In a recent episode of Chopped, Richard Landau displayed his culinary skills to be named champion. He is the owner of Vedge, a vegan restaurant in Philadelphia. While we’re not vegans, we have a number of friends who are vegan and definitely enjoy trying our hand at vegan cooking and baking on occasion. As such, we were very excited to learn more about Chef Richard and his insight on vegan cuisine.
FP: How did you get your start with cooking?
RL: I gave up meat at a very young age so I had to teach myself how to cook. I gave it up only for ethical reasons so I really missed the taste of meat. That’s how I developed my style of cooking which is designed to keep my carnivorous palette happy. I opened up a little café in the suburbs in the 90’s to see if I could actually make a living cooking this way (most vegan restaurants at the time served only “nuts and berry” health food).
FP: What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
RL: I love the changing seasons and like everyone else I have my rituals, soundtrack, drink and wardrobe for each season – so what could be better than all of the fresh produce that comes our way with each new season – that’s one of the things that makes my job so enjoyable.
FP: Name some chefs that have inspired you.
RL: I remember watching Graham Kerr on TV. He was the “Galloping Gourmet” in the 60’s and cooked with more cream and butter than you could possibly imagine. It was actually kind of stomach churning to see how much fat was in his food. Then his wife had a heart attack and he re-invented the way he cooked, taking out all of the bad stuff but adding back in flavors, herbs, citrus and the sort to keep the dishes delicious. I loved his philosophy of putting flavor back in and I used that practice in my early days cooking – take out the animal products but replace them with bold, deep layers of flavor.
I met him once a long time ago but have recently been in touch with him on email to talk about Vedge… he was “pleased”!
FP: Tell us about your experience on Chopped.
RL: Competing on Chopped is not for sissies. It is a long 14 hour day and intensely stressful. When you open you open your baskets for the first time it’s sheer terror.
FP: We can only imagine the terror!
What was the hardest ingredient to work with?
RL: I was stumped on the etrog citron… never even heard of it. I cut it open and saw that it had barely any flesh- and the flesh it did have was all seed and extremely bitter.
FP: Etrog citron was new to us also. Got to love those Chopped baskets!
Which round was the most difficult?
RL: The last round really kicked my ass. They threw me honey and I was like “shit – I am going to get some hate mail from the vegan police on this one” what should I do?
So I just went for it and decided to try to take home a win for Vedge. I didn’t see the virtue in forfeiting when the message of the win would be stronger and do more good. At the end of the day it was a win and the vegan voices that I respect the most were all supportive across the board on my decision.
FP: When you’re not working at Vedge, what are some of your favorite meals to cook for yourself and/or for guests?
RL: We cook a lot of Japanese noodle bowls at home. We fell in love with the cuisine when we were there in 2008. The ingredients are pristine and very seasonal, all prepared with this amazing light touch. No gloppy teriyaki sauces or anything like that, just a little dab of miso here and a splash of rice wine there. That’s how we usually do breakfast at our house. Other than that we do a lot of simply roasted vegetables. Everything we do at Vedge is very involved so I like to keep it simple at home.
When we are feeling fancy we have this seaweed caviar so we go all “James Bond” and have martinis or champagne and do this big vegan caviar spread with toast points, capers, red onion, dill, vegan sour cream etc. A little luxury is the best at home therapy for a busy life.
FP: Have to treat yourself from time to time!
If you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places?
RL: There are so many little local places around the world we have eaten so many memorable meals. We love Caribbean food and have had some mind blowing meals in Jamaica, Antigua, Harbor island and of course St. Martin and St. Barts where French Chefs meld their classic training with the exotic produce on the islands. St. Martin may have some of the best food on the planet. And along those lines French Canada (Montreal, Quebec City, Mont Tremblant) is a Francophiles paradise that is only a hop away from home. Every time we go we wonder why we don’t do it more often… it’s so close. We also found some really funky vegetarian food in Hong Kong last March.
But our favorite food memories happen when we are in a new place like Madeira or the Azores where we went in 2011 and discovered all these new dishes and local produce and weird cooking methods, like the Cozido where they put ingredients and bury it in the ground near a volcanic sulphur spring to cook for 6 hours… I mean, who does that? We just indulge (as much as vegetarians can) in the local food and drink scene. That’s what our vacation pictures all look like- food and drinks.
FP: St. Martin…Montreal…Madeira. Sounds like we have some trips to make!
What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name 🙂
RL: Well eggplant parm, vegan Italian hoagies, vegan cheesesteaks, vegan reubens, pizza, fries- I could eat this stuff every day of my life, its the taste of my childhood. But I also like my weight where it is. So they are occasional indulgences for me. Every year I get older I clean my diet up just a little more and I feel great for it. Food tastes great while you are eating it, but feeling great all day long is also something that’s important to me so I try to find a balance.
FP: That’s such a great point—sometimes the instant gratification isn’t worth it.
If you hadn’t become a chef, what would you be doing? Any non-cooking hobbies?
RL: Well I’m a drummer and a golfer (don’t they go hand in hand??) so I would have wanted to given a go at those and after that failed I would have probably gone back to my first love which is working outdoors. I used to do landscaping and golf course maintenance.
FP: You’re a man with many layers in addition to being a great Chef! Thank you for your time. When we visit Philadelphia, we will make sure to stop by Vedge!