One of Bird + Cleaver’s most popular items is a cheese fondue that has no cheese in it.
The history of vegan cuisine is littered with failed attempts at making things that aren’t cheese taste like cheese.
But Bird + Cleaver cracked the code.
Veganizing the unveganizable
Actually, it was Lindsay Cheesebrew, the “bird” of Bird + Cleaver, who made the impossible possible.
John Cheesebrew, the “cleaver” of Bird + Cleaver, said there’s a school of conventional wisdom that declares, as regards certain meat and/or dairy dishes: “You can’t make that vegan and if you do try to make it vegan, it’s not going to be good.”
“Lindsay really enjoys the challenge of veganizing things,” he said. “She said, ‘I am going to make vegan cheese fondue that tastes good.’ And I said, ‘I believe you, but you’re going to have your hands full.’”
Like a mad scientist (but one who is, in fact, sane and patient), Lindsay spent many hours in her home kitchen dabbling determinedly.
“She messed with that recipe for so long,” John said. “There were always a couple of elusive things.”
Finally and inevitably, she nailed it.
“I was like, ‘I saw what you put in there,’” John recalled. “‘I don’t know how you took what was in there and turned it into this.’”
John’s excitement was muted, though, since he is Bird + Cleaver’s Chef de Cuisine and kitchen boss. Among his many daily morning duties is now added the task of making gallons of his wife’s wildly popular vegan cheese fondue.
John and Lindsay
The Bird + Cleaver restaurant grew out of the Bird + Cleaver blog. Both grew out of the Bird + Cleaver relationship.
John and Lindsay met in the early 2000s when the former was regularly performing in bands around town and the latter was regularly listening to them.
Their mutual passion for food is commemorated in the restaurant with portraits of their grandmothers.
“They kind of look like they could almost be related,” John said. “They’re typical Southern matriarch women. They’re very ‘come-as-you-are’ people. They showed their love with food. They cooked for every occasion.
“When we were first together, we talked about our experiences, and our relationships with our grandmothers loomed large in those memories,” he said. “Our grandmothers were always involved and food was always involved. We both love to cook. We’ve cooked together from the very beginning.”
The two knew early on that they wanted to make food their profession whenever possible and in whatever ways possible.
That odyssey has included studying culinary arts at Ivy Tech, developing menus for Trubble Brewing and Old Crown Coffee Roasters, launching a catering business, and starting a food blog that garnered national attention.
They always wanted to open their own restaurant, of course, but they never thought they’d be able to obtain the necessary capital. Then they found a willing investor and it was off to the races.
John said they didn’t necessarily target the Wells Street Corridor as a location for the eatery, but it has worked out well.
“There is something unique about the Wells corridor than is unlike any other place in Fort Wayne,” John said. “Good and bad. It’s definitely not the glitziest. There’s a certain amount of honesty about that area specifically. It’s walkable and there’s so much history there. I think it’s really underappreciated.”
Lindsay devised and revises the menu, which has included vegan versions of a fast-food fish sandwich and a Nashville hot “chicken” sandwich. They are so indisputably tasty that they appeal even to the sort of diners who believe they are as congenitally carnivorous as jungle cats.
John thinks vegans are underserved in Fort Wayne. A lot of the vegan fare one finds in town consists of non-vegan dishes with ingredients omitted, he said. The dishes have not been reworked for vegans. Just reduced.
The Bird + Cleaver menu isn’t estranged from meat, however. The restaurant also offers a non-vegan burger featuring a Wood Farms beef patty.
They even offer a meatloaf sandwich from time to time.
The way Bird + Cleaver operates is different from any other restaurant, John said.
“The front of the house and the back of the house work together,” he said. “They like each other a lot. I don’t yell. There is nothing I dislike more than the stereotypical screaming chef. It doesn’t serve any purpose. It is a tired trope that I don’t subscribe to.”
Positive despite the pandemic
The restaurant opened in late 2018 and was an instant success.
In late 2019, the Cheesebrews bought a food truck and got one of ten riverfront liquor licenses.
“We were expecting a pretty big boost from our food truck and cocktails,” John said. “We got to use our three-way license for not-even-quite two months.”
When the pandemic closed dining rooms in Indiana, the Cheesebrews couldn’t pivot to carry out because their food is meant to be eaten hot and fresh from the kitchen. So they decided to close and “wait it out.”
Bird + Cleaver reopened for patio service in early July and for dine-in service in early October.
John said they’ve had “some of the best weeks in the history of the restaurants” since they reopened. But they have also had some of their worst days.
“And there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “(There are) days when business is unusually slow. Like ‘Is the door locked?’ kind of thing. Like ‘What’s going on?’ It’s completely unpredictable.”
John said he tries to be positive about the future.
“There are people who have been supportive this whole time and I want to mirror that,” he said. “But with the uncertainty of everything, I know better than to say, ‘Oh. We’re doing awesome!’ Because no one is doing awesome.”
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