Celebrated chef Tal Ronnen is turning the vegetable plate into a mouthwatering masterpiece.
Vegan truffled arancini from Lakeside at the Wynn Las Vegas
Want to make a foodie’s eyes glaze over? Herald the glories of vegan cuisine. Expositions on portobello-mushroom steaks, veggie burgers with sprouts, and milk shakes made from soy will not get a meat lover particularly stoked. And there is good reason for this. Traditionally, vegan food has not been all that tasty. While you can argue that eating healthy comes with its own reward, there is also a view that life without sirloin steak, creme brulee, and buttery risotto is not exactly a life worth living.
Tal Ronnen understands. He’s a long-time vegan and a classically trained chef who’s created
Celebrated chef Tal Ronnen
© Matt Prescott
gourmet vegetarian menus for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and Steve Wynn. In the process, he’s transformed vegan eating from dreaded to delicious. But things did not start out that way. “Both of my parents are foodies, and I was exposed to good food at a young age,” says Ronnen, who now resides in a swanky loft in downtown Los Angeles and tools around the city on a Triumph Bonneville motorcycle. “I had chopsticks in my hand by age four. I ate French, Italian, Spanish, Israeli foods — and I loved them all.” But in his late teens he decided to change the way he ate. “I went vegetarian. My parents were supportive, but they still went to their restaurants and I went with them. As a result, I ate a lot of vegetables and starches and no proteins.”
This was in the 1990s, and while plenty of vegetarian restaurants existed, the foodie in Ronnen found the offerings to be a bit lackluster. “They were made by hippies, for hippies,” he recounts. “And they didn’t mind sacrificing texture or flavor. Veggie burgers came in boxes and you had to add water.”
Frustrated by what was available and seeing an opportunity for himself, Ronnen decided to get into the food business. At this point, during the late 1990s, he was in the midst of attending Rochester Institute of Technology, intending to get a degree in photography. He quit RIT, spent time as an instructor for Eastman Kodak, and had his own photography business in New York before enrolling in the Natural Gourmet Institute. Despite the name, this Manhattan-based cooking school does not focus on vegan or vegetarian cuisine. Ronnen liked that. His quest was to learn French cooking techniques and apply them to vegan cooking in a way that nobody had done before. “I figured out how to make the five mother sauces of France without using any animal products,” he remembers. “It was a tough thing for a lot of chefs to wrap their heads around. They believe that every dish is built around protein in the center of the plate, and, for them, protein is synonymous with meat or fish or poultry.”