Tal Ronnen Interview, Part 2: Could the Vegan Beat Up Bobby Flay?
Has the success of your cookbook surprised you?
It's been great. You know, the book takes a very different approach from most vegan cookbooks, which are written by home cooks -- and often focus on low fat or no fat. I take the opposite approach! I use foods that have a very meaty texture, cream sauces... So the success is somewhat unexpected! What I was really excited about, though, was that epicurious.com named it one of the top ten cookbooks of the year. To have them, and outlets like Bon Apetit, paying attention shows that they're taking this cuisine seriously now.
What's been the coolest thing that's happened since you became sort of famous?
Well, this year, since January, I've been going around to Le Cordon Bleu schools -- 17 campuses -- to do two-hour workshops for students and staff. That's probably my favorite thing that's come out of all of this. You know, the schools are known for French cuisine. They're all about butter and animal products. So it's been great for them to be open to showing staff alternatives. My approach is deeply rooted in French cuisine, and it's been fun going to campuses. I'm also sponsored by Vitamix [high-performance blenders]. That's one of my favorite tools. I use it to make cashew cream -- I don't like cook with soy milk because you can't really reduce it, so I soak raw cashews and spin them with water in a Vitamix. It helps get rid of the grit and everything; otherwise you have to strain it through a cheesecloth if you use a regular blender. It's also been cool doing the book signings and doing events at places like Whole Foods.
Tell me a little more about Sublime, where you'll be cooking Wednesday. What did you do when you worked there? And since you've traveled so much, can you say how it fits in the diaspora of vegetarian restaurants around the country or the world?
Yeah, Sublime basically set a new standard, both in décor and [business modeling]. I think they have over 200 seatings and keep it pretty full and attract so many diners that are nonvegetarian. I helped reopen Sublime four years ago, and it was a great experience. It has a beautiful kitchen, great staff. I remember it took a lot of work -- I remember not sleeping quite a few weeks! Ha ha! But I loved it.
Where did you hang out when you stayed in Fort Lauderdale?
I never did anything in Fort Lauderdale! I didn't have time! Interestingly enough, though, my grandfather lived down in South Florida. I remember him taking me to the Rascal House deli [in Sunny Isles] when I was a kid and getting huge, overstuffed pastrami sandwiches.
Do you remember the last time you ate meat? Does it gross you out now?
No, I don't remember the last time; it wasn't anything special. Meat doesn't gross me out because I am around it all the time working at hotels and restaurants -- but certainly I have no interest in eating it.
What about the impression that vegans are wimpy or can't get enough nutrition?
That's not true; there's so many UFC fighters that are vegan -- Mac Danzig is a UFC champ who's vegan; there are weightlifters. That's a myth. People think protein is synonymous with meat. People in America think more meat will make you stronger. Look at other cultures, though -- they get protein that's plant-based: in Mexico, from black beans; in Asia, soy lentils; in South America, whole grains. In other countries, meat is an accent, not at the center of the plate like in America. In fact, meat causes high rates of cancer and heart disease.
So, could you beat up Bobby Flay?
I'm not into violence, so I wouldn't even try!
OK, well could you beat him in arm wrestling?
I'd give it a shot.
How did this event come about, you cooking here at Sublime this week?
I'm doing it because I love Sublime. I love [owner] Nanci Alexander and her whole concept. I'm just checking in to see how she's doing and how the restaurant is doing.
What's the single most effective dish you would cook to win over a meat eater?
Gardein. Tempeh and tahini are not really dishes that are going to win people over. We are so used to meat that people really need a transitional product. Gardein is a winner every time -- make it in a rich cream sauce, or a Morel mushroom sauce, with a wine reduction, and you can't tell the difference. It has the same texture as meat but no cholesterol and just as much protein. Everyone wants to eat less meat or eat healthier, have a better impact on the environment. Even eating a couple of vegan meals each week helps a lot.
What's next for you?
I'm going to take some time off -- then continue my work with Garden Protein [makers of Gardein]. I love the idea of a good vegetarian food that's accessible -- that's key.