Something Healthy and Different: The Story of The Organic Grill and OG Talk
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FROM Shauny Jaine
May 2020

Owner Vlad, The Organic Grill and OG Talk embody the Paulo Coelho axiom, “The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.” Vlad’s approach to veganism is as unique and welcoming as The Organic Grill’s bright yellow and green façade: "Don’t preach, just give them good food. There is no such thing as a vegan food. It is a tasty food or not tasty food."

Their podcast, OG Talk, does not advance any particular opinion per se, but instead seeks to create a community and empower others on issues of social justice via food and conversation.

Vlad Organic Grill

Time is precious, but perhaps living one’s truth is more precious than time. Even without the effects of our current pandemic, simply living is oxymoronic for all but the world’s wealthiest individuals. From government to social media, our various communities often lack humanity. How, then, can one live his or her truth despite the related stress and strife? Ponder this credo from Germany Kent, “Don’t live the same day over and over and call that a life. Life is about evolving mentally, spiritually and emotionally.” Equally essential is the practice of sincerely connecting with others. Both principles define the family that runs The Organic Grill, a small restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, as well as the trio behind OG Talk, the one of a kind video podcast filmed at the restaurant. The common element that will draw you to both contexts is Vlad Grinberg.

Vlad grew up in the USSR, immersed in communism. He and his family longed to emigrate and, in 1990, they relocated to New York City. But the elation associated with their move was short-lived. Soon after they arrived, a physician diagnosed Vlad’s mother, Slava, with Stage 4 lymphoma and Type 2 diabetes. She was terminal. He gave her two months to live. Rather than accepting her fate, she went to a library. She found and poured over books by Michio Kushi on cancer prevention and disease reversal via modern macrobiotics. The back of the book she brought home referenced a Kushi wellness center in Berkshire, Massachusetts. Days later, she and Vlad began a residential retreat at that center, which included eating a vegan diet. When she and Vlad returned home, the entire family switched to eating plant-based and, within a few months, Slava reversed her diabetes. She lived another nine years.

Michael Greger

The Organic Grill

Impelled by this gift of time, it became the family’s mission to open a restaurant and share the food they love with others. They launched The Organic Grill in 2000, just before Slava passed. For over 17 years, the menu was largely plant-based but, to meet demand, the restaurant also served fish and eggs. All those years, Vlad “thought it’s not my place to tell people” to eat vegan. But in 2017, he, longtime pal John Joseph McGowan, and John’s friend, Rich Roll, discussed whether Vlad ought to remove all animal products from his menu, given that he disapproves of the animal slaughter he witnesses daily at NYC wet markets, and realizes ceaselessly occurs at slaughterhouses and other settings worldwide. Vlad was reluctant. He had thought it best to remain impartial on the subject. He later accepted he “can’t be neutral by ignoring it.” And he had to raise this crisis of conscience at home. When he did, the Grinbergs realized they had become accustomed to dishonoring one of their deepest held values. As Vlad says, over time, “we just felt completely different” and could not “continue this discrepancy.” He phoned a group of regulars to explain he had to either switch to fully vegan or close the restaurant. Eddie Brill, a customer who had become a close friend, was resoundingly supportive throughout that process. The menu has been 100 percent vegan ever since.

Ever the outlier, Vlad’s approach to veganism is as unique and welcoming as The Organic Grill’s bright yellow and green façade. “Don’t preach, just give them good food,” and, “For me, there is no such thing as a vegan food. It is a tasty food or not tasty food.” He is quick to observe “we all had a time in our life when we were not vegan,” and adds, “It doesn’t really matter why they [are] coming here, I just want them to feel comfortable… and have a good time.” That way, people often recognize, “Oh, I can [make and] eat [vegan food] at home.” For Vlad, Eddie and the rest of the “OG” family, including the iconic Gene Baur, that’s a win. As Gene emphasizes on OG Talk, “Every step in that direction is…positive.” Vlad agrees, and, because he is “grateful for what this change in food did for my family,” he epitomizes Gene’s practices of “encourag[ing] people to…make choices about their food that are based on compassion instead of…apathy, or [on] support [of] a system that is causing harm,” and, “honor[ing] every incremental move in [the plant-based] direction.” Goodwill is key. Also, though he frames his approach as simply his “journey” and “self-growth,” Vlad, The Organic Grill and OG Talk embody the Paulo Coelho axiom, “The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”

Vlad Organic Grill

Gene Bauer

OG Talk

Singular among over 850,000 active podcasts, OG Talk does not advance any particular opinion per se, but instead seeks to create a community and empower others on issues of social justice via food and conversation. Even its “News You Can Use” – the one-minute, mid-episode break that other podcasts typically allocate to a commercial – instead imparts beneficial information. The show is modeled after sitting around a dinner table and features unedited video of guests’ table talks with hosts Eddie and Vlad, as well as kitchen and table footage of tantalizing plant-based food. This context replicates meaningful practices from Vlad’s past. Due to his routinely long hours at the restaurant and the need to remain onsite, his habit over the years was that of “inviting people [who] inspire me” to have dinner with him there. “[T]hey would come to me, and I sit down with them and listen to their stories, and I ask them questions.” His Grandma did this same thing with him in his youth at her dinner table. He still remembers their “beautiful conversations.” Vlad described this history to Eddie then asked, “What if we do something with it?” Unbeknownst to Vlad, Eddie pitched the concept to award-winning producer/director and longtime colleague, Rik Cannon. Rik joined immediately. The first episodes were filmed one month later, last fall.

“What we have at the restaurant is magic,” says Eddie, who serves as lead OG Talk host. He would know. The pandemic notwithstanding, he has worked nonstop for the past 35 years in comedy and television, both in front of and behind the camera. His many distinctions include multiple awards and world tours as a stand-up comedian, 17 years as a performer and talent coordinator on The Late Show with David Letterman, and over 100 television episode appearances. As a talk show host, Eddie strongly prefers a relaxed conversational style over an interview format. Plus, watch him when Organic Grill dishes are delivered to the table and introduced mid-episode. He celebrates the food because he “lost 130 pounds” and “became very healthy” after switching to a completely plant-based diet a decade ago. Guests, Eddie and Vlad then continue their conversation over the food, and viewers have a virtual seat at the table. The optics are powerful yet intimate as the restaurant seats only 25. Eddie refers to The Organic Grill as “the heartbeat of the neighborhood,” and, again, he would know, as it has been his neighborhood since 1980.

Organic Grill

Organic Grill

Organic Grill

If you can spare 90 seconds, please Google “OG Talk Roy Wood Jr” or “OG Talk Vashtie” and watch Rik’s latest opening montage of Lower East Side images, footage from the restaurant’s kitchen, and introductions. Rik lives two professional lives. One centers on his firm’s documentaries, festival productions and a wide array of projects for corporate clients. In the other, Rik works with small teams that take on big projects for the “greater good,” like OG Talk. He revels in collaborative ventures to help others because “we need that human connection.” Perfect example, the “Stay at Home Tour” that a friend “dreamed up” just after pandemic status was declared. Rik joined, and, within two weeks, they had “put this flatbed [truck] together,” enlisted recording artist Matt Stillwell, then staged mobile concerts in St. Louis neighborhoods. Mindful of social distancing, in just four days Rik interviewed over 350 people while Matt played. Everyone appreciated the in-person exchange. Back on the OG Talk front, Rik handles all things technical. He is not vegan but credits the show with “changing me in these little ways.” Next, the big question.

Is every OG Talk guest vegan? No. Vlad readily credits Rik and Eddie for their tremendous efforts in producing the show, and earnestly compliments them for bringing in “completely different views,” perspectives and emotions, “which is amazing.” This diversity helps facilitate “beautiful conversations,” the show’s inspiration. Eddie explains, “Not all of our friends agree with us, but we can…eat together and talk together and learn together.” These distinctions inform the first component of the show’s opening montage tagline, “Real people[,] real food[,] real good.” Eddie defines “real food” as “from the Earth, …as opposed to processed food and food that’s created by man.” Of course, organic food is best, particularly if it is “prepared with love.” “Real good” represents “compassion for all beings and…ourselves.” Though guests come “from different walks of life, …all have the same compassion.” Vlad notes, “We shared food, and that’s what made us a community.” “That’s one of the most important things,” Eddie emphasizes. “That’s what we’re doing with this TV show.”

Consistent with compassion, another defining quality among OG Talk guests is a deep regard for humanity. Virtually all guests discuss social justice issues in varying degrees. CBS News anchor Cindy Hsu bravely shared her story concerning depression and attempted suicide to help raise awareness on how commonly such emotions are experienced, as well as remove associated stigma. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a consummate public servant who reversed his Type 2 diabetes and partial blindness with a vegan diet, squarely addressed the opioid crisis, characterizing it as a “historical betrayal” by government on par with the Tuskegee Experiment. Several months before COVID-19 struck, Rachel Atcheson emphasized her efforts as Deputy Strategist for Eric Adams to “move the political conversation toward looking at public health,” and “inspire others to participate in public service.” The “Meatless Mondays” program she devised and implemented in Brooklyn governmental settings now operates statewide. Food movement advocate Gene Baur, who founded the nation’s first farmed animal shelter 34 years ago, observed the need to source food in ways that downscale reliance on industrialized methods. These and other guests exemplify a value Eddie articulates in connection with the restaurant, “[I]n order to be able to invoke change, you be the example.”

For anyone who has had a disappointing plant-based food experience, take heart. Cindy Hsu, who self-identified as “the opposite of a vegan,” was “very pleasantly surprised that everything I’ve eaten here is actually delicious.” And she wants the kung pao pops – a seasoned crispy cauliflower bowl – renamed “Cindy’s Cauliflower Pops.” Before filming his episode, World Champion Mets pitcher and sports commentator Bobby Ojeda said, “Look, Eddie, I love you but I’m not gonna eat that food.” Yet, Bobby “left with, like, shopping bags full of stuff.” For unexpurgated fun, watch two-time Emmy Award winner, comedian and TV writer/producer Judy Gold’s episode. When asked, “Have you been to a vegan restaurant before,” she said, “Yeah, unfortunately.” Eddie had mentioned that the food is plant-based when he booked Judy as a guest, but the detail was lost in the figurative mix. Suffice it to say she loved the food. This is how The Organic Grill and OG Talk quietly lead by example. As Eddie says, “We’re just representing something healthy and different and whole and powerful” that makes your immune system, day, and even your life “much better.”

The Grinbergs are eager to reopen The Organic Grill as soon as is safely possible in light of the pandemic. While the restaurant is in its twentieth year, OG Talk was only six months old and 25 episodes deep when the restaurant was forced to temporarily close. Vlad, Eddie and Rik are eager to resume production of their self-funded labor of love and are using this interim to build their base. They need your eyes and ears, and, as Rik says, “We’re willing to earn them.” Maybe do something different today by checking out OG Talk and following the show on social media. As John Joseph says, “Come for the food, stay for the knowledge.”

Shauny Jaine

Born and raised in Hawaii, Shauny Jaine has lived in Seattle for 30 years and is a VLCE, JD and BA cum laude in Writing. She holds multiple certifications relevant to veganism, including from eCornell on plant-based nutrition, and, soon, on climate change, from Yale University. Shauny and her spouse, Tana, enjoy raising their longtime vegan family of year-round soccer and karate kids McKenna (15), Tyler (15), and Leo (11); pups Kasbah (think “Rock the Casbah”) and Nikita; and green-eyed cat, Annie. She serves on the Board for Heartwood Haven, a vegan animal sanctuary in Gig Harbor, Washington, and is on several social media platforms but enjoys Instagram most. Find her there @shaunyjaine.

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