat in 2017 and dairy in 2018 when she learned that much of what she was eating was increasing her chances for health complications. In 2012, a study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that red meat consumption was associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular and cancer mortality. 


“Upon doing some research [and] watching a few documentaries on Netflix, I discovered that a lot of what I was eating was not good for my body, and it was increasing my chances for some diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes,” Hawthorne says. 


The results of the study had also shown that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality.


Robin Kasch, the founder and owner of Cafe Manna, had struggled with health issues and opened the cafe in hope of helping others in the area with similar problems. She also wanted to provide an establishment that all people could eat at that would be free of potentially harmful ingredients.


“There was really no place around here that [Robin] could eat … she was going plant-based because that’s what her doctors had told her,” Short says of Robin. “That’s the reason why she opened the restaurant — so that she had a place to eat and she could offer that same cuisine to the area.”


Kanwal Singh has always struggled with gluten intolerance, and the Kitchari — a mixture of rice, lentils and curry leaves tossed together in Indian spices to make a warm soup — at Bombay Sweets is one of her go-to staples. “It’s a blend of protein and carbs together and that makes it a very healthy option,” she says. “You don’t feel any bloating. It’s very easy to digest.” 


But it’s all about balance — and Richardson would have to agree.


It’s not so much about physical health for me. It’s completely possible to eat an unhealthy plant-based diet, and I’ve eaten my share of non-dairy Ben and Jerry’s and vegan pizza for sure,” she says. “I guess the biggest difference for me is feeling that my lifestyle and food choices became something bigger. I made this decision on a personal level and found myself part of a movement.”   

Featured photo by Perri Moran.