Top chefs always have their eyes open. They know a trend when they see one. They know when to hop on the bandwagon while there’s still room. And the latest one trundling through town carries the awareness that chefs have to find a way to appeal to the impressively large tribe of vegans.
Vegans! These people -- a meat-eating, dairy-slurping eater might think -- are the antithesis of the food lovers who fill the tables at top dining spots. They hardly eat anything. Well, yes and no. In fact, that’s the challenge.
The trick is to take the ingredients vegans do eat and bring to them the same intensity, innovation and affection for the beautiful dish that prevails in more conventional approaches, and in the process change dutiful eating into joyful dining.
Over the last few months, a handful of Los Angeles chefs have expanded their vegan repertoires in earnest. They have maintained their creativity and style, even as they’ve eliminated many of the basic materials that define them: butter and cream, fish and meat, even eggs and cheese.
It’s all proof that serious vegan cooking isn’t some passing fad, such as raw food and its gimmicky imitations. (Pizza with a “living buckwheat crust”? Get real.)
At Grace on Beverly Boulevard, chef Neal Fraser has featured a vegan appetizer, entree and dessert every night since the restaurant opened about five months ago. He has served a pumpkin soup with a soy-tofu foam and now offers a corn soup with squash blossoms. The main dish is a basmati-stuffed pepper with diced vegetables, dried fruits and pecans. For dessert: a rich chocolate ganache tart made with maple syrup and presented with sour cherry compote and roasted Spanish almonds.
“It’s shortsighted to think that everyone eats meat and fish,” said Fraser. Tellingly, the vegan rice-stuffed pepper outsells the chicken, said Richard Drapkin, managing partner.
With a gilded edge
While it doesn’t seem like such a leap for a chef like Fraser, cooking in an ambitious modern style, it’s something of a surprise to find an extensive vegan menu at a formal French restaurant.
But that’s exactly what Jean Francois Meteigner is doing at La Cachette in Century City. It started last year, with an episode of “Dinner for Five,” an Independent Film Channel series with actor Jon Favreau and four guests.
An episode was being shot at the restaurant. “Two days before, they tell me one guy is vegan,” Meteigner said. “That is when I started seriously panicking. I didn’t know what vegan food was, frankly. Then I did a lot of research on the computer. I found that we had a lot of stuff that worked.”
That guest, actor Ed Begley Jr., became a regular at La Cachette, and Meteigner started cooking monthly vegan dinners. Now Begley has spread the word to fellow vegans, such as actor James Cromwell, and Meteigner has expanded his repertoire with $50 vegan tasting menus on Friday nights. On Aug. 10, he’ll do seven courses, pairing each one with either fresh-squeezed juices or wine. He’s even offering a $25 vegan picnic basket.
As Meteigner presented a beautifully composed terrine of beets, avocado and heirloom tomatoes, he couldn’t contain a bit of pride.
“If vegan could be like this all the time, I’d eat it all the time,” he said. His family is eating more vegan meals partly to avoid his toddler daughter’s egg and dairy-product allergies and because his wife, Allie Ko, grew up on Korean cooking that’s often all-vegetable. Ko introduced her husband to ingredients as she shopped for soy milks, rice ice creams and the like for their daughter.
It’s not without some sacrifice that these chefs give up their traditional ways of cooking. Yet as demand grows for vegan food, many have adjusted.
Six weeks ago, Miro, the restaurant at Santa Barbara’s Bacara spa and resort, added a four-course, prix-fixe menu for vegans and vegetarians.
“When we’d get a vegan request, it always seemed like it was during a rush,” said sous-chef Joe Anguiano. “It was like we turned into Iron Chef and had to do something spur-of-the moment.”
Chefs these days also have to consider nutrition as much as they do taste and presentation, said John Rucci, an executive food and beverage manager at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Chef Bill Bracken of the hotel’s Belvedere restaurant has adapted many recipes to appeal to vegans.
“In this day and age,” said Rucci, “if you can’t vary from macrobiotic to vegan and everything in between, you are not going to survive.”
In fact, vegan dining has become a sort of draw for some restaurants. In June, Hugo’s in Studio City hosted a “Mindful Dining” evening of mostly vegan courses accompanied by meditations on the food. Its 40 seats sold out in a week.
When he moved from Atlanta three years ago to Jer-ne at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Marina del Rey, chef Troy N. Thompson offered many vegan menu items in anticipation of dozens of requests. The response wasn’t overwhelming, but he’s still pushing toward a more haute vegan menu. He’s done vegan meals with wine tastings and is redesigning the restaurant’s menu to include a “veggie menu” that will appeal to vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike.
At Hamasaku, a Westside Japanese restaurant, owner Toshi Kihara has his chefs turn tomatoes and a sushi rice risotto into objects of art. Beneath the pickled eggplant and snow-pea garnish is a tasty and satisfying dish. For three years, he’s offered a vegan menu, mainly because he’s noticed diners from the entertainment industry are increasingly avoiding meat and dairy products.
Until recently, vegan cuisine was perhaps accurately perceived as an austere way of eating that was more heavily infused with philosophy than with flavor. In the nearly 60 years since the British Vegan Society coined the term vegan for nondairy vegetarians, the concept has become more mainstream. Locally, restaurants such as Real Food Daily have grown as they’ve cast off their grubby, extreme-cuisine image in favor of a good-for-you gourmet label.
Eddie Caraeff, chef of the Newsroom Cafe in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, is one of the city’s pioneers in restaurant vegan cooking. His Santa Monica cafe opened 13 years ago with a menu minus red meat and fried food. It’s the same today, but his vegan customers make up nearly 20% of the patrons, who frequently include some of the city’s top chefs.
“It is harder to cook vegan,” said Caraeff, who is glad to see haute cuisine embrace the animal-free ideal. “Usually vegan food is so bland. Why is that? Do they think that vegans won’t take anything with a little zip?”
Vegan cuisine itself has adopted a more progressive attitude. Making pretend “lamb chops” or using vegetable ingredients to mimic other animal-based foods is passe. Chefs are maximizing fresh produce with simple dressings and purees, and creating beautiful plates of artfully combined ingredients. Eric Tucker at Millennium in San Francisco has helped make vegan home cooking more interesting too.
“A lot of people think of it as for ex-hippies who are eating granola and brown rice and overcooked vegetables somewhere. We are showing that you can do a lot of different textures and flavor combinations,” Tucker said.
The success of vegan cuisine has spread awareness of the diet’s vast potential, not just its limitations.
Tucker recently moved the Millennium restaurant just blocks from Union Square in San Francisco -- a move that’s symbolic of veganism’s encroachment upon mainstream culture. In November, Tucker’s new cookbook, “The Artful Vegan” (Ten Speed Press), will show home cooks how to put a gourmet spin on vegan cuisine with the restaurant’s recipes. A new everyday vegan cookbook, “Vegan Planet,” by Robin Robertson (Harvard Common Press), puts 400 vegan recipes in paperback.
Still, this cuisine can be tricky for chefs used to consuming the world’s bounty.
“As a French chef,” said Meteigner, “it’s very difficult to use no eggs or butter.”
Fraser, meanwhile, continues to explore. Right now, he’s working on an entree composed of stuffed vegetables: an heirloom tomato with couscous and hemp seed; a fried squash blossom with potato stuffing; a poblano chile filled with rice; and maybe even some new twists on squash.
Um, hemp seed?
“It’s got the same texture as couscous,” he said, not to mention essential fatty acids. “And if you’re not going to eat meat, it’s a good thing to consider.”