At Four Seasons Natural Foods Café, customers aren’t shy about telling the chef what they like to eat.
They love the Tofu/Vegetable Lasagna, Lentil Shepherd’s Pie, Southwestern Tempeh and the Sweet and Sour Seitan. For their soup cravings, they request steaming pots of Carrot Ginger, Tuscan Bean, Mushroom Barley and Curry Vegetable.
“That happens a lot now. People will ask for certain dishes,” says Chef Katie Porter.
For 29 years, Four Seasons has been Saratoga Springs' go-to restaurant for vegetarian and vegan food. Yet, even in the 21st century, as the veggie lifestyle blossomed, it’s only one of a handful of such restaurants in the Capital Region.
“It’s almost 100 percent vegan,” says owner Richard Frank. “Once in a while, we’ll do pizza with dairy or we’ll do an egg thing on a Sunday.”
In Saratoga Springs, there are restaurants with vegetarian menus. “But they also serve meat,” he says.
Diners and take-out customers help themselves to a sumptuous buffet of hot entrees and soups that change each day. Six entrees and two kinds of soup are scooped and ladled on one end of the bar, and on the other end, there are 12 to 14 cold foods, like nori rolls, hummus, kale, potato salad, seaweed, tempeh, tofu and colorful combos of beans and vegetables. Muffins, cookies and other baked goods are available too, and like all the edibles, they are made in-house, from scratch.
Frank isn’t into trends and fads. His motto is “keep it simple,” and he describes the menu as “old school natural foods.”
“I still believe in a whole foods diet,” Frank says. “I know there are tons of variants on that, but I think it’s a good, healthy choice. There’s so much different research now on what’s right, and it doesn’t all agree. But when you ask experts, everybody says vegetables. No one is anti-vegetable. For us, that makes sense.”
The café is also known for its fresh juice bar, where green drinks, smoothies and shakes are blended to order while you wait.
“It’s 100 percent organic. It makes a huge difference when you are concentrating the fruits,” Frank says.
When Four Seasons opened in 1988, it was a natural foods store run by Bob and Isabel Landes, and it was located on Broadway in the space now occupied by Wheatfields Restaurant & Bar.
In 1989, the store moved to Caroline Street, and a café was added. Frank joined the business a year later, when it moved to Phila Street. And in 1991, he bought the business from the couple.
Back then, vegetarianism was strange to most people, Frank says. “There was almost no overlap between what we sold and what the supermarkets sold.”
That has really changed, he says. “The counter culture aspect is gone. And there have been so many improvements. There are more foods with better taste, but a lot of it has gotten commercial.”
For 24 years, the café and store shared the Phila Street storefront.
Then, five years ago, Frank and Kate Capelli, his wife and co-owner, separated the retail business from the restaurant by opening Four Seasons Natural Foods store on Henry Street.
“Now there’s more breathing room,” Frank says of the café. “We’re not a coffee house but some people come and hang out here.”
Today, the café serves more ethnic foods and more grilled items.
“The menu has changed over time. But a lot of it has to do with the chefs. The recipes are a blend of everyone who has worked here,” he says.
“Vegetables are sourced locally, some are organic, some are not organic. Over the years, more and more has been local. We’ve switched things to organic for the ones where the pesticides are pretty nasty.”
Head chef Katie, a Saratoga Springs native, studied cooking at the Kushi Institute and trained on the job in the café kitchen.
“When planning the menu, I think of color, texture, shape, and most of all, keeping the food vibrant and interesting,” she says.
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Porter has dozens of recipes for entrees and changes the hot foods menu frequently, but many of the cold foods remain the same because customers get upset if they don’t see their familiar choices.
More than 70 percent of the baked goods are gluten-free.
As with the entrees and the soups, customers request their favorites, like the tahini carob sandwich cookie.
“It has a cult following. The people who like it are vocal,” says Frank.