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September 24, 2012 [NY Times]
Making Vegan a New Normal
IT was a warm California evening in the
city of West Hollywood, and Kathy
Freston was sipping a martini.
'Just because you're a vegan
doesn't mean you don't want to have fun,' she said, sitting in a booth at a
Craig's. 'I'm a decadent gal. I want to drink. I want to feel full at
the end of a meal. I just don't want it to have any animals in it, for a
variety of reasons.'
Tall, slim and golden-tressed enough to be
mistaken for a movie star, Ms. Freston is the author of books like 'Quantum
Wellness' and 'The Lean,' and a high-profile advocate for veganism. She
strives to consume nothing that can be traced back to sentient creatures: no
meat, no eggs, no dairy.
But chilled vodka with extra olives? No
problem. Nor did she have any qualms about eating from a menu that includes
an 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak.
Craig's, hatched last year by Craig
Susser, an alumnus of Dan Tana's, the age-defying hangout on Santa Monica
Boulevard, is not a vegan restaurant. It represents a new culinary wave that
can be felt all over Southern California, that reliable ripple-generator of
so many national trends: the omnivore's restaurant that courts vegans and
vegetarians (particularly the glamorous and powerful ones who are a crucial
engine of the dining economy here) by preparing meatless dishes that surpass
the droopy steamed-vegetable platters of yore.
'You picture vegan
restaurants with a lot of people with sandals and dreadlocks, drinking
carrot juice,' said
DeGeneres, who stopped by with her spouse, the actress Portia de Rossi,
to chat with Ms. Freston. Here at Craig's, the mood was more high heels and
In fact, from power tables in Beverly Hills to pubs in
the San Fernando Valley, the surging popularity of plant-based diets is
drastically changing the dining landscape. That shift is under way in
various cities around the world, but it's happening in an explosive way in
and around Los Angeles: at the elite gastronome magnets, at casual gathering
spots and everywhere in between.
Actors and talent agents hammer out
script deals over the Kale Colossus entree at SunCafe in Studio City, a
neighborhood of Los Angeles. Vegan celebrities have become such a fixture at
Caf' Gratitude that paparazzi occasionally camp out on the sidewalk.
Elegant spots like n/naka and
Hatfield's have extensive,
ever-changing tasting menus for vegetarians.
But the after-work
crowd can also head out to Golden Road
Brewing, a craft brewery that rises from a sun-baked industrial patch
just off the Ventura and Golden State freeways in the Atwater Village
neighborhood, for vegan
Super Bowl grub (a quinoa burger, a hero with deep-fried avocado slices,
meat-free chili) on a menu that makes room for a hillock of pulled pork.
'I'm not the food police, but I like opening the vegan door for people,'
said Tony Yanow, the entrepreneur behind the brewery, as well as Mohawk Bend
and Tony's Darts Away, which serve dishes
like a 'vegan tailgate dog' and Buffalo-style cauliflower florets. 'People
will order food like that because it tastes good.'
carnivores used to glare at one another in militant opposition, but Southern
California is reveling in a sort of can't-we-all-get-along cross-pollination
that you see at Cru in the Silver Lake neighborhood, where meat lovers
marvel over the pumpkinseed chorizo. At Craig's, a vegan grilled-eggplant
caponata shares menu space with a dish called Jerry Weintraub's Spaghetti
Clam Show, both of which might be viewed as gentle ways to woo the A-listers.
Not long ago, Ms. DeGeneres asked Mr. Susser if he would try a vegan
spin on chicken parmigiana. The dish appeared on the menu in September, with
a patty of Gardein, a protein substitute, standing in for chicken. 'I'm
willing to do anything,' said Mr. Susser, something of an expert in
celebrity relations. 'I want them here, and I want them happy.'
Freston, who recently separated from the media executive Tom Freston after
14 years of marriage, is friendly with just about every famous vegan in
Hollywood. Lately there are quite a few, and they've changed the power
dynamic enough that celebrating a box-office triumph over bountiful platters
of charred flesh is no longer necessarily appetizing to the stars who helped
bring in the money.
'That old meat bravado is dead,' Ms. Freston
It wasn't always thus ' not even in the city where Alvy
Singer, the protagonist in Woody Allen's 'Annie Hall,' winced as he ordered
alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast. When Ms. Freston began turning
vegan about a decade ago, she said, 'Nobody was interested in that.
Werner Herzog yelled at me at a dinner party when I first started going
that way. He totally made fun of me. In the beginning I didn't know anyone
who was eating this way. It was totally uncool.'
sprouts-on-seven-grain-bread sandwich has never been a problem in Los
Angeles, but even a few years ago, the vegan chef and cookbook author
Tal Ronnen couldn't imagine that his
specialty would go as mainstream as it has of late.
'If you had told
me that I could go to a cool brewery and half of the things on the menu
would be vegan, I would never have believed it,' Mr. Ronnen, the author of
'The Conscious Cook,' said over lunch at the brewery in August. 'There's
something very progressive about what's happening here. You should see it on
a weekend, man. It's so packed. You can't get a table.'
goes for explicitly vegan or vegetarian restaurants like Caf' Gratitude,
Real Food Daily and
SunCafe, which is chronically full of
luminous-skinned sylphs who seem to have floated in from a Fashion Week
'The popularity thing took a turn mostly when a lot of
celebrities started showing up,' said Cary Mosier, who runs the Caf'
Gratitude outposts in Southern California with his brother, Ryland Engelhart.
'Generally, celebrities are always concerned about eating well and taking
care of themselves, so it started becoming flooded with actors. And then it
was all the movie executives because the actors were there. And then they
were having lunches there to discuss movies.'
Think of it as a
classic case of supply and demand.
For reasons having to do with
health, the environment, an aversion to cruelty to animals and (let's face
it) rank vanity, more and more Californians are going vegan or vegetarian.
Chefs and restaurateurs want to attract them, especially the beautiful and
famous, because that will draw even more customers.
'I don't think
you could go to a four-star restaurant in Los Angeles and not find a vegan
option,' said Ron Russell, a chef and owner at SunCafe. 'The clientele
And restaurateurs face stiff competition. Vegans and
vegetarians know by now that they don't have to settle for a plain baked
potato when there's a sublime raw pea-and-coconut soup at Cru, or parsnip
bacon and rich, creamy corn ravioli at Hatfield's. (Which is not to say that
cooking without meat ' or, at times, without cream and butter ' is free of
challenges. 'It's hard because along the whole way you're sort of
eliminating things that you know would make it taste better,' said Quinn
Hatfield, the chef who dreamed up the parsnip bacon.)
blurs boundaries: Omnivores find themselves lured into trying the I Am
Whole, a noble bowl of sea vegetables, kale, kimchi, carrots and stewed
adzuki beans at Caf' Gratitude, while vegetarians can comfortably meet their
friends at Vertical Wine Bistro, which serves meat, because they know they
can get the roasted red-pepper
risotto with asparagus and saffron.
'I'm omnivorous,' said
Gale Anne Hurd, the
owner of that bistro in Pasadena and a producer of films including 'The
Terminator' and 'Aliens,' as well as the TV series 'The Walking Dead.'
'I do eat just about anything,' she said, 'but I also like to dine out
with my friends, and a lot of my friends are strict vegetarians or vegans.'
Three years ago, when Mr. Russell and his comrades were gearing up
to open SunCafe, they tested their vegan recipes with a panel of six people,
two of whom were avid carnivores. 'All six had to agree that it was a great
dish,' Mr. Russell said. 'Oh, my gosh, we must've thrown out 70 recipes that
were good, but not good enough. It forced us to go to higher levels.'
While raw-vegan chefs in California have become skilled at using nut
butters, spicy oils and fatty smears of avocado to give their dishes
unexpected depths of flavor, nonvegetarian chefs like Mr. Hatfield and Niki
Nakayama have discovered that the pressure to create something succulent out
of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains has coaxed them into new territory.
Is plant-based eating the way of the future? A new fountain of
youth? That's anybody's guess. But in a city where nobody wants to get old,
plenty of people are willing to give pumpkinseed chorizo and parsnip bacon a
As Ms. Freston put it while finishing off her martini: 'These
guys want to extend their lives. They want to live long.'