Is Vegan Food Getting Too Fancy? Chef Matthew Kenney Doesn’t Think So

Is Vegan Food Getting Too Fancy? Matthew Kenney Doesn’t Think So

The other evening while dining at Crossroads, arguably the fanciest (and oh so delicious) vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, I lamented over my scrumptious meal that we need something like it closer to home. Home is about a twenty-minute drive from the restaurant. I live in Silverlake, an east side Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between Hollywood and Downtown. And while it’s not home to the fancy Crossroads, it is a vegan food mecca in its own right. There are more vegan restaurants in my neighborhood than coffee shops. And the non-vegan restaurants are bursting with vegan options as well, as they should be or risk losing customers.

My dinner at Crossroads reminded me of Matthew Kenney, the creator and chef behind Plant Food and Wine on Abbott Kinney in Venice. It’s Kenney’s latest restaurant endeavor, adding to his roster of locations serving gorgeous and delicious “fancy” vegan food from coast to coast over the last decade.

I first met Matthew in New York City when I lived just across the Hudson in Jersey City. He co-founded the now defunct Pure Food and Wine as well as the short-lived Dumbo gem, The Plant. He then began to focus on his culinary schools (we visited the one situated on top of Plant Food and Wine in Venice), teaching vegetarian food preparation, a growing genre often neglected in other culinary schools. And the students are flocking to his teaching school, some finding work in his restaurants, others taking their skills to the booming vegan dining industry, or starting their own operations.

Is Vegan Food Getting Too Fancy? Matthew Kenney Doesn’t Think So

Kenney’s focus has long been not only plant-based, but on the trendy raw food scene, bringing raw fruits and vegetables to new life with little more than the right seasoning and plating. Plant Food and Wine marries both Kenney’s signature raw creations with cooked preparations, like the farro risotto and chlorella olive oil cake we embarrassingly drooled over a few weeks ago for this story.

Kenney is a master; decadent is second nature to him, and has been since his east coast days. He loves to make good food look and taste even better, and his legion of devoted customers agree. And here in Los Angeles, where fresh produce bursts all year long, he seems to have hit his stride, growing fruits and herbs on the restaurant’s back patio, and working with local growers and producers for the freshest, most sublime ingredients.

Plant Food and Wine gives vegan food the indulgent makeover it most certainly deserves. It wasn’t that long ago that most vegans feared restaurant meals like a trip to the dentist. We’d be lucky enough to get a half-decent salad, and a vegan salad dressing at a restaurant was typically a gamble, leaving us with dry lettuce and flavorless tomatoes while friends or family gorged on deep-fried animals slathered in spicy sauces. Then, chefs like Kenney, or Tal Ronnen—who not only started Crossroads, but worked with Steve Wynn to makeover all of his Vegas restaurants with full vegan menus—appeared, and well, everything has changed. Vegan has become the diet trend du jour.

“Chefs these days are spokespeople for a lot of very important causes, and I think there’s a responsibility to use that to promote wellness through the culinary arts,” Kenney told Men’s Journal.

While Los Angeles is indeed a bubble, restaurants like Plant Food and Wine are proving that vegan doesn’t have to mean bad food, or out-of-the-way holes in the wall for a halfway decent meal. NBA star Ben Gordon recently visited Plant Food and Wine with Vice Magazine, showing off how delicious and “normal” the restaurant experience could be. Restaurants like Plant Food and Wine, Crossroads, and Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, Candle 79 in New York City, and Millennium in San Francisco, attract vegans and nonvegans alike for not only incredible food, but authentic atmosphere, and pleasurable dining experiences. For the longtime vegan, all of it can feel surreal.

A meal at Plant Food and Wine is quite an experience—it’s not something to scarf down while staring at your phone. And for vegans, that concept may take some getting used to: After years of not having options that invite us to savor and enjoy our meals, we often turn to distractions to divert us from the fact that we’re the outcasts of the restaurant world. Not any longer, though.

Fine dining may be indulgent, but there’s a place for that in our lives. At least, right now there is. We live in the modern western world, and while it may be a privileged one, it’s also often a stressful and busy one. A little pampering without contributing to the suffering of animals can do wonders for the spirit, not to mention the stomach.

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All images Jill Ettinger