El Piano changes the tune as York vegan cafe pioneer moves on

Magda Chavez opened York's first vegan restaurant 21 years ago. As she prepares for her last service at El Piano she tells Catherine Scott why it is time to move on.

Magdalena Chavez
Magdalena Chavez

“When we told people we were vegan I think they thought we were a character from Star Trek,” says Magdalena Chavez, founder of York’s first vegan cafe, El Piano.

“It was 21 years ago and virtually no one had heard of vegan and so I suppose it was a pretty brave thing to do.”

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El Piano has now become an iconic York eatery, which also boasts it own cookery school, B&B and eclectic shop stuffed with things Magda loves from ceramics to carpets.

Vegan restaurant El Piano, on Grape Lane, York, was one of the first vegan restaurants to open in York, now 21 years later the owner Magdalena Chavez has decided to leave the business.Date: 23rd July 2018. Picture James Hardisty

It has won many accolades and awards for its honest, good value, organic, fresh dishes, most recently becoming the first eatery in the world to be certified palm oil free by the POFCAP (The Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark & Accreditation Programme)

But despite El Piano’s continued success and growing reputation, owner and founder Magda, released a shock statement earlier this month announcing that the restaurant was closing and she would be moving on.

But this is not the familiar story of so many independents at the moment who are struggling with rising costs and shrinking customer numbers and being forced to close. On the contrary, El Piano is a huge success story.

“It’s always a good idea to leave with people wanting more,” says Magda, who became a familiar sight sitting outside the cafe on a wicker chair sewing.

“Sometimes people hang on to things too long.”

And the new custodian of the Grape Lane site is no accident.

Tarik Abdeladim runs Los Moros, a Moroccan and Middle Eastern street food business which is currently a popular fixture on the Shambles Food Market.

“I asked him (Tarik) if he had ever considered having a restaurant. He said no, but then I said it might be time for us to move on from El Piano and he changed his mind.”

It wasn’t just Tarik’s vegetarian food that impress Magda.

“He is great with his staff and this is very important to us.

“It was a great opportunity to pass on something that’s really vibrant and successful to someone who has the enthusiasm and passion for quality food and will take it forward.”

Says Tarik: “There’s a heritage of great cooking in the building on Grape Lane and we’ll still be making tasty vegan and vegetarian dishes. We’re so excited to open a restaurant here and to have a chance to do more with the food of Los Moros.

“It’s very nerve-wracking but it’s a lovely building, we have a great team and we have a lot of cooking to do.”

The market street food stall will remain open.

However, when you dig a bit deeper you get the feeling there is more to it. Magda Chavez likes a challenge and with vegan and gluten-free food becoming more mainstream, even trendy, you get a the feeling she is looking for something new.

“There was a job to be done and I feel that we have done it,” says Magda who, before moving to York from Spain where the family had a version of El Piano, was a contract negotiator for the European Commission.

“We wanted to bring veganism to people’s attention, but above that to serve fresh, local food that everyone can eat – whether you are vegan, gluten-free or whatever.

“We wanted somewhere where everyone could eat everything. We feel that our job is done and we are looking forward to the future.

“21 years of blazing the vegan and gluten-free trail has led us all to the happy point where almost all eateries in York, indeed across the UK, are now offering vegan and gluten-free options. Add to this the fact that in May 2018 El Piano became the first restaurant in the world to gain the international palm oil free accreditation, it seems a good moment to bow out.”

Magda says she is nomadic by nature, and so staying in one place for 21 years is unusual for her. She now plans to travel, educating people about veganism and healthy eating, but more importantly to a sustainable way of life.

So does she think the current popularity of veganism is a trend that will pass or something that is here to stay?

“Once people have had time to evaluate the difference a vegan diet makes to their health, but also the wider planet then I don’t think they will go back. I am not saying everyone has to be totally vegan, but just making small changes can make a big difference.”

El Piano has produced a number of cookery books, including one to mark its 21st anniversary.

“I get a lot of pleasure passing on what I have learnt and I think that will be part of our future, showing people that there are vegan alternatives without compromising on taste that are quick and easy to make and so much better for you .”

But El Piano has been more than just a business for Magda.

Her four children and many of her family have worked in the cafe over the years, making it a real family affair. But Magda has still been surprised and overwhelmed by the strength of feeling about the end of El Piano.

“Within just a few days of us making the announcement we had something like 4,000 responses, it’s been unbelievable.”

There have been more than 300 comments on Facebook, most pleading for Magda to change her mind.

“I will respond to every single one,” she says.

“They have found time to write to us so the least I can do is write back to them.”

El Piano will hold its last service on August 30 before reopening as Los Moros in the autumn.