Vegan Chefs Show How To Make Even A Carrot The Centerpiece Of A Meal

Oct 13, 2016
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are two vegan chefs who are working to redefine cooking with vegetables to make the food exciting and satisfying, even for meat eaters. Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby own two restaurants in Philadelphia. Vedge takes a fine dining approach, while V Street is inspired by street food from around the world.

Their new "V Street" cookbook collects many of the recipes they developed after sampling street food during their travels, and it explains some of the principles behind the preparation techniques and seasonings. It's a follow-up to their cookbook "Vedge."

Landau and Jacoby are married. He oversees the entrees and main dishes. She's a pastry chef who creates the desserts and cocktails and curates the wines. Rich Landau was the winner on an episode of the chef competition TV show "Chopped." Landau and Jacoby have each been nominated for James Beard Awards.

Richard Landau, Kate Jacoby, welcome to FRESH AIR. How would you describe, like, the philosophy behind your cooking?

RICH LANDAU: The way we approach our cooking is we're trying to convince people to move vegetables to the center of the plate. We're putting all the focus into what makes vegetables taste great. You know, I've told people for years it's not really meat that tastes so good. It's what chefs do to it that tastes so good. And we're trying to put that same attention into vegetables.

So, you know, I grew up basically eating, you know, all sorts of meaty crazy things, and I still miss those flavors. I miss what it did for you, the way it connects to you, the primeval kind of cave person inside of us all and the flavors they got. But as I started to dabble, you know, in the kitchen, I realized the flavors weren't really about me. The flavors were about cooking. And that's what we're trying to do with vegetables is really, really bring out those deep, beautiful, delicious flavors in them.

GROSS: Well, on a related note, I think people tend to see vegetables - people who eat meat tend to see vegetables as a side dish or an appetizer unless you're having a salad as your main dish.

KATE JACOBY: Sometimes a garnish, really.

GROSS: Or a garnish, no - yes, no, exactly, exactly. So are there certain vegetables that do especially well as a main dish?

JACOBY: Oh, I think so, definitely. I mean, we've had a lot of success even with just something as simple as a carrot. When you apply the right treatment, you can coax out amazing flavor? People say, oh, it's coming from, you know, the animal products. It's from the fat, whatnot. What Rich is able to do with a carrot is phenomenal. I mean, he can go into great detail about really a four-step process that goes into it. But at the end of the day, you still taste the carrot. It's just been enhanced in a really unbelievable way.

GROSS: Rich, what can you do with a carrot?

LANDAU: Well (laughter) you know, we have this one dish that Vedge where we - we take a carrot and we first kind of blanch it to open it up a little bit in a kind of a stock made with bay leaf and thyme and peppercorn. After that, we coat it with, like, a steak space, like a Montreal steak spice, and we roast them in the oven. We cut them open, you know, split them down the middle, roast them face down on a sheet pan so they kind of caramelize a little bit.

After that, once they cool, we put them on a char grill over applewood, cherry and mesquite chips to smoke them. Again, that opens them up, let's all the flavor in there. And then we do this little technique we call setting the texture. We do this with lots of vegetables, mushrooms, carrots and tofu especially, where you just let them rest and you let them cool completely before you do anything else with them. And basically, all the flavor's in there now, and now they tighten up. And they have this most beautiful texture to them that you can't really get from just boiling it or eating it raw.

And finally, before it's served, it goes on the plancha, you know, the flat-top griddle face down to get that last-minute caramelization. So there's a lot of work. You know, I tell people there's 38 hours of labor that goes into one night of service at Vedge. And it's a lot. Our labor costs are just ridiculous. But it's kind of our commitment to showing what you can really do with vegetables and making them convincing as a focus on the plate.

GROSS: So that is not a recipe you're going to do when you come home from work.

LANDAU: No, I don't do it at home, so neither should you (laughter).

GROSS: OK. So you mentioned carrots as being good for a main dish. I'm going to offer eggplant as an option because we all know eggplant parmesan. Like, everybody has probably had eggplant as a main course. But there's probably plenty of things you could do with eggplant besides eggplant parmesan.

LANDAU: Well, you know, I - eggplant parm is one of my favorite dishes forever. And then one day I woke up and said, you know what? You don't even have to put eggplant inside of this and it's still going to taste the same. You know, it gets so lost in there you can kind of deep fry anything with the breading and put sauce and cheese on it and it will be delicious. And - but, you know, so I - you know, eggplant is one of those vegetables that most people are very afraid of. And for good reason, I think.

GROSS: Oh, it can be so spongy if you do the wrong thing.

LANDAU: Sure. And it's also a great case for freshness. Now, I tell people when they go to the market, you have to find the freshest, most beautiful plants. It is a vegetable that is completely unforgiving if its bruised or blemished. The skin should be really, really shiny purple. No bruises, no bumps. And when you open it up, the flesh should be so crisp and pure. When you slice it, it should almost bead a little bit of water out, and then you know you have really good eggplant that you can really work with.

If you buy something beat up and old and you open it up and it's gray, you know, like, oh, I'll just - you know, I'll just salt it or, you know, kind of boil it or something, you can't bring them back. You just can't. And I'm always amazed that people will never buy old fish or meat. You know, you're not going to find fish or meat on the discount rack, but they'll buy old vegetables. You just can't make it work. So that's the key is very fresh eggplant.

GROSS: So what's a great dish besides eggplant parmesan?

LANDAU: At Vedge, one of our signature dishes is an eggplant braciole. And what we do is we take a really fresh eggplant, slice it very, very thin on a mandolin so it's almost, you know, translucent, roast it in the oven with a little bit of olive oil for about three or four minutes just to soften it and make it pliable. We take the rest of the eggplant and we chargrill it, and then we smoke it in our cold smoker over this same applewood, cherry and mesquite chips.

We take that eggplant stuffing and we make - you know, we mix it with, like, ground up cauliflower and rice. And we roll up those eggplant sheets in the smoked eggplant stuffing and bake it and serve that over a Sicilian salsa verde. That's one of our signature dishes, and that's actually in the "Vedge" cookbook, a home friendly version of it.

GROSS: So you have two cookbooks now. One is called "Vedge," and it's recipes that you use at your more high-end vegetable restaurant. And the other is called the "V Street" cookbook. That's your new one. That's recipes that you use at your newer restaurant, which is geared toward international street food. Why did you start going in the street food direction?

JACOBY: Vedge opened in 2011, and it was just this demand that our customers and people really wanted to know how are you elevating vegetables. You're putting vegetables at the center of the table. You know, how do you do that at home? And the restaurant experience became very elevated, very elegant, a lot of - you know, sort of like an iconic dining experience. Like, all the vegetarians who want to go there or celebrate their birthdays and anniversaries, everything became very serious there. We were really pushing ourselves to the limit of what you can do with vegetables, getting some really interesting heirloom carrots and our fancy radish plate with all the different radishes we could find.

What Rich and I realized is that we had another source of inspiration. Every time we travel, we want to dine at the most beautiful restaurants. But we also want to find a little off-the-beaten-trail shacks and little huts where people are, you know, kind of immersed in this billing clouds of smoke and they're cooking in flip-flops. And those are the really interesting cultural food experiences that complemented the fine dining.

So our travel is sort of giving us new inspiration. These spicy, you know, really bold dishes that weren't quite going to fit into the Vedge context. And when we were cooking at home, it was all of these dishes that we said, you know what? We need a new space for this, a new physical space and a new way to reach out to our customers.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. They're married, and they run two restaurants in Philadelphia, Vedge and V Street. Vedge is a kind of high-end vegetarian - vegetable restaurant. They don't like vegetarian restaurant. It's about vegetables. So it's a vegetable restaurant. And they also run V Street, which is more of a street food kind of vegetable restaurant. They have a new "V Street" cookbook. We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us my guests are Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. They're a married couple who run two vegetable restaurants in Philadelphia. One is a high-end restaurant called Vedge. The other is a street food-oriented restaurant called V Street. They have a new V Street cookbook. Rich, you've written of all the different countries that you've been to, it's Japanese food that has influenced you the most. What is it about Japanese cuisine that has most influenced you?

LANDAU: The trip we took to Japan was so revelatory in the sense that, you know, we were going there expecting the really spicy Asian food, really kind of crazy, you know, big steaming pots of something, you know, with lots of chili sauce on top and, you know, the classic Japanese food you would find in this country. You know, and you've heard people say from - for years that Chinese food in China is not the same as it is in this country. I think that actually pertains 100 percent more to Japanese food. It's nothing like it is in this country.

It's actually very hard to find people in this country that are doing really authentic Japanese food because it's really about the simplicity of the ingredients. And that's what blew me away the most. They took the freshest, most intensely seasonal products, you know. You weren't eating corn on the cob in January there. You know, you weren't eating asparagus in January. Everything was very, very seasonal, and they were cooked perfectly and just embellished with a little bit of seasoning or sauce or something like that.

One example would be like we had lotus root one night with these beautiful little Hon Shimeji mushrooms. I mean, the dish was just so perfect as is. And it was just finished with a little bit of miso sauce, tiny little bit. So when you ate this dish, you taste the lotus root first and then the Hon Shimeji mushrooms. And on your palette to finish was miso. It wasn't first. There was no sticky, goopy teriyaki sauces or anything like that. Nothing was really spicy. The Japanese use a condiment called togarashi, what you'll find on the tables which is a dry red chili flake.

And we were just blown away by the attention to the food. It's kind of like the myth that what most people associate with classic French cooking, you know, the chefs fawning over their beautiful produce and cooking it in this rustic farmhouse, and it's so simple and beautiful. That doesn't exist as much in France. It's really the Japanese food and Japanese cuisine that really highlights produce and treats it so respectfully and...

GROSS: The simplicity that you just described is the opposite of the dishes you were describing before that take hours and hours to prepare and season and re-season.

LANDAU: Well, I'm not saying they don't put work into it. I'm just saying that the final product just showcases the produce, you know? And you could argue that carrot, for as much work as we put into it, still tastes like a carrot on the plate. That's one thing we never wanted to get away from.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in vegetarian cooking is they're trying to make something like the vegetable something that it's not. You know, it's like, oh, if we cover it up with enough sauce or cheese or whatever, people might be able to eat it. They're apologizing too much for what's on the plate. And that was a huge inspiration for us, this Japanese experience where what was on the plate was so clean and pure that it was really moving, you know, how much how that affected us.

GROSS: And what did you borrow from Japanese seasoning or Japanese broth, Japanese noodles?

LANDAU: Well, the noodles became part of our life forever. You know, a lot of people that go on vacation and then they'll find something to add into their culinary repertoire. It's like a, you know - you go to Jamaica, you get a - you know, take home some Blue Mountain coffee and maybe have a nice rum on the rocks every now and then and reminisce. The noodle bowls we eat in Japan became part of our everyday life. We eat them for breakfast almost every single morning. And, you know, it just became part of us, this whole - it wasn't just the food. It was the culture, the politeness, the cleanliness, the respect for people, for things, for the environment and for food. It was really just a moving experience, and it just became part of who we wanted to be in our everyday lives.

GROSS: What's in your noodle bowl every morning?

JACOBY: Oh, geez. You make the best shiitake dashi at home. So on our counter, you have a couple of glass jars. One has kombu seaweed, and another has dehydrated shittake mushrooms. And then from that we'll reach into the fridge - I'm sorry - Rich will reach into the fridge. He makes it all, not me - broccoli stems, onion peels...

GROSS: This is for breakfast?

JACOBY: Oh, yeah. Garlic, ginger. Well, you make it, so I guess you could correct me on this. But this all ends up, you know, on this beautiful aromatic pot just kind of bubbling over while we're getting our son ready for school. And then, you know, it didn't come right away.

But you worked with a lot of different kinds of noodles, and basically over time he's just become such an amazing, like, noodle chef really. So whether it's soba noodles or ramen noodles - it's also, of course, branched out into other Asian soups, so a lot of pho that we'll do in our house, but I eat very well. I'm very fortunate.

GROSS: I think it's the Japanese who came up with the concept of umami.

LANDAU: Yes. And that's a great point because that relates exactly to everything we're trying to, you know, get across in our cooking at Vedge and at V Street. You know, and there's a lot of things you can get umami flavor out of that are vegan...

GROSS: You should explain what umami is for people who don't know.

LANDAU: Umami is kind of like - it's the sixth sense of your palate. You know, it's that kind of x factor that makes things taste so delicious. And, you know, just unctuous. It makes your mouth water as you're eating it. It's that, you know - they say, you know, on your palate, you taste salt, sweet...

GROSS: Sour.

LANDAU: ...Sour and bitter. Umami is that x factor. It's an unexplainable deliciousness that makes you just kind of want to cry when you're eating something. And you can get that from mushrooms, tamari, miso will do that. You know, so there's a lot of products you can use to really kind of bring out the flavor. Seaweed's another one of them. And in our dashi, we use shiitake mushrooms and kombu.

GROSS: Dashi is a broth.

LANDAU: Dashi is a broth. Dashi is a broth, about one of the foundations of Japanese cuisine. But these fish in a lot of other dashis, so, you know, we have to veganize it at home and at the restaurant, of course.

GROSS: So what are some of the ways that you use umami ingredients like seaweed or mushrooms or tamari to add that kind of - those tones of umami which is also a kind of like meaty kind of tone, even though there's no meat?

LANDAU: Well, I think one of the ways you have to approach your cooking is say - you have to say that there's a lot of ingredients out there that we would technically or traditionally consider Japanese, such as miso or tamari that if you use them in just those small quantity won't make a dish taste Asian, but they'll actually bring out all these other flavors. So tamari, you know, which is, you know, a Japanese soy sauce, if you buy a really good one - and this is what I tell people - don't don't buy the bottle for 99 cents in the supermarket. That's saltwater. Buy a really good bottle of tamari. It's like a good red wine or a good single-malt scotch. Spend some money on your tamari and use just a little bit here and there. Not - again, not to make anything Asian - Chinese or Japanese - but to bring out all these other flavors.

And we do that a lot in the restaurant. We actually add a little bit these flavors to just make the end product taste delicious. Miso is another one. Miso, if you use a lot of it, is going to taste like miso soup or miso sauce. If you use a dab of it, it has this cheesy, fermented, delicious, mouth-filling flavor that just kind of makes the - whatever you're eating taste more full on your palate and richer.

GROSS: You use porcini powder in some of your cooking.

LANDAU: Sure.

GROSS: I didn't know they made porcini powder. As a mushroom fan, I'm glad to know that they do. How do you use that?

LANDAU: The same exact way. You use it as a seasoning and when you're building the foundation of a sauce. And that's one of the keys of good vegetarian cooking is building foundation, building layers of sauces. So when you eat something, you're tasting layers of work that went into it. You're not just eating something one note. One note's a very, very evil thing to do.

And porcini powder adds this kind of chocolaty, deep, earthy richness to a sauce. So you could start with a little shallot and garlic and a touch of neutral oil. Add a bit of porcini powder to that, and now you have this incredibly great, rich foundation for a sauce that you can build anything on top of.

GROSS: Let's talk about desserts.

JACOBY: Yes.

GROSS: I've eaten vegetarian ice cream. The kind I've eaten is a rice-based ice cream, vanilla, tastes pretty good. I mean, it's not ice cream. But if you're not expecting ice cream, it's fine.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBY: Yeah.

LANDAU: It's actually vegan ice cream. Well, I mean all ice cream would be vegetarian because...

GROSS: Right. No, that's true, vegan ice cream. Thank you for the correction, yeah. So - but I have no clue, like, how do you make it? And, Kate, since desserts are your...

JACOBY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Specialty, how do you make vegan ice cream?

JACOBY: So I love ice cream. And when I first got into this and wanted to, you know, cook, I wasn't approaching it from any kind of health aspect. I was modeling myself after what Rich was doing with savory food and saying I want to have really amazing flavors that are really satisfying. And when I first got into this, all of the recipes I could find were about making vegan desserts, very healthy.

And I felt that was kind of, you know, missing the point that, you know, you're going to eat out all your vegetables to have your nice healthy dinner. But at the end of it, you need to make your eyes roll back in your head. You know, like, dessert is about indulging and feeding your soul. So I didn't want to come up with anything that was short-changing that experience. And I sought to create, you know, really delicious desserts that would provide the same textures and satisfaction of any mainstream desserts.

When it comes to vegan ice cream, I model what I do after some of the biggest brands that are out there. And one of my biggest inspirations was Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. That was my favorite flavor (laughter). I could eat a whole pint of it very easily. But it's about the texture. And one of the things that's lost in many brands of vegan ice cream is that texture. And I taste as many as I can find. And I'm always looking for something that's rich but with a really nice balance with just a tiny bit of a yogurt-ey (ph) kind of texture and sourness to it. It's a little hard to explain. I find it in Breyers ice cream, too, actually.

So early on, I started to make a vanilla ice cream base using both a blend of soy milk and coconut milk. I didn't want it to just be soy. I didn't want it to just be coconut. I found that with my syrup base, vanilla, lemon, and then the combination of soy and coconut, I get a really nice - you know, to me, I'm very picky about it - but I'll get a really nice vanilla ice cream base that becomes the base for anything else.

GROSS: So you've made vegetable ice creams. Like, you have a sweet corn ice cream and a sweet potato ice cream. Why not just use fruit, like traditional ice cream?

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBY: Well, so you've hit on some really good ones there with corn and with sweet potato. They have a lot of starch, naturally, so they're ending up adding to that creaminess. Fruits tend to be very juicy. And to me, they instantly lean in a - more of a sorbet direction.

But if we link this to the V Street experience, we're also playing with flavors that we find across the globe. So when it gets to maybe certain Asian desserts, sweet potatoes are used very often, not only in savory cooking but also in desserts, same thing with corn in Southeast Asia. We were in Singapore back in the spring, and I had an authentic ais kacang, which of course is shaved ice with lots of crazy syrups on top but beans and corn and sweetened condensed milk and all this. But the texture and the ingredients are very different in Southeast Asia than, say, you know, France. So that's part of what we're trying to do at V Street is introduce people to new ingredients in their dessert.

GROSS: My guests are vegan chefs Kate Jacoby and John Landau (ph). They own the Philadelphia vegetable restaurants Vedge and V Street. Their new cookbook is called "V Street." After a break, we'll talk about the challenges of being vegans while traveling and sampling foods around the world. And rock historian Ed Ward will tell us about the New Zealand band The Chills. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, two vegan chefs who are married and have two vegetable restaurants in Philadelphia. Vedge takes a fine dining approach. V Street serves dishes inspired by street food from around the world.

Landau and Jacoby have a new "V Street" cookbook. Their goal is to redefine vegan cooking so that it's tasty and satisfying even for meat eaters. They describe themselves as chefs, not activists. But in the kitchen, they're pretty strict about not using any animal products. So you don't use honey.

JACOBY: No, yeah.

GROSS: Why not?

JACOBY: So as a vegan restaurant we're avoiding anything that comes from animals, so it's not just meat that we're not serving. We're not serving cheese. We're not serving eggs. We're not serving honey because bees are producing honey.

GROSS: But they're not getting killed to produce honey. Are they being mistreated in any way?

JACOBY: So Rich was a guest on "Chopped," and he won.

GROSS: The TV...

JACOBY: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: The TV cooking competition, yeah.

JACOBY: And it was interesting because he didn't really know what he was walking into, and he was very hopeful that they'd be respectful of, you know, his experience as a vegan chef. Towards the end in the final competition, honey was one of the items he was forced to use. And he thought, you know, he could have just not used it, but at the same time he didn't want to just be eliminated for that sole reason.

So he worked with it, but we got a lot of pushback - not vegan haters who said I can't believe you did it, but it was actually beekeepers who said, you know, maybe it's different in commercial mass-produced honey, but I'm a beekeeper and I love my bees. And I take good care of them, and it's amazing what we accomplish. We actually have a close friend who had a stint as a beekeeper, and she told us, too. It's a beautiful experience, and it's so rewarding. And honey is good for you, and it's great to produce honey because it's going to help the bees. I don't know. Rich, you can talk a little bit about that.

LANDAU: I don't know. I mean...

GROSS: You're talking me into having more honey, not...

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBY: You know, it's...

GROSS: Not to stop using it.

JACOBY: Yeah.

LANDAU: I never liked honey, so it was really never an issue for me of, you know, whether I had to give it up to be a vegan. You know, so I basically - I think on the show I said that, you know - you know, bees are kept in really tight quarters, and, you know, there are dead bees all over the floor. And, you know, OK, it's bees, you know, and a lot of people - you know, it's going to be hard for them to take that seriously. It's like saying let's treat mosquitoes well, you know? A lot of people aren't going to care, you know, not like in the same way you care about a cow or pig being slaughtered.

It's more of a statement about the way I think people use the animals to get something from them. So, again, this issue was never really huge for me since I never ate honey, really my whole life. But we did get some - yeah, like Kate said, some really interesting letters from beekeepers who said, you know, the bees just come and go. They are part of this kind of network of hives and the honey process is actually a beautiful, very respectful thing, so, you know...

GROSS: Maybe it's time to rethink the honey thing.

JACOBY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, seriously. And bees also - they pollinate our flowers and things, and people are so worried that bees are disappearing.

JACOBY: Right. Weren't they just added to the endangered list?

GROSS: We need them. I mean, we need them for our survival.

LANDAU: So the honey these beekeepers are producing is probably $16 a jar.

JACOBY: Maybe that's it.

GROSS: Right.

LANDAU: So that might be the stop right there.

JACOBY: Well, for me I feel there are certain items that I really would love to work with. For example, egg whites was something I struggled with. How do you replace egg whites? But for honey, I really haven't felt a need or a lacking in my repertoire to turn to that ingredient. When I've needed a liquid sweetener, agave syrup has been my go-to. And so for that reason, I haven't felt a huge hole in my heart over honey.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What do you do as a substitute for egg whites which is an important ingredient in any kind of pastry...

JACOBY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Most pastries?

JACOBY: It's all about aquafaba these days, I guess.

GROSS: I don't even know what that is.

JACOBY: Oh, wow. OK, so aquafaba is the water that is leftover from making chickpeas. So if you open up a can of chickpeas, and you drain out that water, you should save it because you can use it to replace egg whites in a lot of different recipes. And I heard a lot of people talking about this and saying it was the biggest thing and there were vegan message boards talking about it. I thought I guess I should try this. I'm a vegan pastry chef. I should know what this is about.

And I went home and just experimented and timed and took pictures and watched. I found it makes great cocktails. If you want to make a whiskey sour, a pisco sour. A little bit of aquafaba shaken up in the cocktail does the same thing as egg white, and then I actually went so far as to make macaroons and meringue cookies, and they turned out great. I was really, really impressed. And, you know, you might say, well, what's the flavor like? Very mild. You know, if you were to smell some egg whites, they might have a little bit of a neutral, mild smell. Same thing could be said for the garbanzo water. But when you beat it with a hand mixer, it fluffs up and in five minutes you have stiff, stiff peaks. It's amazing.

GROSS: In your travels around the world, eating high-end food and street food, have you come across any cultures that really are vegetarian or vegan?

LANDAU: A lot of them are places we haven't been yet. Southern India - predominantly vegetarian, and that's next up on our list.

GROSS: Vegetarian or vegan?

LANDAU: Vegetarian for the most part. They use a lot of ghee, which is a clarified butter. So the dishes tend to be a little bit heavy. We find vegan food in the most unlikely places, and places where we thought it would be a breeze to eat, we found it to be very difficult. I can give you two examples. We went to Hong Kong thinking, oh, OK, well, Chinese food is a very easy cuisine to make vegan. The biggest enemy there is stock. You know, in Chinese cuisine chicken stock is everywhere. But if you know what to order and what's traditionally made with it, you know, you can pretty much avoid it. We didn't eat very well in Hong Kong. We had amazing dumplings, you know - they're everywhere. But to dive a little bit deeper into that kind of Chinese melting pot which is, you know, great Hong Kong cuisine, we really struggled a little bit. We ate but we just didn't come away feeling full or inspired.

By contrast, we went to Morocco about two years ago in Marrakesh. And that place was just unbelievably vegan-friendly. The food was absolutely delicious. Next to Japan, I'd rate it as our second best culinary experience. The flavors were just so amazing. It was kind of like Indian food in the sense that they used all these spices, and yet, you never really tasted one spice in the final dish. You tasted this kind of like this, you know, kind of great symbiosis of all these spices working together to make one final beautiful flavor. And the vegetables were so fresh. They were everywhere. Everywhere you walked, you just smelled all this great cooking going on. They loved their food there, and it shows.

GROSS: So when you're in another country and it's not an English-speaking country and you want to order food from a food cart or a restaurant and you need to interrogate the vendor or the waiter about what's in this, how do you do that if you don't speak the language?

JACOBY: You have to prepare (laughter) as much as possible. And the internet helps these days. It's much easier than it used to be. Here's a great example. We were in the Azores, and we were staying in Furnas, and we wanted to have cozido. So cozido is a traditional dish that is prepared in a vessel and then submerged underground to get cooked with geothermal heat. So we go to this little restaurant, and we say - our hotel told us to give you this card. We're looking to have a vegetarian cozido. And they sort of said you just want carrots, potatoes, cabbage. That's the vegetables. I said, yeah, that's exactly what we want. We just want to have that cozido come out and to taste the sulfur that is going to show up in the dish. And they kind of look at us like we're crazy, but they oblige. We go back hours later, and we're served our cozido on this giant platter. It was, like, amazing. We smell all the sulfur, and we get into our plates and start picking through. And we'd say, oh, there's little flecks of pink everywhere. Oh, my goodness, what happened? We don't want to be rude. We don't want to say we can't eat this, but there's little bits of something with this. So we understood that just because we said one thing didn't mean that we were, quote, "safe." Our portion went in with everybody else's portion. It got submerged. It got cooked. It came back out, and the meat and the vegetables all commingled, and we just got the vegetables. So at that point, we're sort of faced with that ethical dilemma. What do we do? We don't want to be rude. We don't want to not eat. We sort of picked as best we could and, you know, sort of finished up. So there have definitely been moments where we can't stop. Like, our ethics drive us and it drives what we do every day, but we still want to get out into the rest of the world. And we don't want to infringe on other people.

GROSS: I'm sure you've been to places that, you know, have food shortages and people are poor.

JACOBY: Yeah.

GROSS: And food is sustenance, and people can't afford to be as ethically rigid.

JACOBY: Yeah.

GROSS: And, like, you eat what you have access to. And if you have access to a cow, of course you're going to have milk. And if beef is the basis of the diet in a country, of course you're going to eat meat.

JACOBY: I think the key is to be respectful and to understand what people's experiences are and to also respect your own experience. For us, this is an evolution, what we've come to and what our choices are. But that doesn't mean that we're out preaching or telling other people how to live.

You know, I don't want people telling me what or how to eat, so I wouldn't do that to anyone else. And I think one thing we found with street food is that in so many cultures around the world, the role that meat plays has been very small. And the peasanty (ph) foods, the most delicious, tasty street foods end up being a lot of doughs and a lot of, you know, small vegetable dishes put together where meat is a celebratory thing that not everyone can indulge in the way Americans do on a giant plate with, like, some kind of eating competition. So I think that we try to respect that whenever we travel.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. They're a married couple who run two vegetable restaurants in Philadelphia. Their street food restaurant is called V Street, and now they have a "V Street" cookbook. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. They run two vegetable restaurants in Philadelphia. One is called Vedge. It's a high-end restaurant. The other is called V Street, and that's a street food-oriented restaurant. They have a new "V Street" cookbook.

There are a lot of people nowadays are allergic to or sensitive to soy and soy-based products as well as nuts. Two of the mainstays for protein are not options for a lot of people. How do you deal with that in your restaurants where people that want to come in, they want the experience, but if a lot of, like - say, the desserts are soy-milk based and a lot of the main courses have some kind of soy or nut in it.

LANDAU: Well, we have menus for almost every allergy. We have - at Vedge, we have an oil-free menu. We have a raw menu. We have a soy-free menu. We have a gluten-free menu that we can actually - rather than have the server just kind of tell you what you can't have and apologizing for what is in the food, we present them with another copy of the menu. You know, Vedge is very much a modern fine dining experience where we're focused on making the guests really happy.

And I think there's something to be said for presenting someone with a menu that kind of lists what you can have without X-marks or leave this off or we'll take this one, you know, we'll adjust this one. And then you have the more intense allergies, such as nuts. We don't use a lot of nuts at Vedge, so that's not an issue. And we can always leave them off. But making the guest feel really good for what they can have and making them feel really good for what they can have I think is the key.

But, yeah, it's a different world nowadays. There's a lot of allergies out there. And, basically, you know, you have to make the decision are you going to be a restaurant that accommodates these allergies and tries your best?

Now, any kitchen has cross-contamination going. I don't care how clean any kitchen is. You cannot - if someone is deathly allergic to peanuts and there's peanuts in a kitchen, you shouldn't be eating there. And it's a restaurant's responsibility to say, I have to tell you, there's peanuts in the kitchen. They're in - two rooms away, and there's a tight lid on them. I get - I think restaurants need to be very accountable about that kind of thing.

But, you know, as long as it's not a death threat or a life-threatening allergy, I - we feel it's our job to give the guests a great dining experience. And we love when someone comes and says, hey, I can only have these nine ingredients. Well, we look at that as the chop challenge of our night, and we kind of make something with whatever we have in-house.

GROSS: So you'll make a special thing?

LANDAU: Absolutely, yeah.

GROSS: It seems to me it's a hard time to be in the restaurant business because of so many people having sensitivities to foods.

JACOBY: I think so much of our culture is very embracing the individual and, you know, celebrating what is unique to you. And I think we do a - hopefully a good job of meeting that because we take ourselves seriously. When we go and we say, hey, we're vegetarian. Is there chicken stock in that soup you just described? It sounds great, but - we want that server to really know, and we want them to tell us the truth. We don't want them to just lie to us and have us eat the chicken soup. So we take that same approach to accommodating people who come in and tell us what their need is. And also, I think with dining it's not just about the food. It's so much about the experience.

GROSS: Kate, one of the things you're responsible for at the restaurants is the drinks - cocktails, wines. Is there an animal-based issue with alcohol?

JACOBY: Believe it or not there is (laughter) so many issues. Yeah, when we first got a liquor license, I volunteered that I would dig into it and realized, you know, what it meant to stock a bar. And my first hurdle came up very quickly about vegan wine. I thought oh, really? I think wine is just grapes. Like what could possibly go wrong here? But in the handling, in the production, there may be instances where wines are fined or filtered with animal products.

So essentially after your juice has fermented, there might be some sediment leftover to get it out so you have a nice, beautiful clean bottle of wine. You might fine it by dropping a fining agent through the wine to collect the sediment or pass it through a filter. And these products might have gelatin or isinglass, which is part of a fish bladder, to collect out that sediment.

The nice news is - for vegans who care about it - is that there are vegan alternatives, using clay or bentonite to do that same process. Or natural winemakers, who we favor, tend to not fine or filter their wines. So it's been easier and easier to figure that out. Other than that - same thing with beer. Fining or filtering is an issue. With distilled spirits, you don't have to worry about that so much. But maybe it's - if a certain scotch has been aged in a certain type of barrel, people can get very, very nitpicky about it. But essentially, we draw the line on fining or filtering.

GROSS: Are you familiar with the expression food porn?

LANDAU: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: What does that mean to you?

LANDAU: Food porn is just, you know, it's something - well, there's two ideas between food porn. One is, of course, that you see a picture of something that's just so ridiculously beautiful and composed and perfect. More often than not, that dish doesn't really taste very good (laughter). And it's amazing how many times we go to a restaurant, and you see the most beautiful plate put in front of you that they spent so much time on with these little flowers and colorful oils. And you eat it and you're like, well, tastes like a bunch of oil and flowers.

You know, and then the other idea of food porn is things that, you know, basically you would - you know, that are never going to happen to you.

(LAUGHTER)

LANDAU: You know, there's - it's something a chef has made. You know, like our - the carrots that we do that are so involved and so - you know, it's just things you would never do at home. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JACOBY: Well, I...

LANDAU: Try to keep that G-rated.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBY: I know that - I think in some sense, too, there's this competition to get your best food porn out there, right? You want to create an addiction, I guess, right? You want people to crave what you're doing, to want to see more. And you just - you want to connect with people. And it's sort of - I don't know - I think people will judge us 10, 15, however many years from now looking back at, like, why didn't they just eat their food? Or they're going to be that much further extreme down the rabbit hole. It's a part of - you know, you're spending this amount of money on this dining experience. And you're documenting it so you can, like, brag about it later or write about it. So I think it's become part of the experience, for better or for worse. But, you know, we try to not obsess over it.

LANDAU: I was also going to say that. You know, food is also very exciting these days. The meal in and of itself has become an experience. And that's a wonderful thing. It's bringing people out to dinner. And it's - who are we to judge if they're filling our restaurant on a Tuesday night? I used to always say back in the '90s when Emeril Lagasse would get up there, who, you know, people mocked at the time for being just so animated and out there and extreme. This is a guy who would say, I'm going to add 10 cloves of garlic to a dish, and the audience erupts in applause.

He got people excited about food. He started to create food as excitement, food as an experience. And that's what it is these days when people are live-tweeting their meal...

JACOBY: Yeah, it's...

LANDAU: ...At the restaurant.

JACOBY: ...Dinner and a show now.

LANDAU: Yeah, it's dinner and a show. Yeah.

GROSS: Rich Landau, Kate Jacoby, thank you to both of you.

JACOBY: Thank you. It's such a pleasure.

LANDAU: Thanks.

GROSS: Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby own the Philadelphia restaurants Vedge and V Street. Both are vegetable restaurants. Their new cookbook "V Street" is inspired by street food they've eaten around the world. Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward tells us about the New Zealand band The Chills. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.