A lot of people consider Philadelphia home of the cheese steak, and that is obviously not wrong. But there's an impressive vegan scene happening in the city as well in large part because of Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau. They're the owners of three restaurants in the city: Wiz Kid, V Street and Vedge – as well as Fancy Radish in Washington, DC. Host Francis Lam met up with the husband/wife chef team in the kitchen of Vedge where they talked about the ever-expanding world of vegan food.
[Ed. note: Francis Lam also asked Jacoby and Landau about their three essential vegan dishes for the home cook. Hear them discuss recipes for Summer Corn Custard, Shiitake Dashi, and Chickpea "Tuna" Salad in our Key 3 segment.]
Francis Lam: I remember hearing about you many years ago when I honestly couldn't even imagine there was such a thing as beautiful, creative fine dining vegan food. My head was still in this world were vegan food was about subtraction. It wasn’t about people who don't enjoy food, but I thought it was about taking things away and not about what are the creative possibilities that are available when you have a different set of parameters. Have you always cooked vegan, or did you train more omnivorously and then convert?
Rich Landau: I grew up cooking with my parents and I always loved to cook. We’d have these great meals that I contributed to, then I started taking over. When I became a vegetarian in my teens it became a little difficult because a lot of our staple meals revolved around animal meat like chicken on the grill and what have you. When I gave up meat it was for ethical reasons only. I love the taste of it; I still miss it. I had to teach myself how to cook and to satisfy this carnivorous palate of mine. Because if I wasn't eating great food without meat I was going to go back to meat; I didn't want to do that.
I agree with you that back then a lot of vegetarian food was an apology; it was about what you're not getting. Today, it's completely opposite. It's about all the benefits you are getting. I think it's an amazing time to eat vegan. It makes people happy, and they are into it. It's an exciting way to eat, and you're not really missing anything. You can have a bacon cheeseburger or a turkey club sandwich. You can do almost anything.
FL: This may be a different issue, but now you have these totally new things like The Impossible Burger and different kinds of, people call them “lab meats,” which make it sound super gross, but they are actually super interesting. Technology is allowing us to take proteins and different essential flavor compounds out of plants and make it very meat-like. Maybe in the future we'll all be eating meat that didn't actually come from an animal.
RL: We will be.
Kate Jacoby: When you think about any meat and where it’s coming from, it’s kind of gross. If you look at the history, vegetables were always just thought of as garnishes like parsley on the steak. Or maybe it was a side like a baked potato. Nowadays, not only is the idea of what you can have as a vegan but how delicious it is. Because now we're focusing on the quality of our vegetables, how diverse they are, and how you can get so much out of them. Where Rich's palate comes in is that he’s able to get that flavor out of things that you wouldn't think of. Whether it's a carrot, cauliflower or something else, if you apply that same technique you can get so much from the whole plant-based world.
RL: There's been a tremendous revolution in the way we look at food in the past couple of years; it's a combination of the farm-to-table movement and the internet. The farm-to-table movement made people fall in love with vegetables. They show these pictures of the chefs at the farm talking to the farmer, pulling the carrot out of the ground, and waxing poetic about its beauty and attributes. But they’re surrounded by all these plants. What they don't show you is what happens to meat. You don't see them walking around petting the cow and saying, “Okay, let’s get this on the plate.” It's a completely different process. You can eat a tomato off the vine, and it's going to be one of the best things you've ever eaten. To get the cow onto your plate is a whole different thing. And those kinds of secret slaughterhouse videos are showing up on the internet and they’re changing people's mind about where food comes from. The internet has really changed everything. This was a very secretive thing. Nobody wanted to see where meat came from before; you just didn’t talk about it. You knew it, but you didn't talk about.
KJ: Especially to do it on a massive scale; there's that aspect too about just food production in general. Whether you're talking about meat or anything else, what's the provenance of your food? How clean does it come to you? And how many people are affected along the way? I think everyone strives to do the best they can. But when you're given a convenient opportunity, people will choose that. It's interesting to watch from our vantage point especially.
FL: As far as the pastry world, what is it like working without butter, eggs and cream? Because in Western pastry making so much of that kitchen is based on those things.
KJ: It is, but I don't really know anything different. I make a cheesecake here at Vedge and I’ve never made a regular “mainstream” cheesecake. It’s just how I came up in the world. I baked with traditional mainstream ingredients my whole life just for fun at home. When I started working with Rich in the kitchen, I thought about how I could learn the same techniques that he has carved out and apply them to pastry. It’s always about flavor first. I would look at a regular recipe – a mainstream recipe – and I'd see what the butter or the eggs were contributing to the recipe, then I would try to find the simplest, cleanest solution to sub things out. I've always tried to not make it totally different. I rely on good, clean fats – whether it's coconut oil, olive oil or any of the great products they make right now. Vegan butter and vegan shortening are versatile and they really do a great job.
FL: I have to ask you one thing because you do have a vegan cheesesteak: What goes in the vegan Cheez Whiz?
RL: We make it out of rutabaga actually. You heard it here: rutabaga is going to be the next big vegetable. Cauliflower steaks, see you later. They’re so 2017. [laughs] I never want to see another one as long as I eat. To be honest with you, chefs are going to fall in love with rutabaga. First of all, it's beautiful; it's got this great orange color. Rutabaga is also one of the very few vegetables that makes its own stock as you cook it. Other examples of this would be kohlrabi, kale, any of the broccolis – Chinese broccoli, traditional broccoli. They make their own stock, and it’s perfect. If you boil them in salt water, you can basically drink the water with a spoon. We boil the rutabagas and use some of their stock to put back into it. A little bit of tofu mayo, nutritional yeast, and some miso. Now, the whole idea behind the miso is you're thinking, “Is this an Asian flavored Cheez Whiz?” And it's not. When you use things like tamari and miso very subtly, they add this kind of umami richness in the beginning. If you use too much it will start to taste like an Asian sauce. Just add a little bit in the foundation and you get this cheesiness in there. It took us years to figure out the perfect combination of the miso, rutabaga, tofu and the nutritional yeast. There’s a little bit of shallot in there and a couple of seasoning adjustments. But it tastes like Cheez Whiz, so it just makes you wonder what's in the real thing – it’s not rutabaga.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.