Tal Ronnen Interview: Q&A With the Conscious Cook (Part 1)
Since hitting the big time (thanks also to Oprah, who had Ronnen develop a 21-day vegan cleanse for her), Ronnen has been leading workshops at Cordon Bleu schools around the country and working as a consultant on a new vegetarian food, Gardein.
He'll take a break from his busy schedule to cook a special one-night-only meal at Sublime in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, June 16.
We spoke to the friendly vegan rock star by phone (he called from Chicago) in anticipation of his arrival:
First, congratulations on all your great success this past year. I was looking for some basic info about your background but had trouble finding it. Can you start by telling me about where you're from and how you grew up eating?
Yeah, sure! I grew up with two parents who were big foodies. I grew up eating everything, exposed to foods from all different cultures, especially living in New York. My sisters and I had chopsticks in our hands by the time we were 3.
How did you decide to become a vegetarian?
It's funny -- I always poked fun at my sisters who were vegetarians, and then I became a vegetarian myself. And it's actually because I was missing the foods I grew up eating that prompted me to take cooking more seriously and take it to the level I remembered growing up as a kid. Vegetarian food was always lacking. At restaurants, it was always an afterthought. Everyone else would order these great meals, and I'd end up having sides of steamed vegetables. What I did [in my career and in the cookbook] was apply traditional French techniques to vegetarian foods -- and that has made them much more appealing.
You grew up in New York City? What made you change your mind about eating meat?
I actually grew up partly in New York City but also in upstate New York (Rochester). I was actually born in Israel. My dad is from Melbourne, Australia, and my mom is from New York. So all my life, I've experienced great flavors, bold flavors, spices.
Did you ever have a vegemite sandwich?
Ha ha, yes. My dad loved them. In fact, I keep vegemite, or marmite, in my house.
What did your parents do?
My dad was an art critic for ARTnews magazine, and my mom was a lawyer and later became an art dealer. And so why did I become vegetarian? My sisters did, I think from the day they associated where our food came from. At a really young age, like 3 or 4 years old. There was no one around who was vegetarian, so I don't know how they made the connection. I took great pleasure in making fun of them!
How many sisters do you have?
Three. I had four, but one passed. One of them is my twin -- she has 15 minutes on me!
Oh wow. What does she do? Anything related?
She's in publishing. She didn't publish my cookbook, but she helped produce it.
Yeah, so I was probably about 16 when I stopped eating meat. I didn't do it because I felt that it was cool or to be an outsider but for all kinds of reasons -- personal reasons, to help prevent cancer and heart disease... It just made sense. I was young and very idealistic, so it was an easy decision. My parents were really supportive. [Becoming vegetarian] piqued my interest in cooking, and I started to do my own things for myself around then, around age 16.
How many times have you gone to McDonald's and ordered a hamburger without the meat?
Ha ha, never. When I used to eat McDonald's, I would order actual chesseburgers! Now Burger King is my go-to burger -- I can get a veggie burger in a pinch, like when I'm traveling. But I prefer to find an ethnic restaurant, like Indian, Thai, or Chinese, that naturally has vegetarian options.
And tell me about your career since high school. Did you go straight to culinary school?
No, actually I was into photography. I went to work for Eastman Kodak as an instructor in their pro photographer division. But eventually I wanted to leave the city, wanted a career change, so I went to culinary school in my mid-20s. From there, I worked in restaurants in New York and Virginia. I ended up in L.A. because my fiancée wanted to be in L.A. -- and I probably will never live anywhere else now! I wake up to the sun every day; there's no humidity. Actually I split my time between L.A. and Vancouver, because I am a consultant for Gardein.
Oh yeah. I wanted to talk to you about Gardein.
It's the first vegetarian protein that chefs actually cook with. For a long time, [the only vegetarian meat substitutes were] just veggie dogs and veggie burgers. But the owner of the company created this new protein that you can really cook with -- not just stick in between a bun. Gordon Ramsay even used it on an episode. It's made of pea protein and ancient grains -- not just soy. It's sold at retail and for food service. I work on new product development. Recently we just came out with a frozen line of products. We have scalloppini, which is like a thin chicken breast, and beef tips, which are great for stir frys, or you can do a beef burgundy or beef stroganoff. We have convenience foods that you can heat and serve -- things like seven-grain chicken tenders and buffalo wings. Publix carries the full line.
How did Oprah find you?
I was in London helping my friend open a restaurant when I got a call from my friend Kathy Freston. Oprah was very interested in a cleanse featured in Kathy's book, which talks about geting all these toxins out of your body -- caffeine and sugar and alcohol and animal products. Oprah was interested in doing the cleanse. It was a bit of a dilemma: One of my best friends is opening a restaurant in two days and I get invited to go to Chicago to do cleanse with Oprah.
How was that?
Kind of a nerve-racking experience, because she was blogging about my meals! It was great, though. Living in L.A., I've cooked for a lot of celebrities -- so many people there are into a healthy lifestyle. But Oprah had everything done at studio -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner there -- that's how hard she works.
Any inside insights you can share about her?
I would never, never share that. [Working for celebrities, I] sign so many nondisclosure forms. I will say she is unlike any person -- so full of gratitude. Being on set for so long, I could see how much her show gives back, how it helps people. I had never really watched it before. She's got a great palette.
Was it her show that led to the cookbook?
I had a great experience with her, but more that that, my friend Bob Tuschman at the Food Network invited me to do a workshop for staff there. He said, "You should do a book." To hear people that work on the Food Network say that... [is the highest compliment]. Initially a book was something I didn't want to do! So many people have done cookbooks, but [as a chef] your cooking evolves so frequently that they can't stand to look at them now. It's like looking at your high school yearbook!
I never thought of that! Like how everybody was doing Asian fusion a few years ago, and now people mock it.
Yeah! But so far, I'm very proud. But it's in print; it's got my name on it; it'll be in print forever! I tried to make it timeless.
Check back Monday for Part 2 of our interview.