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Feature Thu Jun 11 2009

An Interview: Great Chefs Cook Vegan

Linda Long wanted to convince some of the best chefs to contribute to a vegan cookbook. If top professionals in the culinary world would endorse vegan cooking, it would be hard to argue against vegan food as legitimate cuisine. Twenty-five of the highest awarded chefs signed on, each contributing a three or four course vegan meal. The book includes chefs Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, each many time winners of the James Beard Award, the so-called Oscar of the culinary industry. Long photographed the book, Great Chefs Cook Vegan, inside the chefs' kitchens.

Mignardises

Long and I chatted over breakfast when she came to Chicago. She told me how she decided to do the book and how she engaged the chefs. Of course, we talked about food. One of my favorite recipes in the book is Charlie Trotter's mignardises, or "bite-sized desserts that follow a meal at high-end restaurants." This particular recipe yields what are essentially extremely rich and smooth chocolate truffles, which you can very simply make at home. Combine five ingredients in a food processor: 1 cup raw cashew butter (I used roasted), 1 cup maple syrup, 1 cup cocoa powder, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla seeds (I used vanilla extract), and 1 tablespoon nama shoyu (a raw soy sauce... I used conventional soy sauce).

Long: "It barely has time to go around the blender before it clumps up and gets really like a chocolate truffle. Then your mind goes crazy. You can take little half teaspoons and roll it in a ball and then roll it in sesame seeds. Or you can push a piece of dried cranberry down on top of it and make a flat piece... or a nut on top of it."

After blending until smooth, spread out the chocolate in a thin layer on a sheet pan or container, cover, and refrigerate for four hours. Then scrape the chocolate into balls with a melon baller. Or, as I did, pick a bit up with your fingers and roll it between your palms. The recipe suggests coating the mignardises in coconut, sesame seeds, crushed pumpkin seeds, cayenne pepper or chopped dried fruit. The mignardises are great for dinner parties. Arrive at a guest's home with a little box of them and a bottle of wine. When I tried these truffles in my kitchen with friends, we rolled them in various coatings: salted chopped pistachios, salted chopped sunflower seeds, salted cocoa power, and salted black sesame seeds. Salt was big for me. I'd been thinking of the wonderful lure that it adds to chocolate.

It wasn't as if mignardises had been planned to be in the book from the start. When Long started shooting the book, she didn't know what she'd get for vegan desserts.

Long: "The first five [chefs] were giving me sorbets and fruit for dessert. And I suddenly thought, oh my goodness, I'm going to have twenty-five recipes of desserts full of sorbets and fruits. Not that there's anything wrong with that. ... but I kept thinking... I wonder when I met get something other than that."

And of course, Long got various desserts. Besides the mignardises, the book includes warm Venezuelan chocolate cake with merlot-infused cherries and chocolate gelato, crisp chocolate with sautéed bananas and fresh figs and brandied cherries, a chocolate cake with chocolate truffle molten center, and many more. The savory recipes are brilliant, too.

Where did the book idea come from in the first place? Long had been dinning out at very nice restaurants, asking for vegan food, and was talking to one of the chefs.

Long: "I would challenge them... Thomas Keller suggested I give a three-day notice [to many restaurants] because they shop every day and if they know in advance, I'll probably get a better meal. So I started to do that, and I couldn't believe the food I was getting. And I said [to another chef] one day, I don't think anyone knows this food is being made. This is phenomenal. I think I should do a book."

I wanted to get an idea of how the chefs would recommend a novice cook approach vegan food. I sat down with Matthias Merges, the corporate executive chef and service director at Charlie Trotters, who's named in the book alongside Charlie Trotter.

Merges: "Look in your refrigerator. ...Realize that the things that would be dairy and fats that you currently use, and find substitutions that would give you the same mouth feel or textures that you're accustom to - like cheeses or butter, and you use olive oils and tofu. And then you learn those products and how to manipulate them, like pressing tofu at home to make it more firm and then grating it... It's all through experimentation. And it's all through the love of cooking."

I think that's so true. People often tell me that they're surprised at how good vegan treats can taste when they're done properly. Some are amazed that you can make an incredible (vegan) cookie without butter. I think it easy to forget that butter isn't the only fat available to us. That's where non-dairy butter, oils and vegetable shortenings come in. Cookies need fat; it just doesn't have to be from an animal.

If you want ideas for what to make vegan, it's often fun to look at traditional, non-vegan recipes.

Long, a longtime vegan: "I think I have a thousand cookbooks. ... Of course a lot of them are not vegan. I just am inspired and can translate dishes that I like into a vegan one."

R / June 12, 2009 1:54 AM

Excellent interview.

James Liu / June 22, 2009 11:27 PM

This is fantastic. I'm not a vegan, but there is a lot to be learned from both sides from each other about how to think about food, how to cook, and how to eat. I have long said that the best vegan cooking is nothing more than the best cooking, only minus the animal products. Food tastes good when you respect the ingredients for what they are. This is straight from Keller - the best something can taste is when it tastes like itself.

Gina / August 12, 2009 7:01 PM

Where are the Seitan, Beans, Tempeh, Tofu nd Nut Cheezes and Nut Pates most vegans use in recipes?No Seitan? Easy to create.
Kudos for doing vegan though.

Linda Long / May 2, 2012 10:44 AM

I hope it is alright for the author of this book to comment a few years later! I love re-reading Chris' take on my book. One can be too close to the forest to see the trees and reading another's view is stepping outside and looking in, a valuable activity especially since I am almost finished with another book, Virgin Vegan.

In Great Chefs Cook Vegan I was not about to tell the greatest culinary minds of our time what recipes to give me. I was astounded (and a bit star-struct) that they were willing to be part of the project and take time to actually make the food for photography in their impossible schedules...3 to 6 dishes each! To then try to manipulate their creative spirit on top of it would have been terrible of me, and perhaps have ruined the project.

The purpose of the book was to reveal a fresh, almost investigative approach since there was nothing like that on the market. We have hundreds of single-cook cookbooks who offer the recipes often made at home. I thought it especially wonderful that they did not use processed vegan products, that vegan food can be wonderfully creative and fresh without anything processed. Several chefs did use tofu, which actually surprised me. The great Jean George Vongerichten makes a tofu with tempera batter in the book that is identical to the way he offers a fish dish. Imagine both those dishes coming to the table in his restaurant and thinking they are the same dish, but one is for the vegan at the table. It happened to me and it was a moment of delight. So creative.

I hope the book allowed more mainstream chefs and home cooks to value plant meals. My goal was to give vegan cuisine a stamp of approval from the mainstream culinary elite to help stop the idea that it was only approved by hippies and to uplift and give a finer attention to wonderful and kind food. Although to me hippies were among the greatest hearts I have known.

I often hear how the book inspires new dishes. I walked into a restaurant here in NYC at a slow time of the day and the chef was sitting at the bar with the book. I just had to walk over to him and ask how he liked the book. We talked awhile and he said he develops other dishes with root ideas from it. He was almost selling me on the book. Then, I told him it was my book. Just one of those fun moments. But, it is nice to know that something that took two years of life has some value. I, too, learned a lot doing the book!...except to not ever give up so much of life to do another book!

Virgin Vegan is the other end of the spectrum, a book for beginners to the plant world. It contains only the info one needs to know at the start and in short statements. Recipes are from a lot of people in the vegan community and from my own kitchen. I hope it encourages and impresses others to move forward to a more plant-based way of eating. Out in late fall 2012.

But, Chris is not in the book review business anymore so I will miss his review, although perhaps he will give me one anyway! Always the best wishes possible to a very special gentleman.

Must get back to writing the page on Omega 3's for the new book and get on to the Protein page. But, so glad for the side trip!

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