Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philadelphia’s dynamic bar and restaurant scene. Click here for the full archive.
When you’re talking about vegan restaurants in Philadelphia, the conversation must revolve around Rich Landau, who, along with his wife Kate Jacoby, now own Vedge, V Street, and Wiz Kid, which just debuted in Rittenhouse. Landau has been operating vegan restaurants in Philadelphia since well before you realized it was cool to eat vegan, and here, he tells us all about it.
My full name is… Richard Stephen Landau. Landau is German. As we tried to trace our family roots, it looks like our name was changed when my great-grandparents got on the boat. It’s still a question mark.
I grew up in… Elkins Park. These days, I live in between South and Lombard. Kind of Graduate Hospital. Some would say South Rittenhouse. It’s really nice. Like the Wonder Years.
My favorite kitchen tool is… a very clean pair of hands. I believe in a sharp knife and good whisk and freshly ground pepper, but a great chef uses a really good, clean pair of hands. This whole plastic glove thing is just so sad. All this plastic touching your food all the time. And someone coughs into their plastic glove, it’s not so sanitary now, is it?
I met Kate… when she came in to apply for a job at my restaurant Horizons in Willow Grove in the summer of 2001. She walked through the door and we hit it off instantly. That September, she left to go to France to teach English, and we were lovesick, so she came home and we’ve been working together every day since.
My first restaurant job was… working as a bartender at the Adam’s Mark Hotel on City Avenue. And then I went to work for Derek Davis at Sonoma in Manayunk. I opened Horizons right after that in 1994.
I ate my last piece of meat… so long ago, I don’t even remember.
I became a vegan… for ethical reasons. I still crave meat every day. It’s all I wanna do. I’m not one of those people who give it up and then become appalled by the idea, who walk past a backyard barbecue and get sick. I’m a carnivore at heart, and this is a really big sacrifice. But it’s the right thing to do.
People who think they’re going to hate vegan food love it when I make… seared maitake mushrooms, eggplant braciole or grilled tofu with a ssamjang glaze. I cook vegetables like any other chef would cook meat, and then people realize: it wasn’t the meat that tasted so good, it was what the chef did to it. Food is about flavor, not flesh.
One really easy vegan recipe you should try at home is… vegan ramen, which my wife and I eat for breakfast almost every day. That’s a really easy vegan recipe. You just need a basic vegan dashi stock with kombu seaweed, shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce, and then you throw whatever else you have in there… radish, bits of green vegetables, whatever. And some fresh ramen noodles. And we like it with lots of chili sauce.
For our last vacation, we went to… London. We just got back this week. It was great. I love London. Our last trip before that was to Vietnam, and I was walking around in 110 degree heat like I was the vegan Anthony Bourdain. This was much more relaxing.
Dinner for two at my restaurants will set you back about… $100 at Vedge, $60 at V Street, and $25 to $30 at Wiz Kid.
My favorite dish at a non-vegan restaurant in Philadelphia is… the boiled hot sauce tofu at Jane G’s. It’s so good, it’s ridiculous. When Jane G’s is on, it kind of kills Han Dynasty and Dan Dan, but I like all of them.
The most famous person I ever cooked for was… Katy Perry, when she was here for the DNC. I was at my nephew’s bar mitzvah and M. Night Shyamalan, who is a good friend, kept calling me. I finally pick up and he says, I wanna bring in Katy Perry and Cory Booker and Orlando Bloom tonight. We cooked them the whole menu, family style. There were 12 of them, and the check came to $1,738.
Ten years from now, I might… have a Wiz Kid in every single airport in America. Or just what we have now. I kind of hate to force the future. There are too many mistakes out there waiting to happen, so we take it slow and make sure it feels right. And if the whole Philly restaurant thing doesn’t work out, I’ll have a nice barn house in the countryside with one big table and serve one big dinner party every night with vegetables from my garden, and I’ll shuttle guests there from the city so they can drink and not worry about it.
The hardest thing about this business is… the constant stress and worry. People I know who didn’t own restaurants and now do always ask me, My god, why didn’t you tell me? I went back to Derek Davis and told him, I’m sorry if I was ever difficult. I thought you were a raving lunatic, but now I realize you were just a restaurant owner under pressure.
If you want to work for me, you have to be… really good about personal hygiene. And like Marc Vetri told you, you have to have a sense of urgency, which seems to be a dying art these days.
Recipes are… something I have never followed in my life.
One junk food I love is… French fries. At the end of the day, it’s all about French fries. I love them all over the city and if I’m on the road, I’m not above stopping by Burger King. There’s beef tallow in McDonald’s fries*. But Burger King and Wendy’s are both vegan.
Yelp is… out of control. There’s no regulation. Everyone knows that people who have a grudge against you personally and competitors leave bad reviews. Everyone knows it happens. And I once had someone leave us a nasty review just because we were closed when they wanted to eat at Vedge. That’s just not fair.
Philly’s restaurant scene is… reaching its breaking point. Pretty soon, there won’t be enough staff. It’s happening now. I think a lot of the whole Top Chef mania and the celebrity chef thing brought all these young kids out from white collar families into a business that was traditionally a blue collar job. The spotlight’s on us! We’re gonna end up on Iron Chef! People will fall at our feet! That’s just not the case. Now they’re cut, burnt, and they have tattoos they can’t remember getting. People are crashing and burning.
When I want a cup of coffee, I go to… my Krups coffee machine. I never go out for coffee. I hit a button, it grinds the beans, and out comes this really beautiful frothy coffee with a nice crema on it.
When I want pizza, I go to… Nomad. Their marinara pie is truly one of the best foods I have ever eaten.
My favorite dessert that Kate makes is… the peach robotayaki at Vedge, right now. It has a honeydew duck sauce and yuzu cornbread. It’s just one of the most pure expressions of her genius with desserts. She does a lot of great gooey stuff and cheesecake stuff and decadent stuff, but this is so pure and clean and vivid, it’s just remarkable.
If you’re coming to our house for dinner, please bring a bottle of… a really good natural wine that Kate would approve of. She says anything from Arianna Occhipinti.
Doing business in the City of Philadelphia…. can be frustrating. The city was never prepared for the influx of restaurants in the last five to ten years, but it is what it is, and there’s more business to be done in the city than any suburb. It’s just the cost of doing business. The key to happiness in life is acceptance. You deal with it and move on.
* Ed Note: McDonald’s used to fry their French fries in beef tallow, and if you’re wondering why McDonald’s French fries of 2017 are horrible compared to those of 1987, its because they stopped doing so, as documented by Malcolm Gladwell in this fascinating episode of his podcast. These days, it’s unclear exactly what is in a McDonald’s French fry, but we do know that the “natural beef flavoring” used in the recipe is milk-based and, therefore, non-vegan.
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