When Chef Jeff Paletz—the right-hand man in the kitchen of Chef Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy Catering—was once doing a massive luncheon in San Francisco, a concerned woman approached him as he was grilling meat.
“Is there anything vegan and gluten-free?” she asked.
Paletz initially offered her a gluten-free pasta tossed in some olive oil and veggies, to which she smiled slightly but not exactly exuberantly. Suddenly, he felt that he was on the mission of any chef: to make for people the food they enjoy. Noticing a small hibachi being used for decoration, he turned it into a mini-vegan grill and, just like the meats he had marinated and prepared, began applying techniques to the vegetables.
“Her face lit up when she was eating her food,” Paletz said. “And I thought to myself: If this isn’t our job as chefs, what is?”
****“The idea that chefs can’t be bothered with accommodations just isn’t a philosophy I live by,” said Chef Paul while plating what he lovingly calls a vegan “grazing table” at the Long Beach Post office. With nothing more than a sink and a counter, he and his team began assembling a mini-version of what they would offer at weddings, office buildings, events, and more.
This massive “table,” laid out on an equally massive slab of wood, is gloriously colored and arranged. Pickled mushrooms and carrots. A lentil pâté that is wondrous: Lentils are cooked by Paletz until they practically have no body, and then a thick dose of porcini mushroom powder is added to create an earthy, creamy vibe. Heirloom tomatoes lay in their naked glory, glittered with bits of salt and drops of basil oil. Rolls of cashew spreads—one layered with achiote and covered in pepitas and another slathered in garlic and dill—that happily defy the graininess found in most cashew cheeses.
But don’t expect anything to be dubbed “faux.” There is no faux meats, faux gras, tofurkey…
“We call it what it is because it’s food,” co-owner Dana Buchanan said. “Like the term ‘vegan chicken’—it’s a bit offensive because that’s not what it is. You will never see Beyond or Impossible burgers because it doesn’t fit our ethos of sticking to as organic of ingredients as possible. We are so removed from the process with which Beyond burgers are made that we simply can’t go along with it. So we do this.”
What this means is food that is really for any diet but caters to the idea that vegans aren’t seeking meat substitutes. Meat substitutes are, for the most part, made for meat eaters seeking to lower their meat intake with something that can “pass.” Primal Alchemy’s crew, in the words of Paletz, know that food “doesn’t need to hide.”
Their seared acorn squash, for example, is slathered in a ssamjang sauce—barbecue-y like, this sweet-and-heat mixture combines fermented bean paste and Korean chili paste—that gives a wonderful sweetness to the smokiness of the charred squash. The result is a hefty, satisfying plate of what many might even call a “meaty” dish.
What these types of offerings have translates into is a new approach to business: From vegan weddings to vegan patrons, Primal Alchemy’s embracing of quality vegan food has created a better sense of connection to Long Beach and beyond.
“We occasionally open our kitchen for dinners,” Paletz said. “The thing that always kinda shocks me is that we’ll put up a vegan menu and the reservations just start coming in. I don’t think any of those dinners have seen less than a third of its attendees order solely vegan.”
It’s those types of things—just “putting a menu out there,” as Dana repeated—that has led to increased business and, perhaps more intriguing, an increased social awareness.
“Over the years, more and more wedding hosts are really caring about and catering to their friends’ diets,” Dana said. “Our menus are already heavily vegetarian so it makes accommodations a simple transition.”
According to Dana, requests for all-vegan-no-exceptions weddings have “increased exponentially.”
“Brides and grooms are becoming more like, ‘The heck with them—this is our wedding!'” Dana said. “And even when the whole event wasn’t vegan, we’ve had meat-and-potatoes peek their head back behind the curtain and say, ‘There really wasn’t one piece of meat in that?’ They really enjoy the food—and that’s what matters.”
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