Tal Ronnen and Wynn restaurant staff are adding vegan dishes such as carrot… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
Tal Ronnen catered the vegan wedding for Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi. Casino mogul Steve Wynn tapped him to add vegan dishes to the menus at all 22 restaurants at the luxurious Wynn and Encore resorts in Vegas. Former McDonald's executives invited him onboard to help launch a chain of healthful fast-food restaurants later this year. And when Oprah decided to try the vegan thing, Tal was her guide. (She calls him the best vegan chef in America.)
But here's the real secret behind his ascension to first-name-only status as a vegan rock-star chef: He thinks like a meat eater.
"So many people tell me, 'I could be a vegan if it weren't for bacon,' and I tell them, 'Be a "vegan" who eats bacon,'" Ronnen says with a shrug as he sits in the sun-dappled dining room of his loft in downtown Los Angeles.
Wha? Isn't that sacrilegious?
Ronnen sighs. "Real militant vegans hate when I say that. But if you are cutting back on the amount of meat that you eat, you're still doing something great for your health, for the planet and for the animal."
He's part of a new breed of vegans and vegetarians who are taking the movement back from those militants brandishing bumper stickers that admonish us not to eat anything with a face. Ronnen and others like him, including author Kathy Freston, urge the masses to "lean into" vegetarianism and veganism by simply embracing a vegetarian or vegan meal a few times a week. If they have a rallying cry, it just might be "Meatless Mondays."
Their target audience is meat eaters who are intrigued by going vegan or vegetarian, but are afraid to give up meat (especially bacon) because they fear they'll spend the rest of their lives looking at a plate of rabbit food. And Ronnen doesn't blame them.
"I just can't do the 'throw some vegetables and a starch on a plate' thing," he says. "That's the problem with most vegan dishes. It's a portobello mushroom cap, or a pasta primavera, and when you're finished with dinner you have to hit the drive-through. You have to give people something that will satisfy them. And that's a protein-based plate."
The classically trained chef believes it's his mission to inspire chefs across the country to take on that challenge. "If I could get one point across, it would be this: Being a vegan is not about depriving yourself. If you sit around eating lettuce and carrots all day because that's what you think vegans are doing, you're doing it wrong."
This relatively simple approach — designing a vegan menu with the protein front and center, not just paying it lip service — is nonetheless revolutionary in the food world. And Ronnen takes it several steps beyond: He is leading the way in transforming vegan fare into haute cuisine.
"We're just beginning to see what is possible with vegan food, and Tal is at the forefront of that movement," says Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton. "Tal is an artist. He is just beginning to open a window onto the possibilities of what vegan food can look like."
In the mainstream
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the vegan movement started to change. Freston, the blond dynamo at its forefront and author of the new book "Veganist," credits a perfect storm. The eco-friendly movement took notice of the environmental costs of eating meat. The economic slide and rising food costs nudged beef, chicken and pork closer to the "luxury" side of the ledger. Add in the health benefits and celebrity-and-beauty quotient — the gossip mags breathlessly announcing that "Glee" star Lea Michele's sleek new body could be attributed to a vegan diet, for example — and it was on.
But the movement can go only so far without taste. And that's where Ronnen comes in. "This is about delicious food," said Wynn, who recently adopted a vegan lifestyle for health reasons, lost 30 pounds and called for the menu makeovers at his restaurants so he would always have something to eat.
Revamping the Wynn menus has not just been good for the boss. It's been good for business: Wynn says they've been a hit with customers, and are creating a new niche market for those who want more than greasy, fatty food options or a buffet.
Ronnen became a vegetarian as a teenager to impress a girl, and then went vegan for humanitarian and health reasons. A graduate of New York's Natural Gourmet Institute, Ronnen pays homage to French culinary roots by taking those classic elements and playing with the layered flavors and textures until he finds a vegan alternative. "I love that challenge, trying to come up with something vegan that is as good or better."