Vegetables are enjoying a renaissance in restaurant kitchens. Thanks to local sourcing, environmental awareness, and creative new techniques and flavors, chefs are bringing plants to the center of their plates — and guests can’t get enough.
Throughout October OpenTable is celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month, highlighting some of the most inspiring chefs, restaurants, trends and innovations in the world of plant-based cooking. We kicked off the festivities last night with a party at Los Angeles’s Plant Food and Wine, a vegan restaurant guided by healthy, local ingredients. We brought together influential restaurateurs, journalists and bloggers to celebrate the seasonal bounty, right in the midst of the restaurant’s edible courtyard garden.
Plant Food and Wine’s founder Chef Matthew Kenney is a vegan lifestyle guru, having opened several plant-focused restaurants, started a culinary school, and published a host of raw food cookbooks. Who better to speak to the power of the growing plant-based food movement? Here, he tells us about his culinary philosophy, his multi-faceted business, and how he sees “the future of food.”
I’d love to hear about your background and how you came to open Matthew Kenney Cuisine. How did you get started?
I was planning to go to law school and fell in love with restaurants when I moved to New York City quite a few years ago. I decided to go to culinary school just to learn how the kitchen side works. It came naturally to me; I felt very passionate about being in the kitchen. It became the most important thing in my life.
At the same time, the other most important thing was health and wellness. For the first half of my career I was using Mediterranean influence in my cuisine, and that was what I considered healthy at the time. But it was only many years later, after I’d been practicing a lot of yoga, that I realized that plant-based food was really what true health was.
I shifted my career 12 years ago to become an entirely plant-based chef. What I quickly realized that was a big missing component for plant-based foods was training — chefs had not trained to see plant-based or vegan food as appealing as traditional cooking.
So I started teaching classes. That’s how the education side of our business started to grow, and also the publication, the book writing. I just realized it was not just about the food, not just about restaurants, but more of a lifestyle. So I formed this company as a lifestyle brand.
Was there an “Aha” moment for you when you decided plant-based cooking was what you wanted to take on?
There was a natural break in my career because my restaurant company had expanded very quickly and post-9/11 the economy in New York took a real downturn. I was having trouble keeping my company alive. As a way to manage the stress, I was doing more and more yoga and meditation. The place I practiced yoga was very proactive about encouraging a plant-based lifestyle, no harm to animals, and I heard that over and over again every day. Also, my body was really craving plants. I just felt better.
During that time, somebody invited me to dinner at a raw food restaurant. I had never been to one. I went to this restaurant, and it was not big but it was full of super healthy-looking people. It was a rainy Monday night, and the place was packed. The food actually wasn’t very exciting at all.
I thought wow, there must be something to this. If somebody could do this food in an innovative way, in a more contemporary fashion in a modern setting, it’s going to be the next greatest culinary trend.
That was my moment. I immediately decided that evening that’s what I wanted to do.
Since you shifted your career 12 years ago, how have you seen the plant-based movement evolve?
The market is blossoming all over the world for plant-based. It’s just expected now; it’s such a big component of any menu. All good restaurants have a vegetarian tasting menu or will do a vegan menu. There are juices everywhere. It’s just amazing. I think it’s a great time.
If we as chefs provide good and healthy options for people at reasonable prices, then the rest takes care of itself. People realize they feel better and will eat more plants.
I don’t think the whole world will ever turn to being vegan, but I think if we just eat more plants, more consciously, it helps everyone — it helps the environment and the animals and everybody else.
Tell me more about the different components of your business: education, hospitality, media, products and service. How do you see your business holistically, and how has it grown?
Everything we do is about using great plant-based ingredients, applying innovative techniques and equipment — modernized equipment — and then dreaming. Being creative in a really thoughtful way, and doing things that nobody else has done.
The five pillars are really just different channels of distribution, the product and byproduct of what we create. If we create an ice cream out of a pine cone, hypothetically it might be on one of the restaurant menus, it may be written about in one of our books, and we might sell an app to teach you how to do it. We might package that product for a gourmet store or use it as a consulting tool. The five different marketing segments are really just us being thoughtful about as many ways we can distribute the ideas and the content and the product that we create.
Tell me more specifically about the education programming.
We have five schools: in Venice [California]; Maine in the summertime; Thailand; Miami opening later this year; and online. The basic courses are a month long — a lot of students will just take one month, but some will take all three, Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.
We also have specialized courses in culinary nutrition, sports-based nutrition, plant-based food photography, superfoods, raw food, pastry, and so forth.
What are some of the biggest challenges to learning plant-based cooking? Are there hurdles when chefs have come from traditional culinary backgrounds?
I don’t find that there are a lot of hurdles. We had a lot of hurdles in the early days trying to structure our curriculum and develop a school that was really organized the way a traditional school was. I think the biggest thing is for people to understand the palate, to make a change to their palates and to really understand a different flavor profile. That was number one.
Other than that, I find that cooking plants and vegetables is really natural. I think it’s easier for them to learn, actually. Our students in day three of our culinary school are making these beautiful dishes, and it definitely wasn’t like that when I went to culinary school. It was several weeks in before we made anything good. It’s a lot easier for them to comprehend different uses of vegetables as opposed to 20 cuts of meat and all these different fish and all these different animals. I find that it’s much more practical and if people are open-minded to it it’s actually easier and more satisfying.
We were trained to use vegetables, but they were so often just a garnish and an afterthought, and other than that they were often in a lot of butter. We weren’t really trained to respect them the way I do now at all.
What about learning to make raw food?
It’s a whole different type of cooking. There are so many things you need to understand in terms of flavor combining and how food reacts.
Even some of the best chefs in the world, they can make a couple of dishes that are raw that are very good, but they would have a hard time writing an entire menu. Or they can do food that’s pretty but it’s not going to be as satisfying, with the right amount of fat and the right flavor profile to keep people happy for a long time. It’s really a totally different way of looking at food. You have to look for the umami from different areas than you would if you were relying on meat and seafood.
You developed the Plant Food Pyramid to represent your approach to cooking. How is it reflected in your restaurants and cookbooks?
It is really about balance; it is important to get the right proteins and amino acids and B vitamins, and so forth.
We’re one of very few hospitality companies that I know of that has a nutritionist on staff. We operate nutrition courses, so we really do try to focus on ensuring that our guests receive balanced nutritional experiences. The chefs that we train really understand how to feed people properly as well.
We had to create this pyramid because it didn’t exist. If you look at the American food pyramid, it’s not really applicable to what we do.
How would you describe the concept and menu at Plant Food and Wine?
It’s entirely vegan, non-processed foods. Nothing comes in a can, and we don’t use any soy products or tofu or seitan or anything like that, because we really believe that all food can be made from plants and grains and legumes. That allows us to be really thoughtful and creative and keeps the food very fresh and light. But it’s not raw food. We actually do cook.
We definitely emphasize local ingredients. We rely a lot on the markets and on seasonality in California. And the setting — we’re in this meditative-feeling garden, and we try do food that’s inspired by that. Nothing too ethnic or too off the wall; it’s really about the product. We try to do the best we can to enhance the main ingredients of whatever we’re serving.
Who manages the garden on site, and how does it work with the kitchen staff?
Our chefs do. It doesn’t require a lot of maintenance, but they pick from it. The kitchen team manages it, and then we do have a part-time gardener who maintains it. We can’t get a lot of food from the garden because it’s not that big, but it’s beautiful and it adds a nice component to be able to go out into the garden and pick some herbs or edible flowers.
It seems like community is a big focus at your restaurants, the idea of a gathering place and communal classes to share and learn. Is community something you try to cultivate?
Yeah, it is.
That was one of the things that attracted me to plant-based foods to begin with, because it’s a lifestyle, it’s not just a meal.
People who are into this are not going to be happy going to a traditional restaurant. They can’t trust that the ingredients are organic, at least not everywhere, and they can only order a couple of things on the menu.
And it brings people together. That’s one of the biggest benefits that I’ve had from being involved in plant-based food all along: it’s changed the circle of people that I’m around and it’s just a very thoughtful, connected, creative group of mindful people. They come together. It’s a great way to live.
What do you see for the future, both for Matthew Kenney Cuisine and for the plant-based food movement?
For our company, we will continue to fill out the five markets that we support. A couple of our hospitality brands will open additional locations; we’ll probably launch a couple more schools, one in South America and one in Europe. We’re already working on those. And we’re working on product lines and new books. We’re doing a lot more outside the U.S. in the coming years. We try to do one or two things at a time and do them really well, but we definitely intend to keep growing in all areas.
As for the plant-based movement, it’s growing so quickly. I can literally travel to any country now — I was just in Sweden yesterday, was there for three days for business, and a half dozen of our graduates reached out to me. They’re all doing really innovative work, writing books, opening their own cafes, and it’s like that all over the world. One student opened a restaurant in Milan; another opened a pastry shop in Rome. It’s not just our students, but people are interested in this around the world and opening businesses with great offerings. And a lot of them are doing really well. That’s going to shift the way people eat, and it’s going to continue to grow. It’s massive growth, and it’s exciting.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Kenney Cuisine.