There was a time not so very long ago when “eating clean” in New York meant ordering a bowl of steamed broccoli with brown rice on the side, no sauce. Sure, it was healthy, but it was about as exciting as eating a cardboard and sawdust sandwich. And if you dared to ask the waitstaff where the salmon was sourced or what kind of oil it was cooked in, you’d be more likely to get an eye roll than an answer.
But that all changed when the dynamic sister-brother duo of Jessica Karp and Jordan Brown opened Hu Kitchen (short for “Human” and pronounced like “Hugh,” as in Mr. Jackman) on Fifth Avenue in 2012. As other casual cafés have come and gone over the past six years, Hu Kitchen, with its emphasis on unprocessed, organic, gluten-free food to take out or eat in in its woodsy, welcoming space, has thrived, attracting an almost cultlike following. Paleo-happy athletes chowing grass-fed beef rub shoulders with toddlers gobbling muffins they would never guess are gluten-free; college students fuel up on chia bowls from the “Mash Bar”; and neighborhood regulars stock up on takeout kale salad and chicken tenders to feed their family for the week. But you don’t have to live nearby to try Hu’s goods: Its line of vegan, dairy-free, organic chocolate bars is sold in about 2,000 stores nationwide, including Whole Foods.
We sat down with Karp to talk about her clean eating journey, her favorite items on the Hu menu, and the cheat snack she simply can’t resist.
What Should We Do?!: Where did the idea for Hu Kitchen first spring from?
Jessica Karp: My brother, who was working in real estate at the time, was coming home from a conference in Las Vegas and looking in the bookstore for something to read on the plane. He saw a book called The UltraMind Solution by Dr. Mark Hyman, and it caught his eye because the cover was in red—good marketing, right? There were concepts he had never heard of before, like inflammation, the effects of gluten—things that people talk about a lot now but were completely new to him then. He started experimenting with his own diet and immediately said he felt so much better. His muscle tone was better; he had more energy.
WSWD: Did you join his clean eating program right away?
Karp: No! He and my husband were both really into it, and I kept telling them to leave me alone. I was eating those 100-calorie packs of the most processed snacks, but I thought, it’s only 100 calories, so it must be OK!
WSWD: What made you change your mind?
Karp: When my daughter was 6 months old and we started giving her solid food, I was really careful about what I was putting in her body. Then I thought, wait, what am I putting in my own body? I went on vacation and sat on the beach and read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and it really opened my eyes to a lot of things about our food supply.
WSWD: So how did your brother convince you to leave your job in finance and start up a restaurant—a risky proposition?
Karp: It’s scary, the thought of starting a business from scratch, but we realized there was nowhere to eat like this—and in New York of all places! There were plenty of things we didn’t know, so we hired a consultant, and she helped us figure out that this was a viable plan. Working with my brother has sometimes had its challenges. At the beginning, we would say things to each other you would never say to a colleague! But we’ve always been really close, and we’ve stayed that way.
WSWD: Do you ever sneak a bite of not-so-healthy food?
Karp: I’m generally Paleo and gluten-free, but if I go out to dinner with friends on a Saturday night and someone orders a flatbread pizza for the table, I’m having a piece of it. If I go on vacation to Europe, I’m going to eat gelato. It’s all about balance.
I was really careful about what I was putting in my baby’s body. Then I thought, wait, what am I putting in my own body?
WSWD: What’s the one food at Hu you could happily eat every day?
Karp: I go through phases. The first three years, if I went on vacation and couldn’t have our chicken tenders, that was really hard for me. I love them. Now it’s the chocolate—even if we go to Europe, where I know I’m going to be eating everything else, I still bring chocolate with me. The Vanilla Quinoa Crispy is my favorite.
WSWD: How did you land on Fifth Avenue and 14th Street?
Karp: My brother found the space. It used to be a bookstore, so we had to build the whole thing out. But since we’ve opened, people have started to call our neighborhood the “FitIron District” because there are so many workout places nearby. The beauty of the area is that it’s not just residential, it’s not just universities [New York University, Cardozo Law, and the New School are all in the vicinity], it’s not just businesses like Google and Facebook—it’s all of it, so it creates a lively dynamic.
WSWD: What are your favorite memories of eating in New York as a kid?
Karp: Ray’s Pizza was usually our Monday-night dinner. Not the original Ray’s; that was on 27 Prince Street, but one of the Ray’s that were all over the city. And, of course, there was a Chinese restaurant we would go to every Sunday night—it was called King Dragon, and they had the most amazing ribs.
WSWD: If WSWD planned a perfect day for your family in New York, what would it include?
Karp: We’d have breakfast at Hu Kitchen—I just love the Jordy Cakes, which we named after my brother, and the egg sandwiches and breakfast wraps. Then we’d spend the day running around Central Park and taking the kids to Victorian Gardens. My daughter, who’s 9, loves all the rides there. After that, my husband and I would just walk around downtown and wind up having dinner at Il Cantinori. It’s been around forever; it’s so cozy and has great food.