These Chefs Are Using Their Plant-Based Lifestyles to Inspire Them in the Kitchen
For omnivorous chefs, does switching to a plant-based diet mean ending their careers, which often demands that they taste dishes that contain meat, eggs, and dairy?
For omnivorous chefs, does switching to a plant-based diet mean the end of a career?
If you ask 38-year-old chef Jared Simons of No Name in Los Angeles, the answer is a resounding no. He's been the chef in charge of the clandestine restaurant in the Fairfax neighborhood during the three years that it's been open. The menu is rife with things like fried chicken, beef tartare, and chocolate mousse, yet you would never know that Simons has abided by by a strict plant-based diet for the last year—except when he's in the restaurant's kitchen.
"I'm not going to just throw away a 20-plus-year cooking career simply because of my new lifestyle at this point in my life," he says. "It's what is required of my job and I do it."
When Simons first told the kitchen staff that he was going to switch to a plant-based diet, they all thought he'd lost it. "They called me all kinds of nasty names and told me to go home, but I was determined. Then again, they all recently had their cholesterol levels tested and it was off the charts. These are all young guys, by the way."
His strategy was to eliminate beef one week, then chicken the following week, then cheese, and so on until he was completely plant-based. His decision to stop eating meat was inspired by an urge to compete in a triathlon. He's spent the last year consuming 5,000 calories from things like dates, vegan protein powder, and plenty of nuts each day. He claims the diet has made his life better, from sleeping much better to not having as many allergies, and most importantly, "having more energy," he says. But one unintended result became a new drive in the kitchen.
"Being plant-based has renewed my excitement with cooking. As chefs, being sustainable and continuing to cook for the increasing population of the world is our responsibility. More and more, the future is looking like a plant-based one."
Simons has had so much excitement that he has started a monthly, plant-based dinner pop-up at No Name where he is making items like a BLT with eggplant "bacon" and smoked carrot tartare on Texas toast. Simons doesn't feel comfortable using the word "vegan" to describe these things because he doesn't want to be affiliated with any of its political connotations. The custom-made leather apron that he during our interview, along with his leather clogs, gets this sentiment across.
"I'm not changing my style of cooking, I'm just changing the ingredients. The techniques are still the same."
On the other side of the spectrum, just a mile away at the vegan restaurant Crossroads, is executive chef Scot Jones. Despite manning perhaps the most high-profile vegan restaurant in LA, which touts famous vegan Travis Barker as an investor, Jones still occasionally consumes animal products to ensure that the restaurant's Mediterranean-inspired plant-based dishes still have all the same flavors and textures as the dishes that inspired them. "As a chef, eating meat occasionally helps me stay along these guidelines," he says.
He echoes Simons, saying that chefs are slowly moving toward more plant-based dishes on their menus. "In the past it was always animal protein, animal protein, animal protein, and then a side. But now you are seeing vegetables, vegetables, vegetables, and then an animal protein."
When I ask Jones about his most recent meat-based inspiration, he immediately mentions his vegan seafood towers, which revolves around things like lobster mushrooms, oyster mushrooms "casino," fresh hearts of palm "calamari," and a lychee "ceviche."
On top of everything else, Jones doesn't miss paying the 35- to 42-percent average food costs that are associated with running a meat-based restaurant. His current costs are now at 17 to 19 percent. Yet because he has to make things like cashew cream and other nut cheeses from scratch instead of "just opening up a package," much of the money he saves from food costs is quickly spent on labor costs.
"You can only do so many things with meat, but with plants, it is so endless," he says.