A conversation with vegetarian butcher, Michael Abramson
Beet burgers, carrot lox, coconut bacon … the cuts on display at Michael Abramson’s butcher shop on College Street in Toronto are nothing like conventional meat. Then again, YamChops isn’t your average butcher shop. It’s a vegetarian butcher shop to be precise, a descriptor ostensibly at odds with that to which it refers, though the ad man-turned-“butcher” revels in the contradiction.
“We definitely could have gone the route of being a ‘vegetarian foods shop’ — but we kind of like the oxymoron created by the term ‘vegetarian butcher’,” says Abramson. “We like to harken back to the days when ‘meat’ simply meant food in general.”
And so, while the plentiful options at YamChops, which opened just over one year ago, bear an uncanny resemblance to meat — right down to their consistency — Abramson, a graduate of Rouxbe and Cordon Vert Vegetarian Cookery School in the UK, slices, grinds and dresses plant-based protein alternatives exclusively. From YamChops’s commercial kitchen, Abramson first selects produce and ingredients that mimic the texture of animal products, and then works on getting the perfect flavour. In addition to beet burger patties, carrot lox and strips of coconut bacon, the vegan chef’s meatless fare include “pulled pork” made from strips of cabbage, mashed chickpeas, vegenaise, pickles, capers and celery “tuna,” and “crab cakes,” melding tofu, water chestnuts, red pepper, red onion, tarragon, parsley and other ingredients. And that’s just skimming the surface. Beyond fresh, ready-made eat-in and takeout eats, patrons can shop for specialty vegan and gluten-free food and preserves in the grocery section, and stock up on bottles of AuJus, the house’s line of raw, organic cold-pressed juices, the brainchild of Abramson’s daughter, Jess.
What makes YamChops unique, besides being the sole vegetarian butcher north of the border — and among the few operating worldwide — is its tongue-in-cheek approach to vegetarian and vegan cuisine, peppered with Asian influences that, since its opening, has attracted foodies of all dietary persuasions, be they vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or non-denominational.
“Our offerings definitely defy traditional veg convention. Sometimes, it’s just fun to wake up and say ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to come up with a plant-based version of lox, or bacon, or crab cakes?’ And — within a few hours or a few days — carrot lox or coconut bacon or tuna-less tuna are born,” says Abramson.
A vegetarian for 40 years now, and a vegan for the past 11, Abramson’s initial inclination towards a meatless diet was a matter of taste. “I didn’t enjoy eating meat or fish,” says Abramson, who ran his own advertising agency for 27 years before he and his wife Toni Abramson opened YamChops. “At that time, it was a taste/texture thing (as opposed to an animal rights choice).” While Abramson ultimately believes a vegetarian or vegan diet is a healthier and more sustainable choice, he isn’t looking to preach or convert anyone. “It [YamChops] was born because of what I saw as ‘missing’ in the veg food category — that being a place when vegetarians, vegans and those looking to reduce their meat consumption could find delicious centre-of-the-plate prepared protein alternatives,” says Abramson.
As it happens, the vegan butcher cum chef, who hinted at the possibility of other YamChops locations opening up in the near future, believes there are many more non-vegan foods with “veganized” potential. “The world of plant-based foods is constantly evolving,” says Abramson. “From dairy-free ice creams to nut-based cheeses to vegan desserts to ‘meat’ analogues … there is a ton of growing still to do. There is no question that a plant-based diet can (and should) be as nutritious and delicious as a non-veg diet. ”