When Rich Landau was a small boy and his dad told him steak came from cows, he pictured a bovine laying a steak like a chicken lays an egg. Years later when he learned what that really meant, meat turned him off and he turned vegetarian.
“I still crave the taste of meat to this day, and we love food, we’re a big food family. In the mid-’80s, there was not much to turn to — it was wheat germ, pine cones, wheatgrass — so I had to really start to cook and develop a style of cuisine that was going to satisfy my carnivorous palate and not going to make me go back to eating meat,” he said.
Today, Landau and his wife and partner Kate Jacoby own Vedge, a downtown Philly vegan restaurant with a growing national reputation for fine dining without the animal products. The eatery and its founders have been featured in mainstream media and niche publications alike, won kudos from VegNews and GQ, launched a line of sauces in Williams-Sonoma, debuted a Vedge cookbook and put a vegan cronut on the menu at the beginning of the month. This summer, Landau also created a meal that took the top prize on an episode of Chopped, as Zagat and other media outlets reported.
Landau didn’t train as a chef. In his 20s, he was a bartender with a foodie bent who spent serious time in restaurant kitchens, soaking up the skills he would need before launching Horizons Cafe in a Philly suburb in 1994. His aim was to feed the cash-strapped college crowd with under-$5 vegan dishes, but the menu also brought in a surprising number of more affluent guests, Laudau said. “Lo and behold, people in suits and ties showed up. They were coming for dinner, they were dressing up and I realized it was not just me that wanted all the flavors in a clean diet — it was translating well to this mainstream audience.”
At the time, what was resonating with the mainstream were dishes made to replicate traditional meals, comfort food dishes with a meat substitute like tempeh or tofu or seitan taking up the most space on the plate, with veggies and starches on the side. “In parts of my mind, it’s exactly the same as traditional cooking, you just have to substitute in another protein. But in other ways, I had to start from scratch,” Landau says. “To take every bit of animal products out of it, it took me years to perfect it. I’m such an insane perfectionist, it took me years to develop this style.”
In 2005, Landau and Jacoby moved Horizons from the suburbs to the city, dropping “Cafe” from its name and grabbing even more of the fine dining crowd and starting to get noticed in local and national media. By 2011, he said, he was dealing with many local farmers who were dropping off a bounty of beautiful vegetables, and the trend stirred up new ideas to grow beyond recreating classic American meals and making vegetables the star of the plate.
“We were doing these things with roasted radishes, for instance, that were great but they didn’t stand up to grilled seitan. They didn’t fit the theme that we were doing. We were getting a lot more vegetable focused, and we felt the concept was becoming antiquated. Vegetables were becoming very hot and the world was not falling in love with seitan. We had to evolve — we were more scared of not changing. That’s how Vedge was born.”
Horizons closed and Vedge opened in 2011, with a hip bar and several cozy dining rooms in a certified historic building in the tiny Washington Square West neighborhood. The new concept traded big meals that replicated traditional cooking for smaller plates of veggie-centric dishes that encourage people to mix it up and share.
“I treat vegetables like you would meat,” he said “We give them that attention at Vedge, we treat them with respect and make sure they’re taken care of.”
The concept comes with a bonus during tight economic times — patrons can linger over a long, pricey meal or spend an hour at the upscale bar with a glass of wine and a $9 plate of olives or an appetizer and get out for $20 or so, while still enjoying the fine-dining ambiance.
Landau on staffing and training a vegan kitchen
“I hire personalities. I hire people I can get along with and people who want to learn and are in love with food. People who didn’t get into it to get on “Top Chef,” they got into it because they love what they’re doing. They have to answer this call, those are the people I hire, whether they have little experience or lots of experience.
“As for training, knife skills are great to have. I love when they know all the lingo and have been around a kitchen and know how to saute. I still have this level of perfectionism, because there are a lot of people who come in here say “there’s no way you can make this stuff taste good” and so forth. You don’t get a lot of chances to impress these people, so you have to make sure the salad is crisp and the dishes are done just right.
“A lot of the staff are vegetarian. At Horizons almost everyone was, we got every vegan misfit in the city. But at Vedge, we are Vegan heavy with our staff at times and at other times it’s 50/50. That’s a compliment. We get people who worked at [Jose] Garces’ place, people who could work anywhere, and they want to work at Vedge.”
In addition to her key role in the kitchen, Kate Jacoby is the sommelier at Vedge. She shared some insights into how a vegan eatery chooses the wine.
“Vegan wine hasn’t been filtered with any animal products. It was news to me when I first started buying wine, that many times gelatin, egg white or eggshell or isinglass is used to strain the sediment out of the wine. Little by little, I learned the right questions to ask, to zone in on the wine maker. There are some alternatives, including clay which is cheaper so you’re seeing more winemakers using it now. Also, there are natural wines where the winemaker intervenes very little. You just let the grapes grow, you don’t manipulate them. They’re really rustic wines for the most part.
“I always try to ask when a winemaker or vendor is in town, that helps me decide whether I want to carry a particular wine. If I get to the point where I try a wine and ask the distributor and they don’t know and can’t find out for sure, when I find out if guests are interested in selecting vegan wines, I know not to suggest that one. There are various levels of intensity of how vegan they are when it comes to wine. You have to fully respect people’s choices, but you’re never going to be perfect. We [the vegan community] need to go by intentions.”
Image provided by Kate Jacoby