Creating vegan equivalents of traditional favorites, with no help from the Beyonds and Impossibles.
By Tal Ronnen as told to Chris Mohney
Though he’d already established his bona fides as a vegetarian chef in various restaurants, it was a chance opportunity to plan a 21-day cleanse for Oprah Winfrey that catapulted Tal Ronnen to the top of the plant-based culinary pyramid. That led to a bestselling cookbook, a stint designing menus in Las Vegas, and finally his own vegan restaurant. Crossroads in Los Angeles has become Ronnen’s stage for his meticulous and often whimsical re-creations of animal proteins in entirely meat-free form.
Over the years, my style and what I serve at my restaurant have changed. Now, I create food that people want to eat, as opposed to creating dishes that I want to create, either to satisfy my own ego or my own creativity. At the beginning, it was just to prove that I could do something in the plant-based space that people didn’t think was possible. Yes, a chef does need to satisfy his creative side. We’re constantly innovating and exploring. But we’re also creating foods that are familiar to people. It’s what keeps a restaurant full and busy—dishes that are a little more familiar and approachable.
Many of these are dishes I miss eating as a vegan. When I start working on these sorts of dishes, I want to make sure that I hit on three different facets. Visually, how it’s going to look. Texturally. And then taste, of course.
Sometimes the inspiration comes out of a kitchen that I’m cooking in. In 2010, when I started working in Vegas, one of the first restaurants on the Wynn property was a seafood restaurant called Lakeside. I was really kind of intimidated. What was I going to do at a seafood restaurant that’s plant-based? In the walk-in cooler, I saw these beautiful hearts of palm the chef had brought in from Hawaii. They were full batons, so they were almost the size of a human arm, and almost that thick. And fresh—nothing like people are used to from small cans of hearts of palm. As I was peeling it, I noticed it had a really cool kind of fibrous texture, and I ended up braising it in kombu seaweed.
Poaching the hearts of palm in the kombu imparted a seafood flavor, and when they were cooked, I was able to pulse them in a Robot Coupe, and I got a texture very close to lump crab meat. I added a little granulated nori that I would toast in a pizza oven and put in a coffee grinder, and added some Old Bay. A lot of times it’s about the seasoning and the preparation of certain seafood dishes or meat dishes that people really associate the flavor with, as much as the meat or the fish itself.
So we created these cool crab cakes. They’ve been on the menu for 10 years there. And using the poaching liquid left over from the kombu, we created a vegan clam chowder by adding cashew cream, smoked mushrooms, carrots, and potatoes. Instantly, here were two dishes that fit really well into a seafood restaurant.
That’s how it goes. Sometimes inspiration comes from the actual vegetable itself. The artichoke oysters at Crossroads have been on the menu since day one, seven years now. That happened by peeling an artichoke and looking at the way this artichoke leaf fell onto the cutting board. It looked like a great vessel for something. It was about the size of an oyster shell. And then the process becomes, what’s the texture of an oyster? What’s the flavor of an oyster? Oyster mushrooms are called oyster mushrooms because they have a similar texture. Seasoning them with a little bit of seaweed, frying them in cornmeal, using the heart of the artichoke, and then cooking that down and puréeing it to anchor the oyster mushroom in the artichoke leaf. Then we created a Béarnaise sauce out of yellow tomatoes, and the little garnish on that is caviar made out of seaweed.
The same kind of inspiration created our carrot lox that we serve at brunch. I have a company called Kite Hill—we make cream cheese, yogurt, and sour cream from artisanal almond milk. We had just launched the cream cheese, and we were making fresh bagels at the restaurant. And we thought, man, it would be so cool to have a lox component to this.
Scott Jones, our executive chef, had been hickory smoking these beautiful heirloom carrots on the winter menu for a very simple dish. I tasted the carrots one day, and I was thinking, wow, this could really be very similar to lox. We shaved them thinly—we found it a little difficult because they were already smoked and cooked—but visually it looked like a piece of lox.
So we started to refine the process. First we went to larger carrots, and once they were smoked, we encrusted them in peppercorns and granulated nori, and baked the carrots to soften them. They got the smoke, which lox has from being cured and smoked. The nori and the peppercorns on the crust lent it the flavor. Then we froze them. We found it was much easier to shave the carrots on a mandolin or a vegetable peeler that way. Once they came back up to temperature, we tossed in some olive oil for that fatty sheen that lox would have, and a little bit of salt and pepper. On a bagel, you close your eyes and it’s almost indistinguishable from lox.
A long time ago, we started doing scallops out of king oyster mushrooms. The bulk of that mushroom is the stem. They’re really long and fat. We would cut them into the shape of scallops and sauté them. They looked like scallops, but they were really tough. We found that while the exterior of the mushroom was tough, the inside was tender. So we started punching them out with a ring mold. We got a nice uniform scallop shape, and it was nice and tender because it was the inside of the stem. We were left with this ring, and it was just perfect for calamari. So we were able to use the whole mushroom, the exterior for the calamari and the inside the scallop. That happened in a single afternoon. It was on the menu that night as a feature. People went nuts for it.
Texture is very important in what I do. I worked for someone a while back who could not see well, and I was doing a tasting for this person with all these fancy presentations. The chefs that I was working with said, “Don’t worry about it. He can’t see the food. Just make sure it tastes good.” That’s when I started focusing on how these are supposed to replace a seafood dish or a meat dish. We’ve got to nail it on texture. Plus you have years of people making fun of the texture of veggie burgers or tofu or anything in the vegan world. That ice cream doesn’t really taste like ice cream, or that cheese doesn’t really melt, or that tofu is squishy. Maybe that was in the back of my mind when I started creating these dishes. It had to work texturally.
The most exciting thing to me is to see everyday chefs and really great restaurants cooking plant-based or vegan menus. When I started doing this, other chefs were not very open to it. It’s just nice not being the weirdo anymore.
Right now, we are running takeout and delivery on a skeleton crew. The reason we’ve made it seven years in this tough business is because of our incredible team, many who have been with us since day one. Laying off more than 50 staff this month was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. The support from our guests and photos of them cooking our meals at home have literally kept me and the remaining team going. We’re doing to-go orders and meal kits, which are some of our most popular dishes deconstructed for people to cook at home. We’re also doing pre-mixed cocktails for carryout that just need to be poured over ice. Caring for people is at our core, and we are definitely taking comfort in providing people with nourishing food.