Israeli-born Tal Ronnen orchestrated Oprah Winfrey’s highly publicized 21-day vegan cleanse in 2013. He catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi’s 2008 wedding after years as their private chef. But these days, he’s more concerned with spreading the gospel of veg to the masses. And in the new Mediterranean-themed cookbook “Crossroads” (Artisan), named for his white-hot Los Angeles restaurant, Ronnen both demystifies plant-based cuisine and sexes it up with sensual recipes like artichoke “calamari,” flatbreads and fresh pastas.
But Ronnen says it’s not just about pretty plates. “Many in this country eat animal protein seven days a week, three times a day, and the body can’t handle it,” he says. “We lead the world in diseases associated with diet. But people are ready for a shift.” The Forward caught up with Ronnen from Los Angeles.
You grew up in Israel. How did that influence your cooking?
I lived in Israel until I was eight years old. My parents worked full-time, and I was very lucky to have a nanny who had emigrated from Morocco. Cooking was where she shined. Until I was eight, almost every meal I ate was cooked by her, from scratch. There’s a recipe in “Crossroads” that’s hers, a spicy carrot dish that’s a salad. Last year, I took a trip to Morocco. It was kind of neat to see where she had picked up her sensibilities, flavors and spices. All of that had a big influence on how we cook at the restaurant.
You studied classical cooking techniques at New York’s National Gourmet Institute. Were vegetables already on your mind?
I went there with the intent of cooking plant-based food. I wanted to get the traditional techniques down. I’d never know how to make a yellow-tomato bearnaise sauce, for example, had I not learned to make a traditional bearnaise sauce. The foundations, the basics, are very important. That’s part of what we share in the book.
Was there an “aha” moment when you realized you needed to go vegan, or was it more gradual?
It was gradual. I wasn’t always vegan or vegetarian. But I haven’t eaten meat in 24 years, and I’ve been vegan for 14. It works for me, and I hope to share it with a country where most people eat some kind of meat three times a day, seven days a week. That’s never been done, historically. Meat was once a way of flavoring food, not the center of the plate. Now, you see people eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, salmon for dinner. Your body can’t handle animal protein seven days a week. That’s why we lead the world in diseases associated with diet, from heart disease to cancers.
Well, the traditional Ashkenazi diet’s pretty meat-heavy. Have you ever tackled it at Crossroads?
We do a bagel and lox every Sunday for brunch. We started with lox made of beautiful heirloom carrots smoked on hickory. Then we pulverize nori in a coffee grinder to season it. When you slice the carrots very thin, you get a texture similar to lox. Then we founded a company, Kite Hill, which makes cream cheese from almond milk. So we had the cream cheese, we had the lox, and I said, “Guys, we have to make bagels.” Everyone groaned. They come in at 7 a.m. to make them from scratch. But people say it’s one of the most fantastic dishes we have on the menu.
What about traditional Jewish holiday foods? Can they succeed in plant-based versions?
We do great potato latkes. For a week around Hanukkah, we’ll mix potatoes with root vegetables, or sweet potato. We make our own spiked applesauce. We also make delicious sufganiot without butter, milk or eggs, like everything we do. In our pastry shop, we have some very talented people who are constantly finding ways to substitute out eggs. The sufganiot are very yeasty, and rise for a while before they’re fried. You can’t tell the difference from conventional donuts. What you can tell is that everything’s made from scratch, including the jelly inside the donuts.
You’ve earned so much praise for new tastes and textures in plant-based food. How exactly do you do that?
We like to create dishes that people think they might miss in a vegetarian diet. Our artichoke oysters and our calamari are good examples. Calamari and oysters are obviously not dishes you’d associate with eating vegan. But we achieve it by using flavors people associate with seafood. Our calamari’s made from hearts of palm — hollowed out and cut, they look very much like calamari. To get the right flavor, we poach them in kombu, a kind of seaweed. It cooks them, softens them up and imparts the flavor of the ocean. Then we season them with things you’d associate with seafood, like Old Bay.
What’s your advice for home cooks who would like to try making more plant-based dishes?
Checking out ethnic food is really great, because in so many societies cooking without meat is part of everyday life. Indian food, lots of types of Asian food are not very meat-centric. Also, start modifying recipes you make at home all the time. You have tacos on Tuesdays? Omit the beef and use black beans. Also, take your time, get cookbooks, don’t make it strange. It’s not about buying a kitchen full of strange ingredients you don’t know how to use.
Michael Kaminer is a contributing editor at the Forward.