Today I enjoyed another delicious lunch at Hugo’s in Agoura Hills with friends. Everyone at the table ooh’d and ahh’d when their dish was served to them—beautifully presented and absolutely fantastic tasting meals from all parts of the menu. I ordered 2 things I had never had before on a friend’s recommendation–Spinach Lemonade and Cauliflower Ceviche. So refreshing, different and bursting with flavor. When Hugo’s first debuted in Agoura Hills about a year ago, there was palpable excitement in the air and it has been filling up with hungry, discriminating people ever since. My interview with Hugo’s CEO Tom Kaplan last year shares interesting information about the restaurant and its philosophy—after my wonderful lunch today I wanted to post it again!!
“Delicious stealthy healthy omni-, carni-, vegan & vegetarian cuisine,
sustainable, organic, flexitarian”
–Hugo’s Restaurant on their Twitter page.
Hugo’s has aimed high…carefully and lovingly creating the recipe for an eatery that is inclusive of everyone. Close your eyes and imagine… people of all dietary lifestyles sitting together peacefully, joyfully, actually ordering great, healthy food, right off the menu without requesting endless changes or substitutions! Hugo’s is, thankfully, that place!
OK, you want Cuban steak, and you want Pasta Mama, and I want Asian tofu stir-fry–let’s go to Hugo’s! One would expect such a forward thinking place to exist in hip(per) areas of Los Angeles (like West Hollywood and Studio City, in which it has existed for years). But Agoura Hills? When rumor spread that Hugo’s was building in the Whizin Leslie Center on Roadside Drive, the collective excitement in the community was palpable. Not only did we need a restaurant espousing a modern “clean” philosophy like Hugo’s in the Conejo Valley, but many people also yearned for the restaurant’s classic dishes that they knew and had grown to love for many years. Hugo’s had a lot of bases to cover and, from the size and breadth of their menu and the zen atmosphere, I believe that they have accomplished all they set out to do.
As their website explains, Terry Kaplan, the founder of Hugo’s, had a vision of “producing original and wonderful foods” in an environment where “co-workers would experience support, respect and well-being.” Fostering an emphasis on a loving environment, Terry’s first group of employees called themselves “Hugonauts.” In the beginning, the space in West Hollywood was an actual butcher shop called “Hugo’s” which evolved over 30 years into the visionary restaurant that it is today. Their history is fascinating reading and can be found on the Hugo’s web page.
Having studied the varied, original menu and eaten at Hugo’s many times, the uniqueness of the eatery spurred my interest to dig deeper. I read the eloquently written “Brief History of Hugo’s” and “Hugo’s for Healthy Living” on the website and this sparked some questions. I posed my questions to the CEO of Hugo’s Restaurants, Tom Kaplan, who very graciously answered them with such energy, you can feel the verve in his responses!
Ellen Francis’ Question: When did you start introducing organic items, and vegan and vegetarian items? What was the impetus? Were you ahead of the trend?
Tom Kaplan’s Answer: Hugo’s started introducing organic items in the early 1980’s at our first location in West Hollywood. At the time, we were a high-end butcher shop/gourmet market/restaurant with a big open kitchen where we made just about everything from scratch. The dishes we made were to accompany the meats that my dad, Terry Kaplan, prepared, and they were mostly vegetarian. Normal restaurant distributors didn’t have all the ingredients we desired so we began to purchase items from health food distributors who had exotic and organic, grains, legumes, and other grocery items. We were one of the first “gourmet” markets in Southern California, and were creating dishes that you couldn’t find anywhere else. Because of the extensive vegetarian dishes we had, we started attracting health conscious people. One of the lines of groceries we carried was Yogi Tea (what our chai’s are based on), as the founder came in to dine and shop often. He introduced us to Kundalini Yoga and the teachings of Yogi Bhajan, some of which included healing foods using Ayurvedic concepts. We believe that many of our staff were attracted to us because of the healing nature of what we do, and they introduced us to veganism, particularly our Sustainability Director, Dale Jaffe, who joined us as a manager when we opened in Studio City, and who is now also on the menu committee. Because we’ve always made most everything from scratch, it was not only fun to change recipes to being vegan, but was also a fun challenge for our chef, Nabor Diaz Prado. I’d say we were way ahead of the curve, doing this long before vegan restaurants became popular. And because we aren’t just vegan in our approach, we’ve been able to introduce many more people to plant-based diets over the years.
Q: How do you stay on top of new food and ingredient ideas circulating out in the world and how do you decide whether to offer something trendy on the menu?
A: Our goal is to keep creating original cuisine and to make it as healthy as possible. Primarily, the dishes should be delicious, even to those who aren’t necessarily looking for healthy. So, we look more at health trends and not what’s trendy. We are always looking for raw ingredients and faithfully attend the Natural Foods Expo in Anaheim every spring hoping to spot that new Wow! ingredient. This year we found pasta made from only sprouted red lentil that’s absolutely fantastic, and will make many people who are avoiding gluten very happy. We try to set trends, rather than follow, and are lucky to have been very successful at it over the last 33 years.
Q: What do you do with unused food?
A: We don’t really have much waste as we make everything every day, or every other day, from scratch. For instance, all good veggie scraps become veggie stock. When we change our menus, if there’s some product left that’s still usable, we donate it to local food banks. For health reasons, following Health Dept. regulations, some food can’t be donated. It has to be thrown out. As far as waste, in the future we hope to work with school gardens with composting.
Q: Why did you choose Agoura Hills as your new location and is the menu and ambiance intentionally different from the other Hugo’s?
A: We love Agoura Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains. We wanted our third location to be either in the west San Fernando Valley/Conejo Valley or the Silver Lake area. The Whizin Center attracted us because it wasn’t just another suburban cookie cutter shopping center, it was being reimagined as a beautiful, unique market place nestled against the foothills.
Each of our restaurants is a little different. In this case we wanted to use materials that reflected the area. We gave our designer (local Eddy Bitton, who’s just on the other side of Kanan from us) a beautiful picture of the Rock Pool at Malibu Creek State Park to use for inspiration. We love natural materials.
Q: Are the Agoura Hills diners ordering different items than the other restaurants and what are the most popular items here?
A: At first, the guests who came in seemed to want more traditional items, more meats, and unless they were already familiar with Hugo’s, didn’t understand what we were trying to do, which was to offer delicious AND healthy foods. When someone first tries our style of cooking they might miss the easy attractiveness of salt, butter, sugar, and fats. If you’ve ever made a change in your diet, you know that during that transition period you miss the foods you’re giving up. Your food sometimes doesn’t taste “right.” But that’s because your palate is cleaning out. We realize we have to be patient for people to adjust and appreciate how this style of cooking not only tastes good, but ultimately makes them feel good. We’re putting out dishes that we would feel good about feeding our own families.
Most popular dishes: vegan soups, spring rolls, Desayuno Fuerte, Eggs Benedict, Green Casserole, Tres Tacos, Quinoa Beet Salad, Power of Green Salad, all the Burgers, including the Veggie Burger (which is one of the most popular in Agoura according to Yelp,) and usually the Specials. (By the way, out of the 11 specific dishes listed, only 4 are meaty: Eggs Benedict, the beef and turkey burger and the Tres Tacos, which has steak and chicken choices, but also has 2 veggie options, tofu and mixed veggies.) And, we serve a whole bunch of tea!
Q: Do you consult with professional dietitians or nutritionists to create certain dishes?
A: Not formally, but we do talk with doctors, healers, nutritionists and we do have Dale, our director of sustainability, who is very active in healthy cuisine and environmental issues.
Q: Any plans to open a Hugo’s Tacos in the area?
A: Not right now, but we always try to stay open for new opportunities. We just opened a Hugo’s Tacos in Woodland Hills.
Q: What do you think is the future of plant-based nutrition?
It’s going to continue to grow. Our planet and our expanding population are going to require it. We’ll keep offering more whole food-based dishes. We don’t advocate vegetarian/vegan junk food, but we recognize that sometimes that’s a way in to eating healthier. We’d like to see the kitchen become a place for healing and keeping people healthy, not just serving food that’s tasty. The two should support each other.
Q: The decor in the Agoura Hills restaurant is very “green” and zen spa-like—how did you decide on this design and why?
A: Besides the things mentioned in #4, we also believe that the dining environment should be nourishing to all the senses, have good energy flow (Feng Shui), and be peaceful. Healthy food prepared and served by a loving staff in a beautiful environment will be a healthy experience whether it’s noticed or not by all our guests. But because we’ve been around so long, we think that we must be accomplishing our mission.
Now that you’ve learned some interesting, behind the scenes facts about Hugo’s, here’s something you definitely don’t know…According to Leslie Brenner, who works in the Community Relations area of Hugo’s, Tom Kaplan is credited with a number of firsts in Los Angeles: the first gourmet market; the first coffeehouse with fresh roasted coffee beans; the first Chai Latte, which he invented with Guru Simran, formerly of Yogi Tea. Hmmm…I think I have more questions!
Thank you so much to Tom Kaplan and Leslie Brenner for your inspiring story!