Tal Ronnen, founder and chef of Crossroads, the upscale Mediterranean restaurant on Melrose Avenue, is considered a star of vegan cuisine.
Ronnen, 39, grew up eating steak but turned vegan as a teenager and has become obsessed with creating plant-based food as delicious as anything he ever had as a meat eater.
Who and what inspired you on your journey to becoming a chef?
I was born in Israel, where I was exposed to really great Middle Eastern food, particularly from my Moroccan nanny. So I grew up with a lot of great spicy food; I've always liked spicy food. When I was 6 years old, we moved to New York City, where I was introduced to every style of cuisine.
When I started to learn how to cook professionally, it was chefs like Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter and David Anderson who were a huge inspiration to me. I went to the Natural Gourmet Institute to learn how to cook with the intention of taking the knowledge of traditional French cooking techniques and applying them to plant-based foods.
How do you define "healthful eating"?
If they're a meat-and-potatoes person, eating healthy may be reducing the amount of meat that they're consuming. If they're vegetarian, it could mean reducing how much dairy they eat. If they're vegan, maybe it's focusing on having fewer processed foods and more whole foods.
A lot of Americans feel if there's not meat on the plate, it's not dinner. What are your thoughts on that?
Depending on your background, most of our ancestors ate meat, but it was in a very small amount. It was once a week, or it was an accent on the plate, never the center of the plate. We've turned that around, where now we eat animal protein three times a day, seven days a week. That may be one reason we have so much heart disease, cancer and stroke. All three of those may be linked to diet.
If someone wants to have a "meatless Monday" or to just introduce more plant-based dishes into the diet, what's an easy way to do that?
A really easy way is to ... go out and explore some of the great restaurants that we have in L.A. If you're craving vegan fast food, there's the Veggie Grill. Gracias Madre opened in West Hollywood, offering great Mexican vegan food. There's Shojin if you want Japanese food — there are really top-notch plant-based restaurants all over Los Angeles. That would be a good place to start. A way to approach it at home is to find a meal that you're used to eating and to try and make a vegan version of it. If you've got a traditional potpie recipe, leave the chicken out and put in a really meaty mushroom, like a porcini mushroom. Or making a meal like tacos or chili with meatless crumbles or beans is an easy "meatless Monday" dinner.
Being a chef can be pretty punishing physically. How do you stay fit, and do you picture doing this forever?
You're constantly on your feet, running around a lot, definitely breaking a sweat during service when you're cooking. Honestly, I don't have a lot of extra time. I wish I did; I would find more time to exercise. But because I eat healthy, I stay fit.
This is my profession, I couldn't imagine doing anything else. At the end of the night, you've fed 200 people, and most have really enjoyed themselves. It's a new experience for some of them, and it's very gratifying that you were a part of that. And you repeat that every night.