Over the past week, I’ve been running around all over town with my camera, getting ready for the Vegan Chef Challenge (VCC). I was lucky enough to steal a few moments of time from a few talented chefs that will be taking on the challenge this year. We talked about food, inspiration, travel; but everything we discussed came back around to food. Go figure.
What was so intriguing is that the chefs have very different approaches to food, but despite all the differences, a common thread connects them all – they have passion for what they do.
So, in the next few weeks as we gear up for VCC , I’ll be bringing juicy details about the competition. Once the challenge begins on October 1st, I will be updating Facebook, Tweeting, and showing you real-time photos of my eats about town on Instagram. You will have twenty-two restaurants to visit, so adjust your eating-out budget, save up a few bucks, and start making dinner plans with friends. Don’t say I didn’t give you enough of a warning
And since today is a good a day as any to kick off the vegan food talk, I’m bringing you into the kitchens of three amazing chefs. Ron Russell and Rey Ortega from the Plum Cafe and Bakery, and Oliver Ridgeway from the Grange.
Chefs Rey Ortega and Ron Russell – Plum Bakery and Cafe
Four months ago, Ron Russell and Rey Ortega took over our little vegan hub, known as the Sugar Plum Vegan Cafe, and renamed it Plum Cafe and Bakery.
Rey has created and managed two successful baking manufacturing businesses over the last 15 years and his booming gluten-free cookie business, SunFlour Baking, is popular nationwide and Canada.
Ron, is not new to the vegan cooking scene – he has been a vegetarian for over 30 years, vegan for 12, and is also the owner and chef of SunCafe Organic, a mostly raw restaurant located in Studio City, California. The impressive SunCafe, a winner of six culinary awards, is no stranger to celebrities like Rachel McAdams, Megan Fox and George Clooney. Whether or not that impresses you (or at least raises your eyebrows), I’m sure the menu will do the trick. With creative items like Marinara or Pesto Kelp Noodles, and Lasagna Bolognese, it’s obvious that Ron knows his stuff. He spends his time flying back and forth between Los Angeles and Sacramento to keep both places running and to teach weekly raw cooking classes in both cities.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Ron, and talk with him a bit about his love of vegan food and his newest Sacramento venture.
Ron, a foodie, “got into the kitchen in college” to support himself. Visiting hundreds of restaurants all over the world, he finds inspiration in every corner of the globe. “I am a foodie, and I have probably been to ninety-five percent of the restaurants in California”. He uses his travel experience and his creative edge to take traditional dishes and make them vegan. He does admit that, that “French is the hardest though”.
Ron is not only passionate about food, but also about spreading the joy of cooking to others. He teaches vegan and raw cooking classes in Los Angeles and Sacramento. His curriculum includes “how to throw a raw dinner party” and “how to plate a dish to perfection”.
As far as the menu, many items from Sugar Plum will stay, but many changes are on the horizon. “Sugar Plum always had great sandwiches and salads”, says Ron, “but we will add more dinner entrées”. Smoothies, espresso drinks, and gluten free mac and cheese have already been added and we can expect new items like a brown rice lentil loaf (both as a dinner and a sandwich) and a couple of raw additions.
You are looking at a fully stocked vegan bakery counter
And if that wasn’t enough, there is another shelf with packaged baked goodies
I was also happy to find out that Ron is also a big believer in greens, and he is no stranger to the green smoothie, which is also on the menu. He says, “I have one almost every morning, usually spinach and kale”.
Oliver Ridgeway – Grange
Next stop on my restaurant tour was the Grange. When the Vegan Chef Challenge conversation first began, I knew right away that I wanted to ask the Grange to participate, and here is why. Eric and I went there for dinner a few months back. Since nothing was really catching my attention on the menu, I ventured to ask the server if there were any vegan options off the menu. He enthusiastically said “the chef will be happy to prepare something”. Moments later, he walked me through what the chef was going to cook, but I stopped paying attention after I heard some of my favorite words – “local”, “organic”, “fresh”. I just said “sounds good, I’ll take it”. That something was a magical, beautifully seasoned vegetable medley plate, with greens and grains – the dish just singing with flavor. I love surprises, but only good ones. And to my surprise, that surprise was over the top.
The Executive Chef behind all the flavor is Oliver Ridgeway
His food philosophy is the definition of local farm to table. The English-born Executive Chef has been around the restaurant business most of his life. “My father had a restaurant, so I grew up around the kitchen, and the hustle and bustle of the industry”. Oliver then took his passion for cooking to the iconic Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship, traveling around the world honing his technical skills. He continued to travel around the world in his 20s, tasting and enjoying what each culture has to offer. After seventeen years of travel, Oliver and his family finally settled in Sacramento. Oliver says, “Sacramento is very ingredients driven”.
When it comes to inspiration, Oliver lets the food speak for itself. “Having a sense of place, and really recognizing what the area has to offer is important”.
“There really isn’t a theme to what we do here, other than that it’s local. We can have a Spanish swing, or Italian swing, using local ingredients and technique”, says Oliver.
Given the chef’s love for local seasonal food, it’s no surprise that the chef and I bonded over our mutual love of Mediterranean flavors. He admits that one of his favorite meals is “a really good Greek salad”. “It’s the flavorful tomatoes and cucumbers, crunchy onions, and salty olives”.
I was going to say that!
Can’t wait to see what the Grange will serve for the Challenge. Who’s going with me?
Ok folks, that’s it for today, I’ll be bringing you more interviews soon. Check the Sac Vegan Challenge website starting October 1st for profiles of ALL the Chefs.