Le Cordon Bleu student chefs get schooled by Tal Ronnen! »
Whether he knows it or not, Chef Tal Ronnen is starting a vegan revolution in the commercial kitchens of tomorrow, and he’s starting it at the grassroots that matter: student chefs.
Last Wednesday, we at Vegansaurus were lucky enough to sit in on a workshop led by Tal Ronnen at the California Culinary Academy, where he demonstrated gourmet vegan cooking to Le Cordon Bleu student chefs. Tal is known to most of us as Oprah’s personal chef during her 21-day vegan cleanse and author of The Conscious Cook, while Le Cordon Bleu is all about heavy cream, foie gras, bacon, ducks, rabbits, and whatever else didn’t escape the French cuisine zoo in time.
But if you’re thinking this is some kind of a wacky two-worlds-colliding contradiction, it’s not. As a classically trained chef, Tal praised the Le Cordon Bleu program and even encouraged vegetarian students to stick with it and learn the basics of gourmet food. And here’s where the “revolutionary” part comes in: by focusing on the classic ideal of what makes food rich and pleasurable to eat, vegan food can be for everyone, not just vegans.
It’s something we battle with often around here. With so few vegans in the world, how can a restaurant owner ever justify catering to us? Tal started by addressing this head on. With more food writers like Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan encouraging omnivores to eat mostly plants (and we’d say, skip the “mostly” and go with “all” but, baby steps), the message is starting to sink in. Chef Tal did his market research homework and estimated that 40 to 50 percent of Americans are looking to eat meatless meals, at least part-time. Okay, so how do we get people doing it?
The short answer is, vegan food has to appeal to the general population. This may sound obvious, but restaurants get it wrong all the time, like fake meat that doesn’t appeal to meat-eaters, or “the vegan plate” that’s all sides and no protein. According to Tal, a good vegan meal should feel substantial and satisfying to whomever is eating it. (One of his secrets? Cook with saturated fat.) And if more chefs learn how and plan more menus with meatless meals, then maybe people will finally stop thinking of meat as something you “need.”
So what about the food? Tal’s menu for the cooking demo: creamy celery root soup with granny smith apples; artichoke ricotta tortellini with saffron cashew cream sauce; and Gardein “chick’n” scaloppini with shiitake sake sauce, braised pea shoots, and crispy udon noodle cakes. (DAMN. Oprah gave that up after 21 days? What were you thinking?!) Gardein was the surprise hit; feedback from the student chefs included “I’m sold” and “the texture was fabulous.” And it’s available wholesale through Sysco, so how about it, hotels and restaurants?
We only were able to try small samples of the final dishes, so note to self, don’t show up with an empty stomach to a cooking demo put on by one of the world’s top vegan chefs. Unless you enjoy torture. Seriously, just kill me next time.