Rich Landau Wants You to Eat Your Vegetables
No tattoos. No cursing. No meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy. No drama. This is a successful chef?
Rich Landau plops a pile of spongy, chalk-colored tofu into a big stainless steel bowl. “This is the most clichéd part of my job,” he says, leaning into the bowl with both hands and tearing the tofu limb from limb, or whatever it is you do to the curd of soybeans. Landau calls tofu “the evil icon of vegetarianism,” and it’s obvious he’s worked with it a few times — check that; a few hundred thousand times — before.
“The thing about tofu that most people don’t realize,” Landau says, “is that you’ve gotta get some salt and fat into it.” He does that, and starts stirring the mix with a metal spoon.
“You really need to get it in there. Salt also changes the texture, draws the moisture out of it. Now I’m going to put some turmeric in there. That gives it that nice yellow color. Now it looks like scrambled eggs.”
It’s scrambled-egg time, early on a Monday morning. In the cramped kitchen in the back of a historically certified 1895 Frank Furness townhouse in the 1200 block of Locust Street, Rich Landau is creating what he calls the “Dirt List,” a set of small-plate daily specials for that night’s menu at Vedge, his surprisingly successful and much-lauded vegan restaurant. Except he adamantly refuses to call it a vegan restaurant. “We’re a restaurant that serves vegetables,” the chef insists, repeatedly.
Today’s incoming vegetables are piling up around him on the kitchen prep counter as his staff arrives. There’s a box packed with broccoli rabe. A big green bouquet of Swiss chard. A pile of the shiny, gnarled green peppers called “long hots.” It’s mid-spring, so of course there’s a bowl filled with pungent, delicate and dirty ramps.
Since Vedge opened in 2011, Landau has created what he estimates to be 2,000 different items for the Dirt List, taking produce that’s sometimes just 24 hours out of the ground and often turning it into an all-vegetable play on an omnivore classic. For instance, he’s planning to fry up the tofu, long hots and broccoli rabe into what he calls “a classic Philly breakfast scramble.” A different version of tofu, made to resemble ricotta cheese, will be combined with chard and laid between small pasta sheets to make deconstructed lasagna — lasagna being a runner-up evil icon of the vegetarian menu.
Landau, 48, dissects a long hot with a 12-inch blade, displaying the quick, confident knife skills he’s developed over more than 20 years in his own kitchens. This year’s James Beard Award finalist doesn’t list any fancy culinary school on his résumé. He’s as close as someone gets to being completely self-taught.
Moving back to the tofu, Landau sprinkles it with Old Bay seasoning and some nutritional yeast. (It’s a flaky product made from dried fungi that was grown on molasses. Yum!) “I shunned it for years,” the chef says of the yeast. “But if you use it right, it’s really good. It gives it a nice little cheesy effect. It’s an umami-like richness. Makes your cheeks tingle. A dish has to fire all over your mouth. We only get one chance to impress people. They come in here wary about eating a whole meal of vegetables. It’s all the first bite; you’ve gotta have everything going on.”
Plenty of people have come to believe that Rich Landau’s Vedge has got it going on. The Inquirer’s Craig LaBan called him a “vegetable whisperer extraordinaire” and predicted that it “seems only a matter of time before we all speak of him — vegans and omnivores alike — as one of Philadelphia’s best chefs, period.” This magazine’s restaurant reviewer, Trey Popp, described his first meal at Vedge as “one of the most enthralling I’ve had in Philadelphia,” deeming the place “one of the city’s best restaurants, period.”
It’s only taken the chef two decades of labor to become an overnight sensation. Landau turned vegetarian when he was a teenager. “There was no defining moment,” he says. “It was an inspired act of righteousness as a teen.” At the time, he was something of a social outcast even within his own family. “I spent a lot of Saturday nights home alone,” he told me.
Times change. Now vegans are cool. What Rich Landau and his wife and partner, Kate Jacoby, are doing would be fine on its own. But there’s evidence that Vedge may simply be on the haute end of a big trend — that Philadelphia and the wider world are entering the Vegetable Age.
Celebrity vegans are sprouting like turnips. From the world of politics, there’s Bill Clinton, who dabbled in veganism. There’s casino magnate Steve Wynn; veteran vegan Ellen DeGeneres; Beyoncé, who’s launched a vegan meal delivery service; and the multi-platform personality Gwyneth Paltrow, whose online “lifestyle publication,” Goop, described Vedge as “the restaurant that keeps the food buzz happening in Philly.”
Add in the smarty-pants thought leaders whose manifestos nudge eaters, if not into full-blown veganism, at least toward a greater embrace of the vegetable kingdom — like The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan, who coined the famous motto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” or New York Times best-selling food writer Mark Bittman, whose step-in-the-right-direction program advocates a “vegan before six p.m.” diet.
There are field observations from the wilds of the restaurant scene indicating that the foodie hordes may be changing their carnivorous grazing habits. “[The] great veggie craze that has been sweeping through the city’s kitchens the past couple of years actually appears to be gathering steam,” veteran New York food writer Adam Platt wrote earlier this year. “[The] Age of Bacon,” Platt said, is “slowly being overturned by armies of vegans and root foragers.” Manhattan restaurants always seem to produce one eye-poppingly expensive menu item that captures the current zeitgeist. At the turn of the century, it was Daniel Boulud’s $27 sirloin burger stuffed with foie gras and short ribs. These days it’s the $24 roasted head of cauliflower.
In Philly, the past few years have seen a bumper crop (it’s impossible to resist the metaphors) of new vegan restaurants. Flush with the success of Vedge, Landau and Jacoby opened a more casual place called V Street just off Rittenhouse Square. Former actress — and former Landau employee — Nicole Marquis has started two bustling casual-dining spots called HipCityVeg, and a vegan cocktail lounge called Charlie Was a Sinner, and, any day now, a vegan taqueria. “Are we having a vegan moment in Philadelphia?” Marquis asks. “Yes we are. But it’s much more than a fad. It’s becoming a lifestyle choice, a way of life.” Marquis is already trying to expand HipCityVeg into other cities.
One thing seems certain right now: Landau and his cohorts are finally making the phrase Eat your vegetables a promise, not a punishment. “Rich has blazed a trail that’s made it apparent you can do this,” says Vance Lehmkuhl, a longtime customer at Landau’s restaurants who writes the Daily News’s “V for Veg” column. (Wait a minute — the Daily News has a vegan column?)
“Rich is just a very good chef,” says Marc Vetri, who carries a certain authority. Chef Vetri says Chef Landau may have pulled off the most important trick of all: making niche cooking normal. “Honestly,” Vetri says, “I don’t look at Vedge as a vegetable restaurant. I look at it as a great restaurant with thoughtful, simple dishes that make sense.”
STILL, LANDAU WORRIES.
“We’re just petrified of falling into those clichés of what the vegan restaurant is,” he tells me. “Hippies. Parting the beads. Incense is burning. The Grateful Dead is playing. Everybody’s high. The server comes over in a tank top with the hairy armpits.”
We’re sitting in a small, cozy wood-paneled room tucked into a front corner of Vedge, near the sleek marble-topped bar.
Landau went through some hippie years as he was growing up in a middle-class family in Cheltenham in the ’70s and ’80s. He eventually realized “You can’t make a living being a hippie,” he says. His father was a commercial banker who led the regimented life of a suited train commuter, and his mother was a travel agent, and an artistic type. He grew up with twin younger sisters. “My parents had each other, and my sisters had each other,” he remembers, “and then there was me.”
Landau grew up eating meat. Food was important in the family rituals, and he started helping in the kitchen when he was young. When he first decided to give up meat, it meant fixing himself a lot of tuna salad on white bread. “I found it very hard to stop eating meat,” he says. “This was the ’80s, and I wasn’t going to give up my carnivorous diet for bean sprouts. Literally, at a young age I started to teach myself how to cook. How to get those meaty flavors to satisfy my palate. And that’s still the way I cook. I cook for carnivores because I’m cooking for myself.”
The family was much more accepting of Landau’s choice to quit meat than of his later decision to skip college and become a golf-course landscaper. “College was not going to give me anything that I wanted,” he says. When he was 23, he took a one-week bartending course and started working in restaurants — never in the kitchen, but nearby, and watching. He opened his first vegetarian lunch counter in the corner of a health-food store in a Willow Grove strip mall in 1994, a time when being a vegan chef meant being something of a social outcast. “I wanted to let people know about this way of eating,” he tells me. “This was a mission.”
His early zeal now amuses him. He sheepishly admits that the company name still printed on his employees’ checks reads “Horizons Food of the Future,” inspired by a utopian exhibit he once saw at Epcot Center. But something surprising started happening almost from the opening of his first Horizons Cafe. Landau may have been cooking for hippies, but guys in ties would show up for lunch. He kept expanding the cafe, and by 2001 he’d outgrown the health-food store and moved into an 1,800-square-foot space in the same strip mall.
It was there, one day in the summer before 9/11, that Kate Jacoby walked into Landau’s life, literally, applying for a job as hostess at the new Horizons Cafe.
She’d been a customer of Landau’s since high school but had never met the chef. “He was this kind of rock-and-roll guy with an earring and a ponytail who wore red-chili-pepper chef’s pants,” she remembers.
He recalls, “I was not in the happiest place in my life. I was just working my ass off, living alone in a townhouse in Horsham. I’d work and work and work and go home on my day off and drink a lot and watch TV. Pretty pathetic.” (Jacoby, who’s joined us in the Vedge dining room, emits a sympathetic sigh on hearing this.)
In many ways, Kate Jacoby, 35, is an embodiment of the new Philadelphia the couple has helped create: educated and ambitious, socially and health-conscious, well-traveled. Raised in Huntingdon Valley, she was just finishing a double major in sociology and French from Georgetown in 2001 and needed a summer job before leaving for Paris in the fall to teach English.
“I have this vision, when I look back,” Landau says, “of the door opening and the wind blowing and her long blond hair flowing and she’s wearing this long white dress. Angelic, to say the least. I probably left something to burn in the kitchen.”
Jacoby would eventually cut short her stay in France and come back to work at Horizons, and soon moved in with her boss. She started a PhD program in sociology at Temple, but dropped out after a semester to devote herself to the restaurant business and Landau. It turned out their personalities and skills complemented one another.
“I think we both grew up with a lot of pressure from our families to do something great, to really work hard,” Jacoby says. “Rich always jokes that I was the teacher’s pet. He’s always coming at things from a blue-collar perspective, fixing things in the kitchen himself and snaking the drains and stuff. And I’m like, ‘I’m going to reach out to the James Beard House for us to cook there.’ It was a nice convergence. We have our own focus. And we can mesh together when we need to.”
Jacoby does double duty at Vedge; she’s the pastry chef (for which she has been a James Beard Award contender) and she runs the front of house. The couple married in 2004. “Work was going well, and home life was great,” Jacoby recalls. But at the same time, she was thinking, “We should push this further, do more with our work. Our goal should be to get downtown.”
They took just about every penny they had and bought a fixer-upper two-story building at 7th near Bainbridge, then did much of the renovation themselves. Early in 2006, Horizons moved to Philadelphia.
The city’s vegetarian community, such as there was, welcomed the opening. But Landau and Jacoby knew competing in Center City meant appealing to a larger market and avoiding the stigma of sprout-eating hippies reeking of patchouli (which the chef swears he has never worn).
“When I started Horizons, I didn’t use the word ‘vegetarian’ anywhere,” Landau tells me in the Vedge dining room. “It was forbidden. Because I didn’t want people coming in with preconceived notions. I wanted them to come in and eat. We’re busy here — knock on wood. That’s because we don’t throw it in people’s faces that they’ve gone to the other.”
That new city restaurant was hardly a radical departure from the suburban Horizons Cafe. The two-story skinny townhouse, with its sunset orange walls and steep staircase, still felt like a place where vegans would eat. Though Landau was hitting his stride in the kitchen — this magazine named Horizons one of its 50 Best, and Craig LaBan awarded it three bells — the large entrées were still focused mostly on tofu and seitan.
Landau began developing the idea for Vedge around the time he got acquainted with the owner of a Lancaster County farmers’ collective: He would bring fresh vegetables to the fore, served on petite plates in all their plentitude. He was already seeing the approach work in California. In the small world of vegan dining, Landau says, trends start in California: “Then they come to New York a year later, and three years after that, they get to Philadelphia. I read menus in California and skip New York.”
When they came up with the Vedge concept, Landau and Jacoby had a different idea of what the restaurant would look like — much more bare-bones and, in Jacoby’s description, “badass.” But then a friend and customer, lawyer and real estate developer Larry Krasner, offered them the first floor of the Frank Furness building on Locust Street.
The move from Horizons was only a short walk, but large symbolically. Now Landau and Jacoby (who says, “It never seemed like we were seated at the table with the cool kids”) would be competing in one of the city’s top restaurant neighborhoods, along with Stephen Starr, Jose Garces, Marcie Turney and Marc Vetri.
The restaurant they opened was in line with all the current trends. There was a cocktail list that people noticed was inventive and thirst-quenching before they noticed it was vegan. Almost all the mock-meat appetizers and entrées that were the signature of Horizons were ditched for vegetable-focused small and shareable plates, served on white china and platters made of slate and wood. There was room for smart marketing: A “Dirt List” would change regularly; the new, pithy name was born. The restaurant’s physical space was vital to the rebrand. The building once housed the Princeton Club and maintains some of the look and feel of a gentleman’s club, with fireplaces, leaded glass windows and walnut paneling. But the minimalist touches — creamy walls, dark wood trim, banquettes upholstered in a subdued gray — modernize it. Observe the table settings carefully and you’ll notice that each diner receives a steak knife for his meatless meal.
If you subscribe to the restaurant-as-theater concept, the set design of Vedge goes a long way toward assuring customers that they’re in a sleek, posh place and that the food is going to be good and seriously prepared, even if it’s missing all those animal products they usually expect. And now, those customers are also part of the in-crowd: M. Night Shyamalan, local newscasters, Connor Barwin, Questlove and Moby are all big fans.
Almost since the day he opened his first restaurant, Rich Landau has heard a certain kind of customer joke at the end of an all-vegetable meal about wanting to go get a cheesesteak. Nobody ever makes a wisecrack about craving chicken cordon bleu or rack of lamb. It’s always a cheesesteak.
In the past few years, as Vedge has garnered national attention, Kate Jacoby says, “A lot of articles about us start with the fact that this is a cheesesteak town. We have all these fine restaurants here. But it’s always, ‘Philly is a cheesesteak town.’”
Change is hard to see while it’s happening. If the success of Vedge does anything, it clearly reveals that in today’s Philadelphia, with its bustling, chef-driven restaurant scene, where streets have been taken over by millennials on bicycles and the yoga mat in a sling has replaced the shoulder bag as chic accessory, the cheesesteak is about as relevant to and representative of the way we live now as the Liberty Bell and the Mummers Parade.
WHILE A LOT of recent converts are going vegetarian for health reasons, Landau is what’s called an “ethical vegan.” (Jacoby is, too.) He doesn’t think other animals should die to feed us, and certainly not via the processes used by industrial food producers. Not long after I first met him, he gave two critiques of current chef culture. The over-the-top cursing bothers him. (“C’mon, guys. Show some class.”) And he is disgusted when he sees chefs posing proudly with slaughtered animal carcasses. “It’s very disrespectful how much American chefs throw around these animals,” he says. “Let’s have more respect.”
While Landau can’t quite understand why anyone who knows how meat is produced in America would actually eat it (he also doesn’t wear leather), he realizes that a majority of his customers at Vedge are normally meat eaters. Business sense makes him keep quiet. “People don’t like to be preached to,” he says. “Especially in Philly.” Veganism among the staff is common but not required or unanimous.
Rich Landau is a reasonable, moderate guy — more so all the time, he says, as he ages and experiences parenthood. The best thing in life, the erstwhile badass chef told me, is a quiet meal at home. Even on days he’s doing dinner service at Vedge, he takes a break to go home and cook dinner for the couple’s seven-year-old son, Rio. In an age that has made rock stars out of chefs who are constantly portrayed as anything but reasonable, he seems a little out of place. Landau simply doesn’t play the kind of chef you see on TV.
“I never thought that having to be good on camera or in front of a microphone was going to be part of my job description,” he says. But he’s done his share of local morning shows, and recently went on Chopped (he won) and taped a segment for The Dr. Oz Show. There’s been some mainstream national press — GQ’s food critic, Alan Richman, named Vedge one of the country’s dozen best restaurants in 2013. When the Vedge cookbook came out last year, Landau and Jacoby became the go-to cover couple of the vegetarian press.
This year, Landau was recognized by the cool kids in the restaurant industry: He was named a finalist for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region (that includes Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington) at the James Beard Awards. He was the only vegan chef among the nominees. He splurged on a fancy tuxedo, hunted down leather-free formal shoes, and flew with Jacoby to Chicago for the lavish awards ceremony. Not only did he not win; the evening began with the master of ceremonies, TV’s lovable, funny food nerd Alton Brown, singing a song that made fun of vegan cooking and celebrated dead flesh. Put to the tune of an old Sonny and Cher hit, Brown’s song was titled “The Meat Goes On.”
THE FIRST MORNING I joined Rich Landau in the Vedge kitchen, I expected we would bop out to carefully pick through produce at a farmers’ market. “That’s what chefs do for TV,” he informed me. “Nobody actually does that. Our vegetables come off trucks. In Philly, the farmers’ market culture is a lot better than it was, but it’s got a long, long way to go. The farmers’ market culture here is almost embarrassing.”
For a guy who’s been called a vegetable whisperer, Landau is surprisingly resistant to fetishizing produce. He doesn’t talk about the occult relationship between man and vegetable like he’s some sort of modern-day Ralph Waldo Emerson in kitchen clogs.
For instance, Vedge doesn’t solely serve organic produce. “You can’t afford 100 percent organic,” the owner says. Nor has he stuck the point of a compass on the map at 1221 Locust and drawn a circle to designate a magical zone from which his ingredients must come. He just wants them to taste good. Everybody agrees with that principle.
The evening after I watched Landau prep his Dirt List, I went for dinner at Vedge and brought along a few friends, one of whom I’ll call the Grumpy Veteran Restaurateur, whose first words on being seated were, “I envy them this crowd.”
As dishes arrived and we began to eat, the GVR started saying, “This is good.” Then he changed it to, “This is really good.” Then, “No, I mean this is good good.” But he was most impressed by one of Landau’s signature dishes: roasted carrots served on a bed of sauerkraut hummus and sprinkled with a traditional steak seasoning. It’s the chef’s re-creation of the flavors in a Reuben sandwich, which he still craves. It costs $15. “Do you know how much he’s making on this?” the Grumpy Restaurateur asked. “He’s making a fortune.”
Landau later responded: “He doesn’t understand my labor costs. Labor is killer — in the mid-30 percent” of total costs. “Those carrots are blanched, sliced, roasted, grilled over a wood fire — then finished on the griddle for service. Almost everything on the menu goes through a two- or three- or four-step process.”
At one point, Landau did some back-of-the-napkin calculations for me on Vedge’s income. He said he feeds about 1,200 people a week, and an average check is $50. When I did my own math, that came out to about $3 million in annual gross revenue. Landau wouldn’t confirm that specifically, but soon after we first met, he told me, in what I thought at the time to be a non sequitur, “It’s possible to have a three-million-a-year restaurant and still lose money.” He’s far from losing money. But, Landau notes, “I’m driving a Jeep, not a BMW.”
Another night, I sat by myself at the Vedge bar and struck up a conversation with a woman next to me, who was in town from Washington on business. She’d been raised in a meat-and-potatoes family in Chicago and told me that when she called home from college to announce that she’d become a vegetarian, her father blurted through the phone, “But we tried to raise you right!”
Landau and Jacoby were working that night, so lots of extra food was coming my way, and I shared it with my bar mate, who said she wished there was a restaurant like Vedge in D.C. Maybe not another Vedge, Landau says, but he and Jacoby have started scouting possible locations for a V Street in the capital. “V Street was designed to be scalable,” Jacoby told me.
The woman from D.C. was smart and personable and pretty and much younger than me, so naturally I didn’t pay any attention to the older guy who sat on my other side. It was Elliott Curson, a legendary Philadelphia advertising man. This was his first time at Vedge, and he’d ordered the spicy grilled tofu served with the Korean hot pepper paste called gochujang. It’s one of the few dishes that moved with Landau from the old Horizons.
Curson established his legend in 1972 when he wrote a slogan that appeared on billboards around town: “Philadelphia isn’t as bad as Philadelphians say it is.” Given his knack for vividly and memorably advocating for the underdog, I wondered if Curson could make magic again and come up with a slogan for vegan food. I asked him what he’d thought of dinner.
“If this is what vegan food is like,” Curson said, “I’m in.”
Landau and Jacoby had left the restaurant by then, but I repeated Curson’s line to one of the waiters.
“We hear that all the time,” he said.
First published as “Eat Your Vegetables” in the July 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.