Natural Vitality
Educate customers on vegan eating with chef Tal Ronnen

Educate customers on vegan eating with chef Tal Ronnen

Organic Connections, the magazine of Natural Vitality, talks with chef Tal Ronnen--one of Lyfe Kitchen's executive chefs--about the many benefits of going vegan. Here's information you can share with your vegan or transitioning-to-vegan shoppers. 

Chef Tal Ronnen set out to make a point: vegan, meat­less cooking can equal or better “reg­u­lar” carnivore fare.

His success is attested by some people you may have heard of. We’re talk­ing about Oprah Winfrey, who, in the spring of 2008, hired Ronnen to pre­pare meals for her 21-day vegan cleanse. And Ellen DeGeneres, who retained Ronnen to cater for her and part­ner Portia de Rossi’s vegan wed­ding. Ronnen was also Arianna Huffington’s cho­sen chef for her party at the Democratic National Convention, and he catered the first vegan din­ner at the US Senate as well. He even assisted Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders in open­ing her restau­rant, VegiTerranean, in her home town of Akron, Ohio.

Finding true flavor

The sumptuous tastes that so many are rav­ing about are exactly what Chef Ronnen was seek­ing when he embarked on this path. “It was actu­ally out of sheer frus­tra­tion from grow­ing up with really good food and par­ents that were food­ies,” Ronnen told Organic Connections. “When I crossed over to eat­ing a veg­e­tar­ian diet, I noticed that I was being served side dishes that were com­ing out with my family’s reg­u­lar dishes. There was not a pro­tein component—it was just an after­thought. That kind of inspired me to learn how to cook tra­di­tion­ally, first, and then to apply that to veg­e­tar­ian, then vegan, cooking.”

It was clearly more than just a mis­sion of per­sonal eat­ing: Ronnen was out to lit­er­ally change the world of vegan cook­ing. “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 move­ment of the six­ties and seventies—a lot of brown rice, hum­mus, sprouts and things like that. Those are all great, but you’re not going to win over a diehard car­ni­vore with those types of dishes. So I like to cre­ate meals that I remem­ber eat­ing as a child or even as a teenager that inspire me to make vegan ver­sions of them. My mis­sion is just to pre­pare great-tasting food that appeals to peo­ple of all walks of life: veg­e­tar­i­ans, car­ni­vores, flex­i­tar­i­ans and every­one in between.”

Ronnen cites an example from his cur­rent menu. “At my new restau­rant, Crossroads, we do a take on oys­ters on the half shell,” he explained. “We use an arti­choke leaf as an oys­ter shell with an arti­choke purée, a crispy oys­ter mush­room that’s been sea­soned with nori to give it a seafood fla­vor, and a yel­low tomato Béarnaise sauce and kelp caviar. It’s really indulging food.”

Chef Ronnen’s culi­nary mas­tery has brought him into sev­eral unique posi­tions. He has taken his exper­tise to some of the top vegan restau­rants in the United States, includ­ing Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, Madeleine Bistro in Los Angeles, and Candle 79 in New York City. He worked with Wynn Las Vegas exec­u­tive chefs to cre­ate vegan menus for 22 restau­rants in the famed hotel, and he has con­ducted work­shops with stu­dents and staff at Le Cordon Bleu cam­puses nationwide.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to the Organic Connections e-newsletter. 

Lyfe Kitchen

Recently, the launch­ing of Lyfe Kitchen’s chain of fast-casual healthy food restau­rants became head­line news due to the involve­ment of Mike Roberts, for­mer global pres­i­dent and COO for McDonald’s Corporation. When Roberts became Lyfe Kitchen’s pres­i­dent and CEO for Restaurant, he asked Tal Ronnen to be one of the two exec­u­tive chefs.

It was through Lyfe Kitchen’s president and CEO for Grocery, Stephen Sidwell, that Ronnen became involved. “I got intro­duced to Mike Roberts by my friend Stephen Sidwell, whom I was work­ing with,” Ronnen related. “He asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, and I said, ‘Of course.’ I’m work­ing with some­one who has the sys­tems and oper­a­tions for bring­ing food to the masses now want­ing to focus on organic, veg­e­tar­ian healthy food. I couldn’t think of a bet­ter way to spend my time as a chef. I cre­ate all of the plant-based vegan dishes on the menu for Lyfe.”

Obviously Ronnen is very much behind Lyfe Kitchen’s mis­sion. “It will intro­duce peo­ple to eat­ing healthy food, but in a famil­iar for­mat,” he said. “It will acquaint them with new ingre­di­ents; every­thing is under 600 calo­ries; there’s a sodium cap—a lot of ben­e­fits to eat­ing at Lyfe. And the plan is to expand to 250 loca­tions in the next five years.

“It’s not fast food—we call it ‘fast casual.’ Fast-food restau­rants have a three- to five-minute ticket time. We’re at about eight min­utes, so you sac­ri­fice a lit­tle bit of time to get qual­ity food. There’s no deep fryer in the restau­rant. Everything is made fresh and cooked fresh to order.”

Standing at the crossroads

As one might imag­ine, a restau­rant Ronnen him­self opened would be quite unique—and his brand-new Los Angeles–based Crossroads restau­rant cer­tainly is. “We’re bring­ing Mediterranean food to LA that just hap­pens 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 envi­ron­ment but every­thing is small plate, rang­ing from $6 to $14, so you can try many dif­fer­ent things. Unlike a lot of veg­e­tar­ian restau­rants there’s a theme. In some veg­e­tar­ian or vegan restau­rants you can get miso soup and a bur­rito and a Reuben, yet those cuisines have noth­ing to do with each other. I guess that’s fun for some peo­ple, 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 vari­ety 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 indica­tive of the clien­tele Ronnen and his part­ners wish to attract to the restau­rant. “My part­ner Steve Bing came up with the name,” said Ronnen. “They were sit­ting around try­ing to think of a name that didn’t scream vegan or green, and some­thing that every­one would feel com­fort­able with. This will be a cross­roads for a lot of people—vegetarians, veg­ans and car­ni­vores all din­ing in the same restau­rant and hav­ing a good time together.”

Ronnen has seen to the busi­ness side of Crossroads as well. Partner Steve Bing is the founder of the Shangri-La busi­ness group, an orga­ni­za­tion with inter­ests in prop­erty, con­struc­tion, enter­tain­ment and music. Another part­ner is Parnell F. Delcham, CEO of United Culinary Artists; Delcham has pre­vi­ously over­seen sev­eral dif­fer­ent restau­rant groups and the open­ing of many con­cept restau­rants. The kitchen is helmed by exec­u­tive chef Scot Jones, who is best known for hav­ing been exec­u­tive chef at Chrissie Hynde’s VegiTerranean restaurant.

“We’ve got a really great team,” Ronnen pointed out. “It’s a group of very tal­ented peo­ple from the restau­rant indus­try. They’ve come together to cre­ate this con­cept, and I think that’s unique in itself. A lot of veg­e­tar­ian or vegan restau­rants are opened by very well-intentioned peo­ple, but they might not nec­es­sar­ily be savvy in the restau­rant business.”

The local and sustainable difference

Many top chefs, includ­ing Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Rick Bayless and Dan Barber, have dis­cov­ered the fla­vor dif­fer­ence in local, sea­sonal and sus­tain­ably grown ingre­di­ents. Tal Ronnen is no exception—and Crossroads most assuredly uti­lizes them. “We’re a sea­sonal restau­rant,” he said. “Anything that we cook with is at the peak of its sea­son and tastes as good as it’s going to get. When you start using ingre­di­ents that are out of sea­son and flown from halfway across the world, that’s when they don’t taste as good. So cook­ing sea­son­ally and using organic ingre­di­ents def­i­nitely makes our dishes.”

The sourc­ing of local ingre­di­ents has been in place since Crossroads’ open­ing. “We have a really unique part­ner­ship with LA Specialty,” Ronnen con­tin­ued. “LA Specialty is a great group that does what I would nor­mally do on a Sunday, and that’s go to the farm­ers’ mar­ket. They basi­cally do that for us and bring local, sus­tain­able and organic pro­duce to our restau­rant. That’s where we get most of our produce.”

But it’s not just the fla­vor that has influ­enced Ronnen—it is the health issues asso­ci­ated with con­ven­tion­ally grown pro­duce. “We just had train­ing with our front-of-the-house staff and they asked what inspired me to order all organic,” Ronnen said. “I told them we’re order­ing mostly organic, but where we don’t think it makes sense—like if there is a local farmer that hasn’t got­ten USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion but has organic farm­ing practices—I’m cool with that. To me, it’s look­ing at it on a case-by-case basis.

“I also explained to them that I choose to cook with organic ingre­di­ents not so much for what peo­ple think is impor­tant with organic, which is largely pesticides—although that is impor­tant; but GMO food and irra­di­ated food are big­ger rea­sons for me. I explained to them why we wouldn’t want genet­i­cally mod­i­fied or irra­di­ated foods, espe­cially with some of the con­ven­tional pro­duce being sold to restau­rants being irra­di­ated. They were sur­prised; they thought organic just meant no pesticides.”

Spreading the word

Ronnen is not sim­ply serv­ing his cui­sine to patrons; he is also spread­ing it through the printed word. Not long after his first appear­ance on Oprah, he released a cook­book enti­tled The Conscious Cook: Delicious Meatless Recipes That Will Change the Way You Eat (William Morrow, 2009).

Interestingly, it wasn’t orig­i­nally tar­geted at the home kitchen. “I cre­ated it to fill a void,” said Ronnen. “There wasn’t a vegan cook­book 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 cook­book that I can learn from,’ and I really couldn’t think of one. There were a cou­ple but there wasn’t a wide vari­ety; so I wanted to write a book that really spoke to chefs, and that’s what I did. With Oprah Winfrey’s sup­port, when she had the book fea­tured on her show, and also with Ellen’s, it was the first veg­e­tar­ian cook­book to make the New York Times best­seller list for six weeks in a row.”

The recipes con­tained in The Conscious Cook can also, of course, be uti­lized by home chefs—of the more patient vari­ety. “Definitely a lot of peo­ple enjoy it at home, but some peo­ple are a lit­tle intim­i­dated by the recipes,” Ronnen remarked. “Everyone is pitch­ing these 30-minute meals and microwave meals, and I’m not about that; every­thing I do is from scratch. So when peo­ple 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 cook­ing and now they’re afraid of an hour recipe.”

Nevertheless, it is cer­tain that through his cook­book as well as national tele­vi­sion pub­lic­ity, through edu­cat­ing oth­ers and cook­ing for major culi­nary venues, Chef Ronnen is chang­ing the land­scape of how the world views vegan cuisine.

Tal Ronnen’s book, The Conscious Cook, is avail­able from the Organic Connections bookstore.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.