Our Wicked Healthy Interview Series features individuals who are making a big impact in the plant-based world and beyond. Today we’re featuring Chef Tal Ronnen: founder and owner of Crossroads, cookbook author, co-founder of Kite Hill and plant-based pioneer.
When we think of plant-based cooking, the focus is always on creating a sense of comfort combined with the perfect flavors+textures to produce dishes that are both delicious and satisfying—without harming a single animal in the process. This compassion-driven purpose is never dulled or hindered by ingredients we choose not to use. When we make cheese, we use a plant-based fat and culturing to replicate the rich and umami qualities of dairy-based cheese. When we make meaty things, the focus is on creating a dish that mimics a texture and taste that is hearty and satisfying. From classic comfort dishes and more, we want to make good food that’s not “trying” to be meat and cheese, but rather food that captures the qualities that make them good in the first place. That spirit is what guides us when we create and share food with the Wicked Healthy community, and why we love to see others embracing the same spirit on social media, as well as chefs, entrepreneurs and advocates.
Our brother from another mother Chef Tal Ronnen, founder and owner at Crossroads Kitchen, has applied this similar spirit to Mediterranean cuisine in his upscale and relaxed West Hollywood restaurant, which opened in 2013. Truth be told, Tal is more than just a great chef—he’s undeniably one of the leading pioneers in the plant-based movement. He’s an amazing person, one of our greatest friends, a serial entrepreneur, animal advocate and has been a part of the Wicked Healthy family for more than a decade!
Chef Tal describes his food as “Mediterranean first and vegan second,” offering 100% plant-based dishes like chicken and waffles, savory crepes, carrot lox bagels and shakshuka for brunch and charred ricotta crostini, kale caesar, tempura squash blossoms, artichoke oysters and lasagna for dinner. If you want to try the Impossible Burger, they have that, as well as a full bar and gluten-free options. The flavor, diversity of dishes and boundless creativity at Crossroads is a perfect reflection of Chef Tal’s intention— which is making great food that just happens to be vegan instead of the other way around.
It’s visionary chefs like Tal Ronnen that have moved plant-based exponentially forward, taking it from a marginalized concept to a mainstream movement. Chef Tal’s endless energy, creativity and vision is one we admire, so we’re excited to virtually sit down with him and share a bit behind how his cooking style evolved over the years, what contributions he’s made in the mainstream culinary world and who has served as sources of inspiration and guidance for him in his wildly successful career.
As an ethically conscious chef, what kind of barriers or challenges have you faced in the traditional culinary world? How have you dealt with those while managing to carve out a space of your own along the way?
I’ve always respected and appreciated traditional chefs and kitchens. When I first started cooking this way, I would say most people didn’t take it seriously and thought without using animal proteins, butter, cream and eggs it was not possible to create satisfying dishes. This was a great opportunity for me to prove that cooking completely plant based, in fact, was possible. Not only that but it was a creative way to create traditional foods that people have always loved.
Your bestselling 2009 cookbook, The Conscious Cook, focuses on applying traditional French culinary techniques to plant-based dishes. It was an enormous success, landing you alongside other chefs like Thomas Keller and Marcus Samuelsson. In addition to what must have been an immense sense of personal and professional validation, how did this help change the perception of vegan cuisine in the meat- and dairy-heavy culinary world?
It was great to see other chefs using the cookbook when it came out. I traveled to over 17 cities to promote the book and actually cooked at every Le Cordon Bleu Campus in the US. Many of the campuses incorporated recipes from that book into their curriculum.
You are a co-founder of Kite Hill, which has revolutionized the plant-based cheese space, as well as helped in the development of Gardein products. These items can both be found at any Whole Foods and some grocers, making replacing cheese and meat easier than ever for consumers. How do you see this space evolving and expanding over the next several years?
All of the large food companies left in the US are either investing in or have outright bought vegan food companies which shows consumer demand just keeps growing in this space. It’s been fun to be a part of that early on and see so many companies come on board.
Whereas The Conscious Cook focused on French cooking techniques, your second cookbook, CROSSROADS (released in 2015), shifts its focus to Mediterranean cuisine. What prompted this change of style in this cookbook, and why did you decide to build your restaurant around this particular style of cuisine?
A lot of people don’t realize that traditional cooking techniques are founded in French cuisine. Therefore I was trained to cook that way but growing up in Israel until I was 8 years old before we moved to the US exposed me to food and ingredients that were very different and that left a lifelong impression. That and cooking with Scot Jones, our other executive Chef, who has focused 28 years of cooking primarily Italian food made sense for us to focus Crossroads to be an all Mediterranean menu.
Who are some personal sources of inspiration prior to and during your career? How did they help shape your style and focus, and what role have they played in your success?
Charlie Trotter sticks out in my mind as being a huge source of inspiration. He always had a vegetarian tasting menu at Trotter’s in Chicago, way before this became cool and the last time I ate there when The Conscious Cook came out, he had it proudly displayed on his bar when I came to dine. In the plant-based world, guys like Ken Bergeron and Ron Pickarski were way ahead of their time and even competed in the International Culinary Olympics in the late 80’s and early 90’s with all vegan recipes and both took medals home. More recently, pioneers in the vegan restaurant world, like Eric Tucker from Millennium and David Anderson from Madeleine Bistro were hugely influential. Even today I’m influenced by other chefs that I work with—for the past 6 years I’ve been working with 12 chefs from the Wynn and Encore in Las Vegas who continue to inspire me today.
What piece (or pieces) of advice would you give to aspiring vegan cooks and chefs?
Don’t be afraid to learn traditional cooking techniques and don’t be afraid to work at non-vegan restaurants. Get as much time in a professional kitchen as possible. Keep your cooking style tight and concise. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
Can you tell us about any current or future projects on your plate? Or at least a hint? We’re wicked curious to see what you do next.
I’m focused on Crossroads first and foremost. Creating new products for Kite Hill and keeping up with 12 menus in Las Vegas keeps me plenty busy.