MIAMI Tal Ronnen’s food philosophy isn’t unusual for a chef of his calibre. It also isn’t complicated. Simply put: taste above all.
And then you realize he’s vegan, an approach to eating that too often has been defined by foods so virtuous they taste worse than the packaging they come in. Except that’s not Ronnen’s game. For him, it doesn’t matter if the food is raw, organic, vegetarian, vegan, local, gluten-free , animal-free, free range or free spirit. If it doesn’t taste great, he isn’t interested.
“Restaurants get it wrong all the time by serving fake meat that doesn’t interest meat eaters, or a vegan plate that’s little more than an uninspired pile of vegetables,” Ronnen writes in his new cookbook, “Crossroads.” ‘’Some still fall into the trap of thinking that vegetables or legumes need to be disguised as meat in order to be palatable.”
In other words, you won’t find the hipster-favoured cauliflower steaks (all the rage, don’t you know!) at Ronnen’s Los Angeles restaurant, also named Crossroads. Instead, his main courses centre around vegetables that aren’t disguised as burgers or steaks or other meaty dishes. Rather, they deliver savory, meaty flavours on their own power, things like roasted shiitake mushrooms that pack in crispy bacon-esque flavour in a salad or pureeing yellow tomatoes into a creamy bearnaise sauce.
It’s that sort of flavour that landed him catering gigs with serious star wattage. As in, Portia de Rossi and Ellen Degeneres’ wedding and Oprah Winfrey’s 21-day vegan challenge. And that same it-has-to-be-good-meat-or-not approach plays out in all his ventures, from the vegan menus he created at 24 restaurants for Wynn hotels in Las Vegas to his Crossroads restaurant (which he stresses is Mediterranean first and vegan second) to his impossibly good line of non-dairy cheeses.
He’s the sort of chef who says there’s something so exciting about vegetables that it keeps him up at night. Quite literally. A few months ago when Ronnen couldn’t sleep, his decided to reinvent “fruits de mer” featuring lobster mushrooms that he batters and fries, hearts of palm “calamari,” oyster shooters made from shitake mushrooms poached in olive oil and kombu seaweed, and a crab louie salad along with a smoked “lox” made of heirloom carrots and kelp caviar.
Two days later it was on the menu.
“People went crazy for it,” said Ronnen, who turned vegetarian as a teen, at time when the only veggie burgers available at the grocery store were dry mixes that had to be combined with water.
Still, he spends lots of time catering to the omnivore’s palate. There are plenty of lentil dishes and healthy kale salads on his menu and featured in his latest cookbook. And most of his restaurant guests are neither vegan nor vegetarian. “They just like good food.”
“Often times there’s a die-hard carnivore who’s coming to the restaurant and that’s not going to cut it for them, so diving into the pappardelle bolognese really wins them over,” Ronnen said in a recent telephone interview.
Ronnen doesn’t shy away from carb-heavy pastas the way many healthy eating restaurants do. There’s no seaweed kelp “pasta.” Instead, all the pasta is handmade, including the chive fettucine with asparagus, morels and prosecco sauce and the cappellacci with spinach cream sauce made from cashews, all of which are featured in his cookbook.
He also has taken his popular pastas to the masses with two ricotta ravioli dishes sold at Whole Foods Market stores as part of the Kite Hill brand he co-founded. The label has won over dairy loving skeptics with its smooth flavours and loyalty to the traditional cheese making process. Unlike most faux cheeses, Kite Hill ages its own almond milk just like dairy milk, adding enzymes and cultures without starches, gums and other preservatives. The result is a line of soft cheeses, cream cheeses and yogurts with a dead-on taste and texture. It also happens to be the only vegan cheese that Whole Foods ever has sold in its specialty cheese cases.
Ronnen is an affable, soft-spoken yet passionate man who doesn’t name drop, though he counts plenty of celebrities among his fans, including Winfrey, who’s eaten at his restaurant and also featured him on her show, and “Clueless” actress-turned-vegan-advocate Alicia Silverstone. He also helped the Pretenders’ rocker Chrissie Hynde open a vegan restaurant in Akron, Ohio, several years ago.
It seems fitting that Ronnen, who has been at the epicenter of the plant-based food movement for decades, is ramping up his efforts now to take the cuisine to the masses. Up next, he’s hoping to expand his offerings at the grocer, whether it’s salad kits or frozen soups and sauces. “Every day it seems like there are huge strides being made and it’s fun to be part of a movement like that and really getting on the right side of history with food.”
MUSHROOM FARRO SOUP
This soup gets tons of flavour by using the scraps we normally throw away. So start by prepping the vegetables for the soup. The ends and bits you trim off are used to make the stock.
Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour active)
For the stock:1 1/2 cups reserved vegetable trimmings from the soup (onion, celery, carrot, mushrooms and garlic)
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms, rinsed
8 cups water
For the soup:2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon vegan butter (such as Earth Balance)
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 pound mixed mushrooms, such as cremini and shiitake, stemmed, wiped of grit, and sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup sweet Madeira wine
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1/2 cup farro, rinsed
Truffle salt (optional)
To prepare the stock, in a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the vegetable trimmings, dried shiitake mushrooms and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and simmer the stock for another 30 minutes.
Carefully pour the stock through a mesh strainer into a heat-safe container and use the back of a wooden spoon to press on the solids to extract as much flavour as possible. Discard the solids. You should have about 4 cups of stock. Set aside.
To prepare the soup, set a large stock pot over medium heat. Add the oil and vegan butter. When the butter has melted, add the onion, celery and carrot and cook, stirring, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 2 minutes. Add the mixed mushrooms, garlic, thyme and rosemary, season with salt and pepper, then turn the vegetables over with a spoon and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Pour in the Madeira and vinegar and stir until almost evaporated. Add the reserved stock and simmer, uncovered, until slightly reduced, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the farro. Set a dry, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the farro and toast, shaking the pan periodically, until golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the toasted farro, stir, then reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, uncovered, until the farro is tender, about 20 minutes. Drain through a mesh strainer, then stir the farro into the soup and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the thyme and rosemary sprigs.
Ladle the soup into serving bowls and sprinkle with truffle salt, if using.
Nutrition information per serving: 190 calories; 60 calories from fat (32 per cent of total calories); 7 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 200 mg sodium; 24 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 5 g protein.
(Recipe adapted from “Crossroads” by Tal Ronnen, Artisan, 2015)