For those who think the phrase “vegan cooking” means spirulina, wheat grass, and smoothies, Tal Ronnen can be a revelation. Ronnen’s the chef who cooked for Oprah’s famed 21-day vegan cleanse, did the fab food for Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s wedding, and prepared the first vegan meal for the U.S. Senate. These folks aren’t going to put up with sprouts and slop. Neither will Ronnen. As he writes in his vegan cookbook, The Conscious Cook, “There are no sprouts in this book, or in my refrigerator.”
Instead, Ronnen’s book features recipes like phyllo purses stuffed with onion jam and a satisfying Caesar salad minus the eggs, cheese, and anchovies. Along with meaty tomes like Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home and Marcus Samuelsson’s New American Table, The Conscious Cook was named one of the top cookbooks of 2009 by Epicurious.
Have we reached the tipping point, when plant-based cuisine becomes mainstream?
It’s changing now. Look at top chefs Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. When you go to Per Se or Trotter’s, there’s a whole vegetarian tasting menu now. And look at how many celebrities are vegan. In L.A, so many people eat that way; there’s 30 vegetarian restaurants there. When you go to most cities, there’s just one or two.
For someone who’s made a career of making fabulous meals for the plant-based set, you don’t always have kind things to say about the usual vegetarian fare.
I’ve had some bad vegan meals. You know, old school — you walk in the door and the first thing you get is the smell of wheat grass and a loud juice machine going.
Most people know tofu as that squishy white stuff that nobody knows what to do with. Meat analogues are highly processed soy and often taste like rubber. I hate soy milk, the way it tastes; it tastes beany. You can put it in a pan and reduce it all day, and it’ll just evaporate.
Plus, so many chefs have done the same thing over and over with vegan cuisine — penne pasta with grilled vegetables, grilled portobellos. I felt like there was no protein in vegan restaurant meals. I was getting a bunch of vegetables put together as an entrée. That led me to go to culinary school and learn how to cook.
Were you vegan when you were in culinary school? Did you have to take Butchering 101?
I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute. They do meat, but not red meat — fish, poultry, lobster. It’s good for people to learn those techniques. You’ve got to know how these things taste. You need the basics, whether you’re vegan or not.
I do classes at the Cordon Bleu, and there’s always a vegan or two in the class. They’re getting a great education going through these motions and learning how to cook classically at first.
By learning traditional French techniques, the five mother sauces, the stocks — that put me on a path to creating food that was much more appealing to non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike. I’m not afraid to use really good healthy fats and creamy textures without dairy, and meaty textures without meat.
What did you eat as a kid?
My parents were real foodies and exposed my sisters and me to every kind of food. But I grew up eating meat. It’s ironic — I used to make fun of my sisters. They both were vegetarian before I was. Now I’m leading that lifestyle.
What made you switch from omnivore to herbivore?
A lot of the shift for me had to do with friends who have influenced me, cancer in the family, heart disease, and the environmental impact. Once I became vegan, I knew I wanted to stick with it, but found it really difficult at first. I’m used to the texture and flavor of meat. If I could have that texture without the negative ethical and environmental impacts, that’s a win-win.
Was that behind your decision to create recipes with the Gardein food company?
Gardein is a transition food to help people reduce their meat consumption. What’s unique is you can cook with it. Most vegan meat products are veggie dogs and veggie burgers. You don’t cook with them; they’re meant to go between a bun. Gardein is plant-based protein, but it does taste and feel like meat — a little too much so, to some vegans.
I don’t worry about somebody who’s already vegan. I’m interested in exposing this cuisine to people fighting heart disease or cancer. We lead the world in cancer, heart disease, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. Kids are obese and diabetic. I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up that way.
How do you strike a balance between health food and food people want to eat?
The greatest thing about what I’ve been doing is the challenge. For me, it’s about creating food I missed eating as a meat-eater. Developing recipes like the Artichoke and Oyster Mushroom Rockefeller was really fun. I remember looking at an artichoke leaf and thinking the shape kind of looks like a clam shell — how could I use that as a vessel? So I used oyster mushrooms and seasoned them with nori to give them a taste of the ocean. You have the experience of the Rockefeller, but it’s even better with the bite of artichoke leaf.
How did you come to cook for Oprah?
Through my friend Kathy Freston, who wrote Quantum Wellness. It was on “Oprah,” and she was very interested in the cleanse.
I was in London with Chad Sarno at the time, helping open Saf, Chad’s fine-dining vegan restaurant. We were two days away from opening when I got the call. I was kind of torn, but he said, “Are you crazy?”
So I went to Chicago and spent three weeks cooking for her. Boy, was I nervous. The challenge with the cleanse was it was also gluten-free, sugar-free, and alcohol-free. Not that I don’t like a challenge, but I cook with alcohol, I use gluten in wheat and all of that.
It was also challenging for me not knowing how someone was going to respond. She was blogging about each meal. I’d wake up and wonder what she’d written.
I was really blown away by what she does on the show. She’s so down to earth and honest, it became a really pleasurable experience.
What do you want the takeaway to be from The Conscious Cook?
There’s a lot of misconceptions with plant-based cuisine — that you won’t get your protein, that you’re not going to feel full or satisfied, that you’re going to be served sprouts and salads and things like that. By tasting some of the dishes, you really bust those myths about being vegan. You can eat healthy and not sacrifice.
What about people who aren’t ready to make the switch to plant-based eating? What can they get out of your book?
A vegetarian diet is not all or nothing. If everybody ate just a couple of vegetarian meals a week, it would make a huge difference to you and the environment. One of the best things you can do is eat organic. It means your food is non-GMO. Almost 95 percent of the food that’s in stores is genetically modified.
Cook seasonally. I love cooking seasonally and locally sourcing produce. I grew up in New York, where we could get anything anytime. As a kid, I’d eat strawberries in winter, and they didn’t taste like anything. God knows where they came from. It’s fun to look forward to what’s in season.
I didn’t want to shy away from recipes that keep people in the kitchen. In other cultures, it’s not uncommon to prepare dinner for two hours. People here have really gotten away from spending time in the kitchen. They’re too used to microwaving, eating processed foods, and eating out. A meal that takes 45 minutes for me is a quick meal, but here, that’s not that common. People have gotten away from cooking. We need to get back to that.
What do you cook when you’re home by yourself?
When you cook for a living, you don’t always like to bring your work home. At the end of the day, when I’m back at home, I do very basic meals — whole grains, fresh vegetables, keeping it very simple.
Where do you source your food?
In Santa Monica, we have a beautiful farmers’ market, but even mainstream retailers are starting to stock the foods I gravitate towards.
What are some of your favorite vegan products?
Coconut oil and palm oil — I love them. It’s like cooking with lard.