On Wednesday night in Commons, celebrity chef Tal Ronnen served over 120 Yale students a multi-course, meat-free meal.
Ronnen — who is best known as the chef who catered both Oprah’s 21-day vegan cleanse and Ellen DeGeneres’ wedding — has founded restaurants across America and published a bestselling cookbook, “The Conscious Cook.” Over dinner and a cooking demonstration, Ronnen spoke about his career, shared his thoughts on the current state of the American food industry and advocated for contemporary, plant-based cuisine.
“Nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to plant-based diets,” Ronnen said as he prepared faux-crab cakes with a heart of palm and chickpea base. He described a recent meeting with Bill Clinton, who has become vegan, and said he has also heard that Mike Tyson consumes a plant-based diet.
Ronnen said the most exciting thing for him about plant-based food is the impact these diet choices can have on both personal health and on the environment. Vegans, or even vegetarians, have a significantly smaller environmental impact than those who eat meat do, he said.
Ronnen, who has been a vegan for 14 years, said he first became a vegetarian in high school to impress a girl. However, Ronnen does not entirely eschew meat and other nonvegan options when designing menus for his restaurants.
“We have ‘Comforting Classics’ for that guy who doesn’t want to be [at a vegan restaurant],” Ronnen said. He added that he realizes that not everyone who visits his restaurants is vegan, and so he serves what he calls “transitional” food options to make every customer happy. On the menu at his newest restaurant, Crossroads, for example, he serves items such as lasagna and pasta with bolognese sauce.
Ronnen, who has also developed menus for many restaurants, said these collaborations often begin when a restaurateur or developer approaches him with an idea. For example, when Steve Wynn, developer of the Encore and Wynn resorts in Las Vegas, went vegan, he asked Ronnen to develop vegan menus for all of his restaurants. Ronnen said his vegan menus are now available alongside the traditional menus in all of the Wynn restaurants.
Some of Ronnen’s projects have also come out of a desire to make vegan food more accessible to all, he said, adding that he has partnered with Mike Roberts, a former president of McDonald’s, to develop faster vegan food at affordable prices.
Together, Ronnen and Roberts have opened a chain of restaurants called LYFE Kitchen that serves fare Ronnen calls “fast casual.” A meal at LYFE Kitchen typically costs $12, takes six minutes to produce and is a healthy 600 calories, he said. There are currently five LYFE Kitchen restaurants, and Ronnen said the chain plans to open 250 new locations in the next five years.
At Wednesday’s event, Ronnen served quinoa maki and focaccia for the appetizer, followed by tomato bisque with kale spanikopita, imitation crab cakes with apple and beet relish, oven roasted brussel sprouts and a belgian endive salad.
“For a non-meat meal, it is really good,” Olivia Walker ’16 said. She added that most of her meals revolve around meat, but Wednesday’s dinner was an exception.
All 20 students interviewed said this was the best meal they had eaten at Yale.
Despite Ronnen’s fame in the vegan world, most students interviewed said they had not known who Ronnen was prior to attending the event, and only a few knew that the dinner would be vegan.
Besides Ronnen, the only other vegan in the room was Anna Young ’16. Although Young was not familiar with Ronnen before the event, she said she was excited to learn that he was the chef behind Candle 79, a vegan eatery in Manhattan that she called her favorite restaurant.
“The food is amazing,” Young said, referring to the Wednesday dinner. “And he has some really good ideas about getting people to think about vegan diets.”
The first 12 students to arrive at Commons received autographed copies of Ronnen’s cookbook at the end of the event.