Vegan Chef Matthew Kenney Gets a Place at the Table

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"I was invited to all the events, did a few dinners at the James Beard House, then I started cooking vegan and the phone stopped ringing," says chef Matthew Kenney. But he never looked back. Back in the kitchen of the Park Lane Hotel his vegan chef friends Daphne Cheng of Suite ThreeOhSix and No7 restaurant's Tyler Kord are working side by side with his culinary director Scott Winegard to prepare a sold out, three-hour meal he's curated for the New York City Wine & Food Festival. It's taken time — longer than he thought. But finally the benefits of a vegan diet have crept into the public conscious, and he's been preparing for the questions for years, having launched the plant-based restaurant Pure Food and Wine ten years ago in Manhattan.

"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 says earnestly. It probably doesn't hurt when the message is coming a from an easy-going surfer with leading man good looks. He's not the only spokesperson out there promoting the lifestyle. This year headlines have been made of newcomers to this way of eating like Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z as well as long time adoptees like Jared Leto.

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Have no fear though meat-eaters, Matthew is not on a warpath against anyone's particular diet, but more in the pursuit of bringing a better tasting vegetable to your palate. It is this non-confrontational attitude that has gotten him this far, with successful schools in Santa Monica, Miami, New England and future expansions planned in places like Bangkok, Thailand. We talked to Kenney about the importance of educating yourself before attempting a vegan diet, how the landscape has changed, and what he thinks of the recent slew of food documentaries.

How long have you been cooking raw?
I opened Pure Food and Wine about 10 years ago. That was my first vegan project. I was a classically trained chef who even hunted at the time. It came later for me. I just listened to my body and the positive effects that occurred when I was eating more plants. When I coupled that with my love for the environment and animals it just seemed like the right area of food to explore.

What kind of restaurants do you eat at now?
I don't only eat at vegan or raw restaurants. I like to dine at traditional eateries, just ones that offer great vegetable options. In LA, I like Crossroads, Cafe Gratitude and Gjelina. In New York I drop by ABC Kitchen. I fell in love with restaurants and the experience before I worked with raw food. I think one day vegan restaurants will catch up with the ambiance of traditional places, but there was a lack of awareness until now. I think we'll see more vegan restaurants catch up to the experience of classical spots soon.

Pure Food and Wine was one of the first places to really strive for that level of service. Is that what you were attempting?
My first thought when we built Pure Food and Wine was we just wanted a sexy, beautiful restaurant that people would be attracted to regardless of what was being served. Take sushi for example. Before Nobu nobody was doing Japanese in a restaurant setting like that. It took a little longer than I thought with the vegan movement, but we've started to see it happen. Brilliant chefs like Jean Georges in New York and Alain Duscasse in Paris are working to open vegetable based experiences. I just ate 22 courses at NOMA and I think 18 of them were vegetarian. Mario Batali did a vegan menu at Del Posto, which is fantastic, but you wouldn't expect it from him. It speaks loudly to the progress.

Is that encouraging to see?
Chefs these days are spokespeople for a lot of very important causes and, I think, bringing together wellness with culinary arts. When I went to culinary school it was all about more salt, more butter and then going out for a cigarette out back during lunch break. Our students go out back and have a green juice.

What advice can you give to people who want to start a vegan diet today?
Do your research. It's okay to start it immediately, but you have to do your homework. There's a lot of information out there now, even on our site. We decided to offer an online culinary school and a culinary nutrition course because people didn't know how to get their proteins and their fats. Some try to replace it all with a lot of nuts when lentils probably have the highest amount of plant-based protein. It shouldn't be as daunting as people make it though. It's not as scientific as people tend to think. These are basics. But you have to learn these basics.

A lot of vegans struggle with Thanksgiving and the holidays. What do you do in those large dinner situations? 
I never try to replicate anything. I never try to make a turkey out of a coconut or tofu. For me it's about doing food that feeds the spirit. That's what the holidays are about. I love lentils and legumes. I like roast sweet potato, or a nice squash dish. Maybe add some avocado, pistachios and a touch of lemon. We make our own cheese from sprouted raw cashew. It tastes amazing and it has a great balance of raw protein. In the beginning we did some comparative food, just so people would have a point of reference. But as time goes on and people are more open. You don't have to pretend the beet is a steak.

People have started to really care where their food comes from and there are a lot of food documentaries out there right now. Some of them seem to be trying to scare people into change, what are your thoughts on that?
I think some people think the shift will happen when our hospitals get overcrowded or when enough people see scare documentaries like Forks Over Knives, but I personally don't think that. I don't think scare tactics work. I think when the plants are displayed in a better looking environment, when they taste better than the traditional cuisine, that's when things are going to move. That starts when chefs embrace it, and that's why I started a culinary school.

There's been a lot of attention on the vegan diet recently with a number of celebrities trying it out. Is that something that you've been aware of for a while?
Absolutely. We've placed chefs in the homes of a number of big stars, as well as helped educate some of their own personal chefs. One of our first clients was a very well known NFL quarterback. One of the most well known basketball players in the world recently worked with us and people have been noticing his health improvement. It's great to be a part of that.

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The New York City Wine and Food Festival is a huge event every year, how does it feel to be able to offer a vegan option this year?
I've been watching all the food festivals for years, I check sites like Eater and I've been reading about the Burger Bash but we've never gotten invited. Last year they invited us to do the South Beach event and now to be able to do this one with my friends and chefs that I respect (like Daphne Cheng and Tyler Kord, who's friends with my colleague Scott Winegard) is a blast. In the future, I hope to see even more plant based options, but this is another huge step.

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