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Tal Ronnen says make it vegan but make it delicious

The go-to chef who's guided even Oprah Winfrey on matters vegan is helping to steer the movement in a new, more inclusive direction.

June 23, 2011|By Rene Lynch, Los Angeles Times

That approach was honed after years working in East Coast kitchens including vegan hot spot Candle 79 in New York and helping to reopen vegan restaurant Sublime in Florida's South Beach. He considers chef David Anderson of Madeline Bistro in Tarzana one of his mentors. His crossover into celebrity came when he partnered with rocker and animal rights activist Chrissie Hynde in opening the restaurant VegiTerranean in Akron, Ohio.

Reluctant celebrity

Although the fanfare surrounding Ronnen has been a boon for his business — his cookbook, "The Conscious Cook," became a New York Times bestseller and was repeatedly named one of the best cookbooks of 2009 — he's uncomfortable in the spotlight. At last month's Viva Las Vegan, a celebration of vegan food held at Wynn's resort, Ronnen, 36, had to be cajoled back onstage again and again during the demos and told repeatedly to look at the cameras and smile during photos ops.

"I hate the camera. I hate talking on camera. I'd be happy to never see another camera again," he later says, recalling Vegas.

It's his behind-the-scenes role as a guide and a teacher that excites Ronnen most. Trying to make a seafood stew? Sautéed oyster mushrooms can offer up a texture similar to the seafood that shares their name. The flaky texture of a crab cake is easily reproduced, he says, using fresh hearts of palm braised in seaweed. Looking for a smoky seafood flavor? Toast sheets of nori, grind them up and use it as a dusting or flavor accent. Eggless pasta is one of his specialties. He reaches for Gardein protein — he is a consultant for the popular vegan line of meat substitutes — whenever a dish calls for chicken or beef.

But what about butter and cream? No problem, Ronnen says. He uses an olive oil spread for butter, and a silky "cream" made of cashews that have been soaked overnight and then pulverized until the texture reaches luxurious. Truly, it's hard to tell the difference.

Ronnen believes it's his mission to help move the vegan movement forward. He volunteered to work his way across the Cordon Bleu culinary program's campuses, offering demos and tutorials. It's a calculated bid to encourage new culinary students to think vegan before they head out into the nation's kitchens.

The result is a harried lifestyle. The Wynn makeover continues through the summer. Between those trips to Vegas, his consulting work with Gardein in Canada, his Ohio partnership with Hynde, TV appearances with Freston and Cordon Bleu duties, Ronnen rarely spends the night at his L.A. loft.

In fact, he's been there more than 18 months and has never cooked a meal there, not once. He said he's not even sure the stove works and looks forward to trying it out "when things slow down."

That stove might have to wait.

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