If you took my advice for ending the year with the ultimate cured-meats orgy, perhaps you’re now among the many who want to give meat (and animal products in general) a break in 2016. Yes, I’m talking about veganism—or, if you’re turned off by that term, a plant-based diet. We all know such regimes are better for our bodies, the planet and the animals. But vegan food can be boring and bland to the uninitiated. As chef and author Tal Ronnen explains, however, it doesn’t have to be.
While Ronnen’s not a Las Vegas resident, the Valley arguably has no greater expert on vegan cuisine. The already renowned chef was recruited by Steve Wynn four years ago to consult on vegan menus for every restaurant in Wynn and Encore. Ronnen has prepared the meals for Oprah’s 21-day vegan cleanse, catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s vegan wedding and prepared the first vegan dinner served to the U.S. Senate. And his Melrose Avenue vegan restaurant Crossroads has become an L.A. hot spot. So the guy knows how to make sophisticated, delicious food without relying on animal products, and he’s sharing his knowledge in his second book Crossroads: Extraordinary Recipes From the Restaurant That Is Reinventing Vegan Cuisine. In the spirit of a healthier new year, I asked Ronnen to talk about how a vegan diet can move beyond vegetables, rice, soy and seitan.
“Cooking this way for 14 years, you constantly have to come up with new ideas. I always like re-creating foods that people can’t imagine you’d have in a plant-based diet. Whether it’s heavy creams [made] by soaking raw cashews and making your own ‘milk,’ shaving raw walnuts and seasoning them to give the texture and flavor of raw Parmesan cheese, making really great stocks [using] butter substitutes or coconut oils—there’s really a way to replace every animal product.”
“We created a whole tower with ‘prosciutto’ made out of shitakes, ‘calamari’ made from hearts of palms and a ‘crab Louis’ salad. And everybody gave it rave reviews.” – Chef Tal Ronnen.
“The big thing in L.A. this year was seafood and shellfish towers,” he continues by way of example. “And we thought, ‘How can we do a vegan seafood tower at the restaurant?’ So we got these beautiful lobster mushrooms from Oregon; they smell and have the texture of lobster. We created a whole tower with ‘prosciutto’ made out of shitakes, ‘calamari’ made from hearts of palms and a ‘crab Louis’ salad. And everybody gave it rave reviews.”
Flip through the book and you’ll be amazed by some of the dishes he offers. I was pretty surprised to see a take on spinach and artichoke dip, which is usually loaded with sour cream and cream cheese. He substitutes kale for spinach for a peppery kick, cashew cream for a creamy texture and uses non-dairy Earth Balance brand “butter” sticks. Other recipes in the book include much more sophisticated dishes, such as acorn squash ravioli with black garlic butter sauce and oven-roasted Romanesco (a relative of broccoli) with onion agrodolce (sweet and sour) sauce and grappa.
Of course, if you don’t want to cook at home and you’re not up for a trip to L.A., there are plenty of opportunities to sample Ronnen’s inspirations on the Strip. When Wynn converted to veganism, he decreed that all of his restaurants offer vegan menus. Four years into consulting with the properties on those programs, Ronnen says it has been well received by the resorts’ customers and chefs.
“We were kind of ahead of the game,” Ronnen says. “With anything new, you have a lot of skeptics. But in the first year, we turned a lot of people’s minds. And now, it almost seems normal that when a new venue opens on property or we do a seasonal menu change, everybody always looks forward to it. The chefs on the properties are the best at their game. And all throughout the year I’ll get texts from them with ideas. People have embraced what they’re doing. It’s [no longer] such a strange thing.”
If 2016 is your year to try veganism, it’s never been easier to put down the lobster and pick up the lobster mushrooms.