Richard Landau & Kate Jacoby: The Produce Innovation Award 2012
There may be no better example of the elevation of humble produce to sexy star of the culinary world than the food at Vedge. Without using a whiff of animal products, Chef Richard Landau and his wife, Pastry Chef Kate Jacoby, put out all-plant dishes that dazzle. This is vegan cookery that leaves even an omnivore utterly satisfied.
The Vedge chefs accomplish this not by mimicking meat dishes but through a deep understanding of the intrinsic deliciousness of their veggies. No meat envy here: “We don’t allow quotations on the menu, like the words ‘mock’ or ‘better than,’ as in ‘better than chicken,'” Landau says. “We’re not serving steamed bean sprouts here, though. We’re not going to just boil your asparagus and give you a fake hollandaise. We’re doing things we feel no other restaurant in the world does with vegetables.”
This from a cook who says he has a carnivore’s palate. “I gave up meat for ethical reasons, but I really loved it. I loved the deep kind of caveman satisfaction, that primal satisfaction you get from eating meat.”
And so he uses smoke, global ingredients, and umami-rich items like mushrooms to masterful effect. “You have to really build the flavors,and you do that with spices, with really good-quality sherry vinegar, great-quality tamari soy sauce, mushroom stock. There’s a lot of tricks up our sleeve.” But those tricks don’t include a lot of salt or sugar.
Landau’s braciola-style cauliflower wrapped in smoked eggplant and paired with a brilliant green Italian salsa verde is at once deeply satisfying and light on its feet, allowing you to sample many more on Vedge’s small plate–oriented menu. Another signature dish uses salt-roasted beets, smoked tofu, capers, and a round of house-baked rye in a delightful play on lox and bagels.
Jacoby runs things on the pastry side. And while she admits vegan baking can be tricky—“egg whites are hard to do without”—she deploys uncanny skill, making dessert-menu staples like cheesecake and chocolate pot de crème must-order items.
This is cooking that is getting lots of attention in a cheesesteak city. Vedge’s wood-grilled sweet potato pâté, says Philadelphia Magazine food editor Jason Sheehan, is easily one of the best dishes in town.
“This isn’t just a great vegan restaurant but one of the great restaurants in the country, period,” says Sheehan, a well-documented meat lover.
“It’s so good that it makes me happy about eating fancy radishes and sweet potato pâté. And the fact that it exists in Philadelphia—a city where vegetarians are still hunted for sport in some neighborhoods—just makes it doubly amazing. There is no place like Vedge anywhere and very few places where a restaurant like it would be less likely to flourish.
A native of the city, Landau allows that the town is “still a little conservative,” yet he argues that it’s come incredibly far in the last two decades. “Philadelphia has evolved into a culinary powerhouse. If we were in New York or L.A., would we be busier? Of course. But we’re getting there.We’re pretty much full every night.”
Good cooking, in the emerging world of American food, wins out, even if there isn’t a pork chop in sight.