Welcome to Ask the Expert where your ZENB team introduces the community to experts from the worlds of fitness, cuisine, style, nutrition — really anywhere and anyone that’s bringing a refreshing perspective on living a more balanced life.
In this conversation, our ZENB superstar Jean Spellman sat down with Tal Ronnen, a celebrated classically-trained chef who has explored the world of plant-based eating in wonderful, imaginative ways. You can find him at Crossroads — a popular LA restaurant that’s changing the way people think about eating vegan and vegetarian. In fact, many people don’t even know it’s all plant-based meals!
You may also know him from his many TV appearances, including Oprah, or his high-profile events, like catering Ellen DeGeneres’ wedding. (Yeah, we totally fan-girled over Tal during this interview.) Enjoy!
Jean: Hello, Tal Ronnen! What’s new?
Tal Ronnen: Well, I'm still very focused on the restaurant in LA, Crossroads. We're in our seventh year and just constantly making it a better dining experience, constantly working on new dishes. Other than that, I still have my role at Kite Hill®, which is a company I co founded in 2011 that makes artisan yogurt, cheeses, pastas, and all sorts of great things out of almonds. Right now we’re launching plant-based dips. We have french onion and a ranch dip.
Jean: That’s so exciting! I might need a moment to reflect on how much I need vegan ranch dip in my life…..ok, I’m back. Sorry. So, on that topic of bringing us all such delicious plant-based foods, whether at your restaurant or on TV, where does the passion come from to totally transform vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based foods?
Tal Ronnen: It's been my focus on how I cook for the past 20 years. And it's kind of neat to see it really take off into the mainstream. People who are not vegetarian and not vegan are interested in eating this way, at least part time, and that really excites me, because it wasn't always that way. Fresh out of culinary school when I told my classmates that I'd be cooking without meat or dairy, they kind of laughed it off. So it's nice to see that turn around.
Jean: For myself, I feel like there's a label attached to the word vegan that some shy away from, but when I hear “plant-based” I generally think about health and the environment.
Tal Ronnen: Yeah, vegan used to be a really dirty word. If someone said, “We're going to a vegan restaurant” people would feel like they're being punished for the night. And now, most of our guests at Crossroads aren't even vegetarian, much less vegan.
Jean: What do you think is propelling this movement?
Tal Ronnen: What's cool about eating this way is people come to it from a lot of different directions, and that's why it's more of a lifestyle than a diet. People want to eat plant-based, or vegan, or whatever you want to call it for a variety of reasons. Some people do it because their doctor told them their cholesterol is high. Some people really care about the environment, and they come to it because they know that eating a plant-based diet is the easiest way to combat global warming — more than driving a Prius or even riding a bicycle. And then there are people who care about animals. There are just so many reasons to come to eating this way. And that's what makes this lifestyle and diet sustainable and successful. That's why it keeps growing year after year. Most diets come and go — they’re fads. How many versions of the Atkins diet have we seen? It used to be called the South Beach diet, and paleo — it just keeps changing, because people don't succeed on those diets and it's all about them. They're doing it to lose weight, whereas when eating plant-based, you're doing something to contribute to the planet, so it's more than just about what you eat.
Jean: Let’s explore some of the incredible plant-based things you've created that just blow my mind, like the vegan egg yolks, or the seafood tower with no actual fish on it. It’s all so unbelievable.
Tal Ronnen: That's definitely been what I thrive for. When creating the seafood tower, we used elements of texture, taste, and smell. It all started with lobster mushrooms grown in Portland, Oregon; these big orange mushrooms that are kissed by the coast, so the sea mist gives them that that smell of the ocean. We have calamari made from hearts of palm, where we hollow out the inside of the hearts of palm and season it with seaweed to give it a flavor of the ocean. We do a take on Oysters Rockefeller, and we do little shooters where we poach shiitake mushrooms and they get the texture of an oyster or clam. It’s anything I miss eating, you know? I wasn't always a vegetarian.
Jean: Take me through your kitchen at home. Are you cooking elaborate things or do you go much simpler?
Tal Ronnen: Nothing. Zero. If you're a doctor, the last thing you want to do is practice medicine when you come home, and that's the same with me. I really don't cook at home. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, smoothies, stuff that's easy; that's it.
Jean: Keeping it simple, I like it. Obviously, you’re a very busy guy, yet you are still able to maintain a plant-based diet. Do you have methodologies or tips to help people maintain their plant-based diet at home?
Tal Ronnen: If you're cooking alone, food will go bad because you're not using it all, like the whole onion or the whole vegetable. So sharing a meal with someone is always a great way to maintain the momentum, but also doing things a little bit at a time. If you decide you do want to eat more plant-based food, and you don't want to eat animal protein anymore, start by just not eating fish or not eating chicken. Find a substitute that works for you. If you’re used to making tacos on Tuesday with your family, make tacos but don't make them with meat. You can use beans or you can use meat alternatives. Hit up your family for your mom's lasagna recipe and make it vegan. Things that are familiar make it easier to maintain a plant-based diet.
Jean: Earlier, you mentioned some of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, like personal health and the environment, and here at ZENB we often look at sustainable foods and diets in terms of their environmental impact, but specifically food waste. How does food waste play into your kitchen, both at Crossroads and at home?
Tal Ronnen: Not using any meat or dairy makes us, automatically, one of the most sustainable restaurants in LA, considering the amount of water and land that goes into raising one pound of beef. We also put our produce order in every night, so there’s no waste. We're not throwing food out. Everything is made fresh daily. Other than that, planning is essential. We look ahead to our reservations over the next four days and really plan out how much we're going to prep and order. You could do that at home as well. You know you're going to be eating, so plan what you're going to eat for each meal, and eventually you're not going to over-prepare or under-prepare. People are used to buying food that is shelf stable, or bread that lasts a week. That's not normal. The way it used to be is you would go to the bakery and get a fresh loaf of bread every day. You wouldn't buy bread that you know sits at home for six days. So I think shopping more often, and buying fresh ingredients more often, will help you create less wasteful meals.
Jean: Plan more, buy less, shop more. Love it. And, before I let you go, Tal, do you have any other advice you want to get out there for people to either understand, share, or just embrace?
Tal Ronnen: Yeah, I've got a piece of advice that fits so well for me. We should all listen to what our mother said when we were growing up...eat your vegetables. That's it. It’s really simple. It doesn't mean don't eat this or don't eat that. It's just saying eat more vegetables.
Thanks for joining Ask the Expert. And be sure to watch for more interviews, including more with Tal Ronnen. The talk continued into vegan and plant-based lifestyles, so there’s so much more to enjoy and learn from.
Have a specific person or interest you’d like us to explore? Let us know at community@ZENB.com. We’re always looking for fun and informative ways to celebrate those who are embracing the goodness of nature while helping the world rediscover food.