November 16, 2009
Horizons Chef Makes History
Richard Landau puts vegan cuisine on the menu for the first time at the James Beard House in New York
by Gail Berrigan
When a chef from Philadelphia is invited to cook at a landmark culinary establishment in New York City, it’s news. When the 5-course gourmet meal—each course paired with wine—is the first strictly vegetarian dinner ever served there, it’s historic. And when guests attending the dinner don’t realize the food is vegan—well, that’s something of a coup.
Richard Landau, who along with his wife, Kate Jacoby, is chef and co-owner of Horizons restaurant in Philadelphia, has been earning widespread accolades for his food and winning over diners—vegetarians and omnivores alike—for many years. On a recent Tuesday night, Rich was in the kitchen of the James Beard House, where along with dinner, he was making culinary history.
The James Beard House: Celebrating America’s Distinct Culinary Heritage
It’s easy to walk past the townhouse in Greenwich Village and not notice it. But behind the unassuming façade of the James Beard House (JBH) have passed the most famous names in 20th century American food: Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Wolfgang Puck, Eric Ripert, Ruth Reichl, Julia Child… these are just a few of those honored by the James Beard Foundation, which annually establishes the culinary equivalent of the Oscars.
During his lifetime, James Beard—who lived at the house on 12th St.—became known for embracing and helping to define a distinctly American style of cooking. His signature style is “good food, honestly prepared with fresh, wholesome, American ingredients” and his name has become synonymous with culinary excellence. After Beard’s death in 1985, friends established the James Beard House to honor and continue his tradition of “celebrating, nurturing and preserving America’s culinary heritage” by hosting meals prepared by great chefs from outside the New York metro area, at the same time showcasing the talents of emerging chefs.
A Commitment to Compassionate Eating
The emergence of Rich Landau—along with his upscale vegan cuisine—as a culinary leader should come as a relief to Americans searching for ways to eat more compassionately and avoid diseases associated with a diet heavy in animal products. Some, like the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman see a switch to more vegetarian foods as a cause to celebrate. Indeed, Bittman’s approach has led him to explore and experiment with recipes in ways that seem to inspire his natural exuberance for food (see the recent Faux Ma Po Tofu). The Humane Society of the United States endorses this approach as a way to encourage the 3 R’s of humane eating: “reduce, refine and replace” animal products.
Rich was influenced to become vegetarian at a young age by his mother, who was a proponent of animal rights. He is a self-taught chef whose passion for improving vegetarian cooking has driven him to master the techniques of cooking. His commitment to offering vegetarian options is sincere. According to his sister, Suzanne, who came up from Philadelphia for the JBH event along with other family members, Rich started his professional career selling veggie dogs from a cart at a strip mall.
With an award-winning restaurant in Philadelphia—Horizons was named by the New York Times as one of Philadelphia's Best New Restaurants—and a second cookbook out called Horizons: New Vegan Cuisine, Rich has come a long way from selling veggie dogs. Indeed today, Rich is eminently qualified to convince those in doubt that vegetarian food can be as sophisticated and artful as any American cuisine.
Dinner started with portobello carpaccio: wafer-thin slices of mushroom seasoned with peppercorns and served with a rosemary mustard sauce, paired with a dollop of butternut squash bread pudding. This mushroom—resembling nothing of the rubbery sandwich served ubiquitously as the token vegetarian mainstay on non-vegetarian menus—had a shimmering, succulent quality.
Next up: fennel-cauliflower bisque sweetened with sherry and suffused with saffron. Served initially as an artful mound of light-colored vegetables topped with crostini, this dish sprang to life as wait staff filled each bowl individually at the table with a pumpkin-colored puree.
A ravioli made of caramelized celery root followed, topped with royal trumpet mushrooms and served with charred brussel sprouts and a sage-mustard emulsion.
When the entrée came, after three exquisite courses (plus an initial melt-in-your-mouth tasting dish of smoked eggplant), the cumulative themes of the evening showed a clear master plan—and technical mastery of cooking. The salt-roasted beets, served with peppercorn-crusted tofu and leek and parsnip purée, were particularly impressive, the translucent pale pink-orange of the beets reminiscent of Indian silk.
The dessert, a mousse-style pumpkin cheesecake accented with a spoonful of quince jam and chestnut candy, was creamy enough to satisfy even the most indulgent tastes.
“We’re not vegan…but that was fabulous.”
After dinner, Rich and his restaurant staff took questions from the audience. The sold-out crowd ran the gamut from staunch vegans to health-conscious eaters to devotees of the James Beard House willing to try something new. Reactions were overwhelmingly positive.
Christina and Steve Moriconi came from Philadelphia to show their support for Rich and Kate. An animal lover, Ms. Moriconi described the challenge of being the only vegetarian in her family and her struggles to get the rest of her family on board. Eating at Horizons helped—a lot. Her husband Steve agreed. “When I first went to Horizons, I was really skeptical. I’m a carnivore. But I was really surprised and impressed by the food,” he said. Added Christina, “New York City is a very vegetarian-friendly place. Philly is a meat-eating city. But Rich’s restaurant blows everyone away.”
A trio of 20-something women had come on behalf of the one vegetarian in their midst; this dinner was their birthday gift to her. “David Chang did a [vegetarian but not vegan] dinner here…” one of them remarked. “But this is more intense, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Another diner commented that he had never seen vegetarian food of this caliber.
Indeed, no one appeared to be disappointed, though some were surprised when JBH event host Victoria Jordan announced in closing that the meal had been entirely vegan, including the wines—a first for the establishment. Rich repeated to disbelieving diners that the meal had been prepared entirely without butter or cream. It was easy to understand how guests might have been confused.
Perhaps the best compliment of all came from the guest who said, “We’re not vegan or vegetarian, but that was fabulous.”
As the name of their restaurant in Philadelphia suggests, Richard Landau and Kate Jacoby are changing the face not only of vegetarian cooking but American cuisine. And as the historic dinner at the James Beard House attests, they are bringing on board skeptics and rewriting the rules, one bite of black olive blini with truffle cream and seaweed caviar at a time.
See complete menu of the dinner at the James Beard House and read more about Horizons restaurant. For more about the James Beard Foundation, visit jamesbeard.org.