Vegan food was once scorned, dismissed as bland, soulless grub for hippies. Giving up animal products meant having to forgo all things delicious. “I had to survive off of sunflower seeds and wheat germs,” recalled chef Rich Landau, who first went vegetarian as a teenager, then transitioned to becoming vegan.
Dining out was an atrocity. “You would be ordering a salad without the bacon. As far as vegan was concerned, people didn’t even know how to pronounce it,” said chef Kate Jacoby. But after years of media and advocate attention about the health, animal welfare, and environmental benefits of eating more vegetables, the idea of vegan food isn’t so foreign to eaters anymore. Cookbook author Mark Bittman even touts the “vegan before 6:00” diet for improving one’s health.
Chefs across the country, like Jacoby and Landau, have also transformed vegan cooking by creating exciting dishes that appeal to diners of all tastes. Jacoby and Landau head the highly acclaimed Philly restaurant Vedge, where they only cook with plants. This year, they were nominated for the James Beard award for Outstanding Pastry Chef and Best Chef for the Mid-Atlantic region, respectively.
These days, going vegan is hip, with vegan restaurants attracting lines out the door and expanding quickly with chain locations. The landscape of vegan cooking has also grown incredibly diverse, but what the country’s most successful vegan chefs have in common is an ability to coax incredible flavors out of plants.
Landau was an unabashed meat lover. But after learning about the inhumane conditions in slaughterhouses and factory farms, he quit eating meat. Afterward, he took up cooking to prove to himself that non-meat dishes can taste as good as the meat he once enjoyed. “My cooking philosophy was to convince my palate that you can have satisfying meals without animal products,” he said.
He realized it wasn’t the meat, but rather “what chefs do [to dishes] that tastes really great,” he said.
When Landau smells meat on a barbecue grill, he thinks of how to give carrots that smoky quality. So first he chargrills them over wood chips, then puts them back on the grill just before they’re served. The result is a crispy skin that resembles sausage casing, with a pillowy-soft texture on the inside.
At Vedge, Landau and Jacoby experiment with seasonal vegetables and the myriad ways to prepare them in a section of the menu called “the dirt list.” They try each one raw, pickled, “figuring out what makes it pop in a way that’s new to people’s palates,” said Jacoby. A recent dish featured grilled celery simmered in pea pod dashi, with ramps and Yukon Gold potato noodles.
The couple also travels frequently to get inspiration from culinary traditions that are naturally vegan-friendly. A trip to Morocco last year taught them how to approach spices differently, and a trip to Japan in 2008 left them appreciating “the subtlety of using great ingredients and practicing restraint,” which changed the way they made stocks and sauces, said Jacoby.
Chef Tal Ronnen of Crossroads in Los Angeles focuses his vegan cooking on one particular tradition—Mediterranean cuisine. Growing up in Israel with sisters who were vegetarian, Ronnen was exposed to plant-based dishes from an early age. He and executive chef J. Scot Jones (who had 25 years of experience cooking northern Italian food) noticed that at other vegan restaurants, “we would see miso soup and nachos on the same menu, and that didn’t make sense to us,” Ronnen said.
Mediterranean dishes, rich in grains, beans, spices, and olive oil, are easy to translate into vegan versions. The menu at Crossroads includes a green chickpea fagioli, lentil flatbreads, and pastas made with almond cheese created by Ronnen’s company Kite Hill.
But Ronnen also recreates dishes that he misses or that his customers crave. For a bagel and lox, he smokes carrots over hickory, then adds ground nori to impart a briny, seafood flavor.
For dishes with a French influence, he gets creative making French sauces. Yellow tomatoes are used to whip up béarnaise sauce, with a dash of Kala Namak salt (high in sulfur) to mimic the taste of egg yolks. Porcini mushrooms, naturally rich in umami, replace meat stock in bordelaise sauce.
At other times, Ronnen is inspired by visual cues. One time, an artichoke leaf fell on the plate. It struck Ronnen that the leaf looked like an oyster shell. So he took some oyster mushrooms—which are meaty like the real bivalves—and fried them with ground nori, then placed them on top of the leaves, along with artichoke heart purée and tomato béarnaise.
To Ronnen, cooking with only vegetables doesn’t limit him; it allows him to develop new ways of cooking. “If people cook the same way that other chefs have cooked for 100 years, that’s when you get stuck in a box,” he said.
Vegan Means Business
Despite the enormous strides made in the vegan dining scene, Ronnen, Landau, and Jacoby agree that more needs to be done to dispel diners’ stereotypes about vegan food. One New York City restaurateur, Ravi DeRossi, is on a mission to do just that—by proving that vegan restaurants can be profitable.
DeRossi, who has been vegan since before entering the restaurant business, is gradually converting some of his restaurants to 100 percent vegan, while planning to open new vegan eateries. DeRossi, an animal lover, was devastated after his pet cat died of a terminal illness. He came to the conclusion that he had abandoned his ethics while operating so many restaurants that served meat (he owns more than a dozen).
“I lost my conscience. My morals went out the window in favor of making money,” he said.
Sensing a change in people’s palates, DeRossi opened his first vegan restaurant, Avant Garden, in the fall of 2015, choosing chef Alex Aparicio (formerly of Dovetail) to create a menu that caters to both vegans and non-vegans alike. “I’m looking for chefs who can cook food with enough flavor, spices, and salt to make the average person feel satiated,” he said.
Aparicio’s dishes delight the taste buds with layers and layers of flavors, like white gazpacho soup with grapes, dill, and cucumbers; and cauliflower with spinach, oyster mushrooms, dates, and a Vadouvan spice blend. The restaurant has been packed every night.
DeRossi then converted another of his restaurants, Mother of Pearl, into a vegan restaurant, with chef Daphne Cheng serving her own spin on Hawaiian cuisine. Since converting in February, Mother of Pearl’s profits have doubled, DeRossi said.
Cheng, being Chinese-American, saw similarities between Polynesian and Chinese cuisines. She researched commonly used native ingredients, like rum, taro, sugarcane, tropical fruits, and coconut milk, and combined them in Chinese-inspired dishes like rum fried rice with dragon fruit, orange edamame, and pineapple rum; and Kahlua-jackfruit-and-shiitake-mushroom buns with ginger aioli and five-spice ketchup.
DeRossi has plans for more, including a vegan Japanese omakase restaurant, a butcher shop carrying imitation meats, and a tapas bar. He believes the demand for vegan food will only continue to grow, as more people become aware of the environmental impacts of raising livestock. “If we don’t do this now [eat more vegetables], we’ll be forced to do it in the future,” he said.
With more chefs like Jacoby, Landau, Ronnen, and Cheng, that future will at least be delicious.
Get the recipe for chef Ronnen’s Artichoke Oysters with Tomato Béarnaise and Kelp Caviar and Kale Spanakopita with Harissa Sauce and Mint Oil.