Conscious Lunch

Being vegan in Tokyo can often make one feel isolated in the world’s most populous city, but last weekend my partner and I counted ourselves a very lucky minority to meet acclaimed vegan chef and author of the “The Conscious Cook” cookbook, Tal Ronnen.

While Japan is known for originating the predominantly vegetarian macrobiotic diet, and “macrobi” restaurants are ubiquitous here, veganism is extremely rare in Japan. As a result, our vegan cooking school and vegan recipe website came up near the top of the web search Chef Tal did before his recent visit to Tokyo.

We were aware Tal had cooked for Oprah Winfrey’s 21-day vegan cleanse and catered Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi’s wedding, but not of his fondness for Japan, inherited from his Australian father who had lived in Japan 3 years. Tal said Japanese food was his favorite, and asked our recommendation for Shojin Ryoori (traditional Buddhist temple food).

Not wanting to disappoint Tal, we consulted the Michelin Guide which led us to Atago-Daigo, a 2-Star restaurant where we enjoyed a most elegant and delicately prepared bento. Highlights included sashimi made from hearts of palm (a shoe-in for Awabi-giant clam), tempura using puffed rice seedlings, and matsutake mushrooms in a clear broth.

I observed that while Tal did not finish everything, he appeared to savor the food with every cell in his being, fitting perfectly the “Conscious Cook” moniker. Tal said he doesn’t eat much while he’s working, either, because he’s so focused on the act of creating.

While we would have been delighted to taste Tal’s cooking firsthand, he did present my partner a copy of his attractive cookbook (#3 New York Times bestseller, highest ranking ever for any cookbook), inscribed “Keep spreading the vegan lifestyle in Japan”.

In the private tatami-room overlooking a serene Zen garden, Tal guided us through his book, which contains not only dozens of mouth-watering plant-based recipes (accompanied by beautiful photos Tal styled himself) and techniques, but serves as a tribute to other chefs and partners he has worked with during his cooking career.

Chef Tal, who graduated from a traditional culinary academy and conducts vegetarian workshops at Le Cordon Bleu, also shared his view on the importance–even for vegan chefs–to have strong grounding in French cooking techniques.

Among Tal’s other valuable advice:

  • Using cashew nuts to make cremes for use sauces, deserts, and raw cheeses (tellingly, cashew creme sauce is the first very first recipe in the book). I’ve already made a log of Chad Sarno’s cashew cheese recipe from the book.
  • VitaMix blender–“most critical tool after a good knife” (he advised which type of VitaMix to purchase, too!).
  • Secret of cooking meat analog tempeh (braising it a loooong time).

Tal was excited there seemed to be more vegan eating options in Japan compared with his first visit 15 years ago. Although my partner and I wish for many more choices, Chef Tal’s energy, creativity and passion inspire our own efforts to make vegan food as commonplace in Japan as it is has become in North America.

Note to vegans interested in visiting Atago-Daigo: the restaurant requires 2 days notice if you would like food prepared without using any katsuo (bonito) dashi or chicken eggs, or if you would prefer to substitute white rice with genmai.