RICH LANDAU is a magician. What other explanation is there for the amazing tricks he pulls off with vegetables?
Fingerling Potatoes with Creamy Worcestershire Sauce? Roasted Cauliflower with Black Vinegar and Kimchi Cream? In every case, the veggies retain their flavor essence while surprising and delighting. It's a culinary feat that seems beyond mere mortals.
And it's no fluke: From the "Food of the Future" days of Horizons Cafe in Willow Grove to the last days of "Modern Vegan Cuisine" Horizons off South Street, and now their latest project - the sophisticated "vegetable restaurant" Vedge - Landau and his wife and partner, Kate Jacoby, have consistently wowed even the carnivore crowd with vegan creations that prompt the awestruck "how do they do it?" of a magic show.
Through its example and influence, Horizons - which opened in 1994 in Willow Grove, then relocated to Queen Village from 2006 to 2011 - helped remap Philly as a vegan-restaurant town. Now Vedge, which opened in 2011, has helped push vegetable-centered cuisine into the mainstream, landing on GQ's 12 Best Restaurants of 2013 list.
"Chef Richard Landau's staff must include a benevolent gremlin or a fairy godmother who sprinkles magic dust over the pots and the pans," theorized GQ's Alan Richman, who seemed more than a little bewitched. "I had no idea so much flavor could be delivered without butter, cream, milk, eggs and other kitchen staples."
Now they're pulling back the curtain with the new cookbook Vedge: 100 Plates Large and Small That Redefine Vegetable Cooking. Out in July from The Experiment, it takes curious amateur chefs backstage to see how the magic works. But, as with any magic trick, the explanation may be deceptively simple.
"Let the ingredients speak," Landau reiterated last week. "Put vegetables on the pedestal, embellish them, enhance them, do something that no one's ever done before - but let people know that it is what it is.
"I'm not going to take carrots and make them into sausage or foams or make a caramel-carrot cage out of them. I want you to know you're eating carrots, but I am also going to challenge myself to spice them in a way that the spices don't become the first thing you taste on your palate. You should taste carrots first, then the spices, but I also wanted to prepare them in a way that's like, 'Oh I never thought of that.' "
The new cookbook applies this treatment to a massive number of vegetables.
"We tried to find one recipe for every single vegetable," Landau said. "The only vegetable I know, off the top of my head, that isn't in there is artichokes."
To my mock horror, he added, "I know! They're just a pain in the ass to prep."
Jacoby added, "We even thought of structuring the book like 'Ingredients' or 'Root Vegetables' or 'Potatoes' or whatever, but that's not quite how we approach food. We think of flavors first."
Reproducing flavors developed in a well-staffed commercial kitchen for dishes that home chefs can manage was part of the trick here. But the book does that - and with the restaurant's signature cocktails and creative desserts, too. Both categories are Jacoby's specialty.
While we get tipped to some secrets - many passages share welcome wisdom on spice combining and judicious substitution - some magic stays at Vedge.
"Some things you not only can't 'translate,' but I can't even make them at home myself," Landau laughed. "The eggplant bracciole just kind of snuck in there because I found a way to do a version of it at home. Not the restaurant version, which is hours and hours of very precise prep, but it will be close, and something people can do in their own kitchen."
Landau sees this process as part of his mission to help people re-examine what they're eating and why.
He recalled that before the first of the two Horizons cookbooks - Horizons: The Cookbook (2005) and Horizons: New Vegan Cuisine (2007) - people would often say, "Wow, if I could cook this way I'd be vegan." But there's an implicit flip side here: "Since I can't cook like this, I'm going to eat dead animal flesh."
Since "we have to sleep at night," Landau continued, there was "definitely a cause behind that [Horizons] cookbook. We wanted to demystify vegan cuisine, to break down the barriers."
The Vedge cookbook addresses the all-too-common mentality of "just got all these veggies at the CSA. Better boil some water and cook 'em."
"No!" Landau exclaimed. "Everyone goes right for that, they start blanching them or they roast them. Well, here's some ideas that you can do where vegetables are not just a side dish anymore - maybe they can be more of the forefront of the meal, maybe they can really shine for you."
That said, the animal-free ethos is still a key motivator. Referencing the current "farm-to-table" vogue, Jacoby noted that "there's a lot of attention now to food and its production. And when you think about where food comes from, it's a whole lot nicer to think about vegetable gardens than about slaughterhouses."
Landau and Jacoby are striving for nothing less than remaking the American palate. It's an almost unthinkable task, but who else could get those of us who hated brussels sprouts as kids (show of hands?) to voluntarily, eagerly order them for dinner? (One way: Try the recipe on Page 25 for Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Whole-Grain Mustard Sauce.)
Besides, this team has a track record to consider, not just with Horizons and Vedge, but with the Landau-designed menu at one of the city's hottest spots, HipCityVeg, where he just finished a summer reboot for the menu. And recent developments have begun spreading Vedge-consciousness beyond Philly.
At the turn of the year, Williams-Sonoma launched three Vedge-branded sauces, bringing the Vedge magic to America's kitchens. Landau and Jacoby have made key forays, cooking for Bill Clinton at a New York City fundraiser and sharing their skills at acclaimed Laloux for February's Montreal en Lumiere festival. All this after being the first vegan restaurant invited to showcase at Manhattan's James Beard House - twice!
More big things are in the offing, with a Los Angeles edition of Vedge getting closer to realization. Landau and Jacoby head out west in a couple of weeks to firm up potential locations.
Meanwhile, look for them soon on your TV screen, in major magazines and at key big-city dinners and events as the cookbook promotion revs into high gear.
As the accolades roll in, Landau and Jacoby keep pushing forward, creating magical new combinations with nothing up their sleeves but produce.
Although the "farm-to-table" fad may fade, Landau is confident that the plant-based approach that the Vedge cookbook promotes has staying power.
"Vegetables will never go out of style. They're food. They've been growing in the ground as long as humans have walked the planet. That's what we eat, and this is a great new way to discover it."