A Candid Interview with One of the World's Top Vegan Chefs
The Jewish Veg Spotlight Shines On ...
Chef Richard Landau opened his first plant-based restaurant in 1994, the humble Horizons Café, tucked into a health-food store in suburban Philadelphia. Some 17 years later, he and his wife, Chef Kate Jacoby, truly arrived on the culinary scene when they opened Vedge -- an elegant, innovative vegan restaurant in Center City, Philadelphia.
Vedge quickly rose to the top of virtually every national ranking of vegan restaurants, and remains there today. Together, Landau and Jacoby have taken vegan cuisine to the highest levels and have continued to come up with new mouth-watering culinary creations, with a variety of international influences.
Jewish Veg caught up with Rich just before Thanksgiving for a particularly open and candid interview. He explains how both his Jewish identity and his passion for veganism have inspired his culinary career.
Enjoy the interview.
Jewish Veg: We love hearing vegans’ “origin stories.” In other words, what prompted you to transition from carnivore to herbivore?
Rich: I grew up as a meat-eater, like any other Jewish kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia. I grew up with corned beef, roast beef, and all that good Jewish deli food.
I asked my dad one day where meat came from. He said it came from cows. I was very young at this point, like 7 or 8 years old. And I envisioned a cow laying a steak like a chicken lays an egg.
Years later, I found out what the truth was. I think I asked my dad again and he told me what was actually happening to the animals to get into my sandwich or onto my plate. I was mortified at this. I thought it was completely wrong that we were killing animals to eat their flesh; it was an absolutely revolting concept to me.
Yet, from a food standpoint, I was absolutely in love with the taste of meat. It’s really what started me on this culinary journey. I had to find ways to entertain my palette. I had to really teach myself to cook to get these great flavors I was used to.
Jewish Veg: How does Judaism fit into your life and identity?
Rich: It was all about the food. Jewish food is not the healthiest food on the planet, but the soulfulness behind it is renowned. Jewish food is about as soulful as you can get. I just loved it.
Jewish deli food was and is still my comfort food. Food was a huge part of religious identity for me.
Jewish Veg: You’ve become a nationally renowned chef and one of the best known vegan restauranteurs, all without formal culinary training. How did you get started?
Rich: When I took on a vegetarian diet as a teenager, there was no place that could teach me how to cook the food I wanted to eat and create, so I had to teach myself. You had to reinvent something that didn’t really exist out there.
Back then, vegetarian food was known as health food. They were used interchangeably. But, for me, this had nothing to do with health. This is ethical food I’m cooking here.
How do you get those flavors without having any animal products on the plate? That’s what drove me.
It’s all about the flavor; it’s all about the soulfulness. Can you give someone all the flavor they’re used to in a matzo ball soup or a corned-beef sandwich without the meat. As long as it’s delicious, we’re in business.
That’s something I caught onto early on that was my driving force. My mission has been to get the word out there that if chefs put as much attention into vegetables as they put into animal products, the world would be a better place and no one would miss anything because the food would be delicious. It’s the fact that chefs have left vegetables behind that I think is the biggest sin here.
Jewish Veg: How do you get along with your non-vegan peers in the culinary world?
Rich: That’s a touchy subject. I have reached out to the culinary world to bond with them. But, in reality, I’m at odds with them in a sense, because they’re ones giving everyone out there reasons not change what they’re doing. They’re taking animals and making them taste absolutely delicious, and therefore showing people that the culinary world revolves around animal flesh. They’re absolutely making my job as hard as possible. They’re perpetuating this idea that meat is what you must have at every meal to make it complete.
Jewish Veg: Of course you’re right. But at the same time, we’re seeing more and more high-end restaurants putting vegan dishes on their menus.
Rich: Yes. Nowadays, I think it’s absolutely a necessary prat of a chef’s repertoire to have great vegan dishes that are really credible. Not like, “Here’s your stuffed pepper or here’s your lasagna.” They have to be original. The pressure is on them to come up with something that is really worthy. How good of a chef are you? You should be able to cook a great dish with vegetables; if you can’t cook a great dish with vegetables, you’re not a great chef.
I think in 10 years, you’re going to see the trends really changing. You’re starting to see this with a few menus in San Francisco. They have menus that basically list the vegetables first and if there is meat in the dish, it’s listed as an ingredient, not as the feature. I think that’s where the big change is going to start to come, where meat is going to become an ingredient and not this big massive hunk of protein that you have to have on your plate.
Jewish Veg: You opened Vedge in downtown Philadelphia in 2011 and it’s been a big success. What was your vision for the restaurant?
Rich: Vedge was an intensely thought-out restaurant. It was intended to show people you can have a great meal without any meat whatsoever.
I consider myself 90 percent chef, 10 percent activist. I started all this because I was so appalled by the idea that we’re eating meat as a culture, as a civilization. If an alien came down from outer space and saw this happening, they would be like, “What is going on? How evolved are they? They are acting like the most intelligent, sentient beings on the planet, and yet there are dead animals on the table.”
To me, the sophisticated, evolved dining experience is all about not having meat on the table, about having a vegetable, plant-based, plant-focused meal. It’s important for me to get this word out there, so people realize that they don’t have to eat animals.
Jewish Veg: Your restaurants have been successful, but we’re sure you face some challenges. What’s the biggest challenge?
Rich: The back of the house, the kitchen, you need the right personalities, and that’s been the biggest challenge.
I’ve hired people with 10 years of experience in restaurants that serve meat and it’s taken me about three months to break their bad habits.
For instance, when we used to have seitan on the menu at Vedge, I used to have to tell people, “This is a fully-cooked product. You’re not cooking salmonella out of this, you’re not cooking any food-borne illness out of that, and you’re not trying to cook it through. You’re just kind of charring the outside of the seitan and letting the inside stay very tender.”
It was very hard for people who cooked animal protein to understand this, because they’re trained to cook from the inside out, to cook out the food-borne illnesses and make sure it’s done to a particular temperature.
That’s one of the bigger challenges, is getting the people to understand how we cook the food, to understand what textures are all about, to understand how to balance flavors. It’s a completely different way of looking at food, and unless you’re an open-minded chef or cook, it’s not the easiest thing to grasp. You do have to relearn what you thought you already knew.
Jewish Veg: Those of us who live outside Philadelphia are anxious to know if you have plan to open restaurants in any other cities.
Rich: We’ve been really careful about the offers we bite on.
Washington is coming early next year. It’s probably going to be a V Street. V Street was designed as a scalable concept.
We’ve had our eye on DC for a while because it’s a completely underserved market as far as vegans go. We have people from DC coming to the Vedge all the time. It made perfect business sense to be down there.
We found the right people and the right location with the right deal, and then we said, “OK, this is where we need to be and we can manage it from home.” Kate and I can jump on a train as often as we like. That’s going to be our model for expanding elsewhere.
Jewish Veg: This isn’t exactly the same as opening a restaurant, but you’ve forged an amazing partnership with Whole Foods for this Thanksgiving. Every Whole Foods this Thanksgiving is selling a vegan holiday meal based on your recipes.
Rich: It’s in every single Whole Foods in America. When we found out they’re for real about it, we were like, “Wow!” We couldn’t pass it up.
It’s extremely important to get this message out, that’s Thanksgiving is a day of thanks and it’s a day to celebrate the harvest. Fill your table with vegetables. If you miss that centerpiece, where the dead bird used to be, well, get a big butternut squash, or giant Portabella mushrooms, or a whole-roasted eggplant, but stop making it about the turkey.
To get that message out on such a grand scale, it just gives me nothing but gratitude that we’re able to do this with Whole Foods.
Jewish Veg: You mentioned earlier than you’re 10 percent advocate. We’d say that’s a conservative estimate. What advice do you give to someone who is at the stage of considering a transition to veganism?
Rich: I’d say go slow and take your time. Find something you love that can be replicated in the vegan world.
Just yesterday, Kate and I cooked up Beyond Meat burgers and put Follow Your Heart smoked Gouda on them, and we had the most delicious cheeseburgers of our lives. It was so good. Here we are eating cheeseburgers and we’re thinking, “Man, It’s a great time to be vegan.”
Think of something you love and replicate it. If you want a steak, there’s not much in the vegan world we can do for you. If you want a bacon cheeseburger, you can do it. If you want chicken nuggets, you can do it vegan. If you want a turkey sandwich, you can do it vegan. Anyone who eats a chicken nugget is crazy, you’re eating poison. Try the vegan version.
Don’t deprive yourself. Find the things that make you happy and find the vegan alternatives to them. If you go vegan for 3 days a week at first, that’s fine. Then go to 4 days. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Just keep going slow.
There are other cases where I’ll say just the opposite to somebody who went to the doctor and got a really bad report. Your cholesterol is high, you have heart disease. In that case, I say, “Slam on the brakes and just do it.”
I know so many stories of people who have gotten this almost death-sentence from the doctor and they didn’t change anything. You’re basically committing suicide. To think you can’t live without meat, when in fact it’s going to kill you, is just the most absurd thing I’ve heard of in my life.
Don’t get that bad report from the doctor. Leave aside the animals for a second. Do it for your own vanity, your own narcissistic tendencies. It’s the best thing you can do for your body. If the environment doesn’t interest you and the animals don’t interest you, do it for yourself.