“Hasn’t aged a day in all these years!” Bart Potenza exclaims, indicating the small Buddha statue that presides over the entrance of Candle 79, the upscale Upper East Side restaurant that he and his partner, Joy Pierson, opened in 2003. Tongue in cheek, he adds, “Must be the food.” It’s the sort of pat one-two punchline with which Potenza peppers the conversation, turning on a charm, a wit and a warmth that recalls an earlier New York. He’s collected and published his aphorisms and affirmations in a little book he autographs and hands over at the end of the interview. If he hadn’t become a successful restauranteur and pioneer in the healthy food movement, certainly he would have gone into media. “I’m a freak for the talking heads on TV,” he admits. Then, with a glint in his eye, he gives us a taste of the big voice he would use to open the radio show he has always wanted, “Good morning, Vegans!”
Potenza has been a friend to New York’s vegans and health nuts since 1984. At that time, he left a career as an art dealer to open the Healthy Candle, a little juice bar cum vitamin shop in a landmark location on East 71st Street and Lexington Avenue. Over the years, Candle evolved into a full-service cafe, serving all manner of soups, sandwiches, salads and entrees to all manner of guests. “We were feeding four-star families, being on the Upper East Side,” he says. “They would pull up in limosines and order rice and beans. The chauffeur would really come in and pick it up.” Back then, there weren’t a whole lot of options for the well-heeled wanting wholesome vegetarian fare. In the late eighties, Potenza was joined by his partner, Joy Pierson, who worked as the Candle’s nutritionist. Then, one Friday the thirteenth in 1993, he and Pierson played the Take Five lottery and ended up taking home fifty-three thousand dollars. Those winnings became seed capital for the sophisticated dining experience they had long dreamed of in Candle 79: a place people would seek out not because they were vegan, but because the food, the wine, the whole dining experience was one-of-a-kind. That dream has become a reality, with 80% of Candle 79’s tables filled by people who are there just because they like it.
“It’s almost moving faster than we can keep up with,” says Potenza. Given the growing demand for what Candle offers, he and Pierson opened another restaurant on Manhattan’s west side in 2011. Why? “It’s not just about the food,” Potenza speculates. “It’s about healing. We’re surrounded by hospitals here. Food has become crucial to people as part of their healing.”
A big factor in Candle’s success has been Executive Chef, Angel Ramos. He started washing dishes at the Candle Cafe seventeen years ago. Step by step, he worked his way up, and now he oversees the kitchens of all three Candle locations. All along the way he was learning, studying how to translate the tastes and techniques of other cultures and cuisines into organic preparations, no meat, no dairy. Even when he was a kid. “I used to cook a lot with my mom,” Ramos remembers, “back in Puebla, in Mexico. We didn’t cook nothing exciting. It was a small town.” And yet that influence and inspiration found its way into the mix.
When asked whether he too is a vegan, Ramos grins and casts a side-long glance at Potenza. Potenza covers his ears showily and says, “I don’t want to hear it.” “Like 99 percent,” Ramos replies. He still likes to try different kinds of dishes and cuisines, which may or may not include meat. It’s important for him to be able to bring back that experience, that knowledge, and use it in his own cooking at Candle. Not all the staff are vegan, he adds. “They’re here all the time though. So they’re eating here all the time. You just kind of get into it.”
Potenza looks me squarely in the eye and declares, “Anyone who’s got half a brain is eating this way.” And not just for health reasons, or because it feels good, or because the doctor says so. “It’s a whole package,” Potenza says. “When you accept the lifestyle that we have, all these other things enter your life, too. Incredible people to begin with, yoga, meditation. . . . You start going to amazing events. It’s a very caring network. We’re all very generous with what we’re doing.” Potenza pauses, then lets another gem drop. “The more generous we are, the more abundant we become.”
On that he and Ramos seem to agree. And Candle 79 stands as one embodiment of that beautiful belief.
Photos by Jorge Ochoa.