WEST HOLLYWOOD, California — Shortly after Crossroads Restaurant opened about a year ago, along a swanky stretch of Melrose Avenue, two guests requested Parmesan cheese with their dish. They lived down the street and had quickly become regulars.
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“They said, ‘It would go really well with this,’ and I said, ‘Well, it probably would, but we’re actually a vegan restaurant,’” recalls Tal Ronnen, Crossroads' founder and chef, who sports a neat beard, dark glasses and tattoos peaking out from the short sleeves of his chef’s whites. “They were so excited because they weren’t vegan and they felt like they’d been eating healthy for two days and didn’t know it.”
That savvy customers could dine for several nights on a 100-percent plant-based menu and not notice the absence of meat or dairy is a testament to Ronnen’s revolutionary approach to vegan food. In his hands, what once was the grub of hippies is quickly becoming the toast of haute cuisine, and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres have quickly become fans.
“I think we brought something to L.A. that was missing,” Ronnen says, noting that while vegan food has long been trendy in Southern California, it comes mostly with a casual bamboo-and-sandals kind of vibe. “We’re the first all-plant-based restaurant in L.A. that has a bar, a full cocktail menu, full wine list, nice environment,” he says.
The opening of Crossroads caps Ronnen’s ascent over the past few years not just as a celebrity chef, but also as a champion for the vegan lifestyle. His 2009 book “The Conscious Cook,” filled with tasty meatless recipes, became a New York Times best seller.
In person, he speaks convincingly about the health benefits of being vegan, but not in the manner of a proselytizing zealot. For the most part, he lets the food speak for itself. But he also lives his philosophy beyond the plate: The restaurant, which resembles a swanky uptown New York bistro, features suspicious leather-looking chairs.
“They’re faux,” says Ronnen. “So is my belt.”
From Israeli roots to Hollywood friends
Ronnen was born at Hadassah Hospital and lived in Motza Ilit, a moshav outside Jerusalem. His father, Mike Ronnen, originally from Melbourne, was a celebrated journalist and political cartoonist for The Jerusalem Post for over 50 years, and his mother was an art collector from New York. They divorced when he was 6 and Ronnen moved back to America with his mother, where he has lived since, though he visited Israel regularly until his father died a few years ago.
Edible reminders of that corner of the world pop up on the Crossroads menu – a lentil flatbread, a pistachio kalamata tapenade, spiced chickpeas and a Mediterranean pot pie dusted with the ubiquitous Middle Eastern spice za’atar.
Also, Ronnen’s Moroccan nanny served as both an early enabler of his love of food and a modern muse. “Her food was incredible,” he says. “And on my last trip [to Israel] she gave me the recipe for these Moroccan spiced carrots that we now have on the menu here …. People love them.”
From the beginning, Ronnen was committed to being a vegetarian chef but sought generalized training at the National Gourmet Institute: “I wanted to learn how to cook traditionally because I would never be able to recreate the food that I missed without knowing how to do it.”
Ronnen worked at several of the United States’ best-known vegan restaurants and even helped open a few. But in 2008 his public profile skyrocketed when he was tapped to create a 21-day vegan cleanse for Oprah Winfrey. A friend of Ronnen’s had been a guest on Winfrey’s show, touting a vegan diet. When Winfrey expressed interest in giving it a try, Ronnen was called – three days before a restaurant opening in London.
“So I was literally on a plane and then in two days doing 21-day plans for Oprah,” he recalls. “It was incredible, and scary at first, but she’s just such a kind person and has got a great palate and knows food. It became really fun.”
From there, more high-profile clients and events followed, including the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi and the first vegan dinner for the U.S. Senate. An introduction to businessman and hotel mogul Steve Wynn, a recent convert to veganism for health reasons, led to an ambitious two-year venture to add a plant-based menu to each of the restaurants at Wynn’s Las Vegas hotels.
“That was daunting,” says Ronnen of working with the famous chefs at the helm of those restaurants, many of whom he had long admired. He led workshops with them to creatively translate their vision into vegan form. “I made it very clear that they’re amazing chefs and I was just there to give them a few tips and tricks and help them use ingredients that they already have and create a beautiful menu,” he says.
Paying the meat toll on health
Though long devoted to meatless menus, it wasn’t until his father became lactose intolerant in his later years that Ronnen took the next step to being a fully vegan chef. He has seen firsthand the benefits of stripping animal proteins from our meals and thinks many Americans are beginning to recognize the problematic prevalence of our meat-heavy diets.
Regardless of one’s ancestry, he points out, meat has historically been an accent on the plate, a delicacy rather than a meal’s foundation. “Here it’s three times a day, seven days and week, and that’s why people today are paying the toll with heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes,” he says.
Crossroads doesn’t trade in substitute meats – there is no tofu or tempeh on the menu, no “mock duck” – but you still can get the hearty sense of it through dishes like pappardelle bolognese and wood-fried meaty lasagna, which are made with a blend of veggie proteins.
And for those who observe the Jewish dietary laws, here’s your chance to finally sample calamari and crab cakes, which Ronnen reimages with hearts of palm – the former ringed and fried, the latter braised with seafood salt and pulsed in a food processor.
“This is a dream if you’re kosher,” says Ronnen, acknowledging his large Jewish clientele. Crossroads does not have a kosher certificate because it imports olive oil from Italy that is not under rabbinic supervision, but every inch of the place is parve.
And the lack of an official kosher stamp of approval doesn’t stop most of his religious customers from dining there. “Even the rabbi comes in,” he says.