Life Cafe Blog

Posts Tagged ‘chili’


Life Café NYC on Tour

Turning Chili Under the Sun in Mazarron, Spain, October 2012

The rays of the midday sun still burned hot on my skin, but the usual breeze across the campo felt much colder. Autumn is in the air and on this particular day I got a hankering for the warming taste sensation of Life’s Veggie Chili.

Cool breeze, hot sun. It’s autumn on the Campo

Life’s Veggie Chili was the first hot menu item I served at Life Cafe in 1982 on the corner of 10th Street and Avenue B in the East Village neighborhood of New York City. Chili was cheap to make, warming and healthy. The local bohemians got a cup for 50 cents. And if they had an extra buck, they got it served over short grain brown rice and topped with grated cheddar cheese. The dish was a full protein meal for vegetarians like me and David Life, my husband at the time. I made sure I got the most nutritional buck out of my food staples.

Now in southeast Spain, I examined the list of ingredients for the Chili Paste in the Life Cafe recipe, a vibrant blend of dried chilies and spices. Garlic, Spanish onions, salt, vinegar, oregano, dried thyme – check, check and double check; I had them all. Nada on the whole dried guajillo, puila and ancho peppers. I no longer had the Mexican delis on Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick, Brooklyn to raid. Instead I travelled to the nearby towns of Totana and Mazarron during market days with John’s sister Ann and Terry his brother-in-law, local residents. Thank heaven for them and their car. And they knew the roads.

Ann and Kathy Life at Market

Big healthy radishes

John checks out the dried fish at Totana Market, Murcia

Lady locals gossip in front of the olive vendor’s stall

The Moroccan Vegetable Vendor

There is a lot of this fresh and exotic squash

Just picked tangerines, Totana Market

I found the Nora chili, round, fat, glossy dark red. From the Internet I found it’s not hot at all, rather it has a mild, sweet flavor that gives a deep red color to dishes. It’s grown right here in the Murcia region. Now that’s real locavore!

Nora chili on far left

Discovering the Nora chili lead me to Romesco sauce, a classic Catalan condiment originating from Tarragona in Northeastern Spain. Made with roasted tomatoes, nuts, olive oil, vinegar and toasted bread, it’s an accompaniment to all types of dishes, like fire roasted or grilled seafood and vegetables. It also works as a sandwich spread on fresh baguette. I thought how  great it would be on Life’s Grilled Chicken Sandwich in place of chipotle mayonnaise.


During Springtime in Catalonia entire towns gather in the public square for a calçotada, an annual flame-licked ritual of grilling calçots (a large spring onion) over an open fire. The sweet alliums are served blackened from the ashes of vine-fed flames. Revelers slide off the charred outside layers and dip the silken centers into Romesco sauce. The Spanish appreciate the life in their food. Take tomatoes for example; slice open a fresh tomato here and the aroma can be orgasmic. So it’s not surprising that tomatoes can drive Spaniards a little crazy. Have a look at this link — it’s enough to put you off your ketchup, or spread it on all over! La Tomatina Festival 2012 

Wiping off the tomatoes and putting them back safely into the fridge, I refocused on the Romesco sauce. I just had to make some. The bit of work was worth it. The end product is thick like pesto with the color of rust. The nuts lend it texture and the bread gives body. John couldn’t stop raving about it, saying it was Moorish; spicy and original, a new taste. Try this recipe. It’s one of many variations, and all are good.

Tune in to the next blog to find out what happened to the Spanish version of Life’s Famous Veggie Chili!

Best Chili in New York

Life Cafe 983’s Veggie Chili came in as one of the top three in a vote for “Best Chili

Veggie Chili Deluxe

in New York in the NY Daily News “Best Of” column in the March 11, 2012 issue. We are very, very proud, especially since we just revamped the recipe. Six different beans and eight varieties of veggies provide the bulk. Add to that our complex homemade chili paste made with three varieties of dried chilies and the addition of our “secret” soy protein combine to provide a medley of flavors and textures that satisfy every time you eat it. It’s a full and hardy meal alone but it’s an even extra special protein boost when ordered with organic brown rice and your choice of cheese, served along with our baked tortilla chips. Vegetarians rejoice! But it’s so good, our meat eating patrons love it as well.

Read the full article here


Veggie Chili was the first hot item I served at Life Café in 1981. Warming, filling, loved by everyone, chili epitomized what people were looking for. Oh, and it was cheap.

To get the Cafe opened quickly I scrounged the neighborhood for snacks, the kinds of munchies loose change would buy. Dennis, a college buddy of David Life’s, arrived from Michigan about that time for a visit, curious and excited over our latest adventure, a real café in New York City.

One day Dennis and I talked about a menu. He jumped up exclaiming, “You must serve CHILI!” I was swept up by his enthusiasm and followed him into my kitchen.

“Start with cans of beans. You got fresh tomatoes? Onions? First sauté up some onions. And lots of garlic. Green pepper is good. You got celery? We can put some of that in. Where are your spices?

“Oh, Dennis, that’s too much cayenne!

“Oh, yeah. Ha, ha! I love it. Let’s throw in some black pepper too. Hot. It’s gotta be hot, hot, hot!

I didn’t serve his recipe but he convinced me about chili! I came up with my own recipe after researching the trusty old vegetarian cookbooks that had traveled with me cross-country. Dave and I were vegetarians since living in Michigan. I enjoyed discovering non-meat alternatives and experimenting with unusual ingredients. At Life Cafe, it was natural for me to serve food Dave and I liked and believed in eating. It was a challenge though to come up with menu ideas to appeal to a wider palate and to find ingredients that weren’t as readily available then as they are today.

But I had a mission. The health and fiscal advantages of vegetarianism were apparent. And I believed that by offering it on our menu showed we cared.

I charged fifty cents for Life’s Three-Bean Vegetarian Chili so our cash strapped artist and non-artist neighbors could enjoy a hot meal. I made sure that my chili was nutritious in case it happened to be the only meal someone ate that day. If a customer had an extra buck and wanted to splurge, the chili was available with brown rice and freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese for a bigger protein boost. This simple dish replenished one’s spirit with a near-to-complete protein meal.

Because it was the first item on Life Cafe’s menu and quickly became its backbone, Life’s Vegetarian Chili holds a special place on the menu for me. It’s a symbol of the ideals that Life Cafe was built upon, and serves as a reminder of where I started. It’s a symbol of what Life Cafe is about.