Chef Tal Ronnen set out to make a point: vegan, meatÂless cooking can equal or better “regÂuÂlar” carnivore fare.
His success is attested by some people you may have heard of. We’re talkÂing about Oprah Winfrey, who, in the spring of 2008, hired Ronnen to preÂpare meals for her 21-day vegan cleanse. And Ellen DeGeneres, who retained Ronnen to cater for her and partÂner Portia de Rossi’s vegan wedÂding. Ronnen was also Arianna Huffington’s choÂsen chef for her party at the Democratic National Convention, and he catered the first vegan dinÂner at the US Senate as well. He even assisted Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders in openÂing her restauÂrant, VegiTerranean, in her home town of Akron, Ohio.
Finding true flavor
The sumptuous tastes that so many are ravÂing about are exactly what Chef Ronnen was seekÂing when he embarked on this path. “It was actuÂally out of sheer frusÂtraÂtion from growÂing up with really good food and parÂents that were foodÂies,” Ronnen told Organic Connections. “When I crossed over to eatÂing a vegÂeÂtarÂian diet, I noticed that I was being served side dishes that were comÂing out with my family’s regÂuÂlar dishes. There was not a proÂtein component—it was just an afterÂthought. That kind of inspired me to learn how to cook traÂdiÂtionÂally, first, and then to apply that to vegÂeÂtarÂian, then vegan, cooking.”
It was clearly more than just a misÂsion of perÂsonal eatÂing: Ronnen was out to litÂerÂally change the world of vegan cookÂing. “I think for the most part that, in the past, when you dined out in order to eat vegan food, what you’d find was sort of left over from the hippy moveÂment of the sixÂties and seventies—a lot of brown rice, humÂmus, sprouts and things like that. Those are all great, but you’re not going to win over a diehard carÂniÂvore with those types of dishes. So I like to creÂate meals that I rememÂber eatÂing as a child or even as a teenager that inspire me to make vegan verÂsions of them. My misÂsion is just to preÂpare great-tasting food that appeals to peoÂple of all walks of life: vegÂeÂtarÂiÂans, carÂniÂvores, flexÂiÂtarÂiÂans and everyÂone in between.”
Ronnen cites an example from his curÂrent menu. “At my new restauÂrant, Crossroads, we do a take on oysÂters on the half shell,” he explained. “We use an artiÂchoke leaf as an oysÂter shell with an artiÂchoke purÃ©e, a crispy oysÂter mushÂroom that’s been seaÂsoned with nori to give it a seafood flaÂvor, and a yelÂlow tomato BÃ©arnaise sauce and kelp caviar. It’s really indulging food.”
Chef Ronnen’s culiÂnary masÂtery has brought him into sevÂeral unique posiÂtions. He has taken his experÂtise to some of the top vegan restauÂrants in the United States, includÂing Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles, and Candle 79 in New York City. He worked with Wynn Las Vegas execÂuÂtive chefs to creÂate vegan menus for 22 restauÂrants in the famed hotel, and he has conÂducted workÂshops with stuÂdents and staff at Le Cordon Bleu camÂpuses nationwide.
Recently, the launchÂing of Lyfe Kitchen’s chain of fast-casual healthy food restauÂrants became headÂline news due to the involveÂment of Mike Roberts, forÂmer global presÂiÂdent and COO for McDonald’s Corporation. When Roberts became Lyfe Kitchen’s presÂiÂdent and CEO for Restaurant, he asked Tal Ronnen to be one of the two execÂuÂtive chefs.
It was through Lyfe Kitchen’s president and CEO for Grocery, Stephen Sidwell, that Ronnen became involved. “I got introÂduced to Mike Roberts by my friend Stephen Sidwell, whom I was workÂing with,” Ronnen related. “He asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I’m workÂing with someÂone who has the sysÂtems and operÂaÂtions for bringÂing food to the masses now wantÂing to focus on organic, vegÂeÂtarÂian healthy food. I couldn’t think of a betÂter way to spend my time as a chef. I creÂate all of the plant-based vegan dishes on the menu for Lyfe.”
Obviously Ronnen is very much behind Lyfe Kitchen’s misÂsion. “It will introÂduce peoÂple to eatÂing healthy food, but in a familÂiar forÂmat,” he said. “It will acquaint them with new ingreÂdiÂents; everyÂthing is under 600 caloÂries; there’s a sodium cap—a lot of benÂeÂfits to eatÂing at Lyfe. And the plan is to expand to 250 locaÂtions in the next five years.
“It’s not fast food—we call it ‘fast casual.’ Fast-food restauÂrants have a three- to five-minute ticket time. We’re at about eight minÂutes, so you sacÂriÂfice a litÂtle bit of time to get qualÂity food. There’s no deep fryer in the restauÂrant. Everything is made fresh and cooked fresh to order.”
Standing at the crossroads
As one might imagÂine, a restauÂrant Ronnen himÂself opened would be quite unique—and his brand-new Los Angeles–based Crossroads restauÂrant cerÂtainly is. “We’re bringÂing Mediterranean food to LA that just hapÂpens to be vegan,” he said, “and the word vegan isn’t even on the menu.
“It’s unique because it’s in a fine-dining enviÂronÂment but everyÂthing is small plate, rangÂing from $6 to $14, so you can try many difÂferÂent things. Unlike a lot of vegÂeÂtarÂian restauÂrants there’s a theme. In some vegÂeÂtarÂian or vegan restauÂrants you can get miso soup and a burÂrito and a Reuben, yet those cuisines have nothÂing to do with each other. I guess that’s fun for some peoÂple, but at Crossroads the food is all going to go together across the board, whether it’s a salad or soup or a small hot plate. It’s very cohesive.”
Diners can choose from a variÂety of mouth-watering dishes, such as Morel Mushroom Gravy with house-made Focaccia Biscuits; Herb Risotto–Stuffed Banana Peppers with Basil Lime Beurre Blanc; and Caramelized Leek Flatbread with Crispy Root Vegetables. Dessert options on the menu include Chocolate Bundt Cake with Chocolate Whiskey Sauce, and Carrot Cake Ice Cream with Candied Carrot Chips.
The name is indicaÂtive of the clienÂtele Ronnen and his partÂners wish to attract to the restauÂrant. “My partÂner Steve Bing came up with the name,” said Ronnen. “They were sitÂting around tryÂing to think of a name that didn’t scream vegan or green, and someÂthing that everyÂone would feel comÂfortÂable with. This will be a crossÂroads for a lot of people—vegetarians, vegÂans and carÂniÂvores all dinÂing in the same restauÂrant and havÂing a good time together.”
Ronnen has seen to the busiÂness side of Crossroads as well. Partner Steve Bing is the founder of the Shangri-La busiÂness group, an orgaÂniÂzaÂtion with interÂests in propÂerty, conÂstrucÂtion, enterÂtainÂment and music. Another partÂner is Parnell F. Delcham, CEO of United Culinary Artists; Delcham has preÂviÂously overÂseen sevÂeral difÂferÂent restauÂrant groups and the openÂing of many conÂcept restauÂrants. The kitchen is helmed by execÂuÂtive chef Scot Jones, who is best known for havÂing been execÂuÂtive chef at Chrissie Hynde’s VegiTerranean restaurant.
“We’ve got a really great team,” Ronnen pointed out. “It’s a group of very talÂented peoÂple from the restauÂrant indusÂtry. They’ve come together to creÂate this conÂcept, and I think that’s unique in itself. A lot of vegÂeÂtarÂian or vegan restauÂrants are opened by very well-intentioned peoÂple, but they might not necÂesÂsarÂily be savvy in the restauÂrant business.”
The local and sustainable difference
Many top chefs, includÂing Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless and Dan Barber, have disÂcovÂered the flaÂvor difÂferÂence in local, seaÂsonal and susÂtainÂably grown ingreÂdiÂents. Tal Ronnen is no exception—and Crossroads most assuredly utiÂlizes them. “We’re a seaÂsonal restauÂrant,” he said. “Anything that we cook with is at the peak of its seaÂson and tastes as good as it’s going to get. When you start using ingreÂdiÂents that are out of seaÂson and flown from halfway across the world, that’s when they don’t taste as good. So cookÂing seaÂsonÂally and using organic ingreÂdiÂents defÂiÂnitely makes our dishes.”
The sourcÂing of local ingreÂdiÂents has been in place since Crossroads’ openÂing. “We have a really unique partÂnerÂship with LA Specialty,” Ronnen conÂtinÂued. “LA Specialty is a great group that does what I would norÂmally do on a Sunday, and that’s go to the farmÂers’ marÂket. They basiÂcally do that for us and bring local, susÂtainÂable and organic proÂduce to our restauÂrant. That’s where we get most of our produce.”
But it’s not just the flaÂvor that has influÂenced Ronnen—it is the health issues assoÂciÂated with conÂvenÂtionÂally grown proÂduce. “We just had trainÂing with our front-of-the-house staff and they asked what inspired me to order all organic,” Ronnen said. “I told them we’re orderÂing mostly organic, but where we don’t think it makes sense—like if there is a local farmer that hasn’t gotÂten USDA cerÂtiÂfiÂcaÂtion but has organic farmÂing practices—I’m cool with that. To me, it’s lookÂing at it on a case-by-case basis.
“I also explained to them that I choose to cook with organic ingreÂdiÂents not so much for what peoÂple think is imporÂtant with organic, which is largely pesticides—although that is imporÂtant; but GMO food and irraÂdiÂated food are bigÂger reaÂsons for me. I explained to them why we wouldn’t want genetÂiÂcally modÂiÂfied or irraÂdiÂated foods, espeÂcially with some of the conÂvenÂtional proÂduce being sold to restauÂrants being irraÂdiÂated. They were surÂprised; they thought organic just meant no pesticides.”
Spreading the word
Ronnen is not simÂply servÂing his cuiÂsine to patrons; he is also spreadÂing it through the printed word. Not long after his first appearÂance on Oprah, he released a cookÂbook entiÂtled The Conscious Cook: Delicious Meatless Recipes That Will Change the Way You Eat (William Morrow, 2009).
Interestingly, it wasn’t origÂiÂnally tarÂgeted at the home kitchen. “I creÂated it to fill a void,” said Ronnen. “There wasn’t a vegan cookÂbook that I could pass on to my peers. I know a lot of chefs who cook meat and work at hotels, and they said, ‘Hey, Chef, give me a cookÂbook that I can learn from,’ and I really couldn’t think of one. There were a couÂple but there wasn’t a wide variÂety; so I wanted to write a book that really spoke to chefs, and that’s what I did. With Oprah Winfrey’s supÂport, when she had the book feaÂtured on her show, and also with Ellen’s, it was the first vegÂeÂtarÂian cookÂbook to make the New York Times bestÂseller list for six weeks in a row.”
The recipes conÂtained in The Conscious Cook can also, of course, be utiÂlized by home chefs—of the more patient variÂety. “Definitely a lot of peoÂple enjoy it at home, but some peoÂple are a litÂtle intimÂiÂdated by the recipes,” Ronnen remarked. “Everyone is pitchÂing these 30-minute meals and microwave meals, and I’m not about that; everyÂthing I do is from scratch. So when peoÂple see that a recipe takes an hour or an hour and a half, some don’t have time for that and I think that’s kind of sad. People used to spend all day cookÂing and now they’re afraid of an hour recipe.”
Nevertheless, it is cerÂtain that through his cookÂbook as well as national teleÂviÂsion pubÂlicÂity, through eduÂcatÂing othÂers and cookÂing for major culiÂnary venues, Chef Ronnen is changÂing the landÂscape of how the world views vegan cuisine.
Tal Ronnen’s book, The Conscious Cook, is availÂable from the Organic Connections bookstore.