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When Playing it Safe is Too Risky – Interview with Rich Landau – Diamond Culinary Academy
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When Playing it Safe is Too Risky – Interview with Rich Landau

Rich Landau is chef and co-owner, with his wife Kate Jacoby, of the acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant Vedge. Opened in 2011, the restaurant doesn’t just showcase vegetables. Landau’s wildly creative menu is exclusively vegan—no animal products allowed.

You are obviously a risk taker with your restaurant concept. What’s the difference between a calculated risk and a foolish risk?

The bigger risk is to play it safe and do what everybody else is doing. My driving force has always been to do something that didn’t exist. My safety zone is that I don’t think people care that it’s vegan provided you give them a great meal.

Anyone you consider a significant mentor in your culinary career?

My biggest influence growing up was Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet from the 1960s. He cooked all this rich French food—the butter, the cream, the eggs! The original hipster diet. Then his wife had some health issues and he completely cleaned up his act. But his theory was that if you take all the fun stuff out, you’ve got to replace it with something. You have to put back flavor and color and sparkle. That’s what started me on the idea that vegan food didn’t have to be “health food.”

I used to be a bartender at a restaurant called Sonoma. It was light-years ahead of its time in Philadelphia. The owner had worked in Sonoma and fell in love with the freshness and quality of the produce, and he opened this restaurant influenced by the Northern California lifestyle. I thought it was fascinating—just standout-quality products that needed very little to make them sing.

So many chefs try too hard. Are you trying to impress your chef buddies? Or are you cooking for your customers? If you’re cooking for your ego, you’re going to fail. Forget about impressing your chef buddies. They’ll be impressed when your restaurant is full. They don’t need to see your fried artichoke escabeche topped with fried peppers and exotic oils and mushroom nage.

The French say that an omelet is the true test of a chef. For me, it’s risotto. There’s that 40-second window when it is just perfect. It’s good practice to make risotto now and then because you can create perfection with something so simple: really good stock, the right amount of seasoning and the right amount of stirring.

Chef Landau’s Potato "Scallops" with Mediterranean Caper and Tomato Sauce.
Chef Landau’s Potato "Scallops" with Mediterranean Caper and Tomato Sauce.

Do you believe that failure makes you stronger?

We definitely had ups and downs over the years. With my first menu, like any young chef, I was trying too hard. I put too much on the menu. I was the greatest and everybody had to taste everything I could do. It was a colossal mistake.

I wish someone had shaken me and said, “Dial it back. Put five things on the menu. If you have more to say, change the menu the next day.” I wish I could go back in time because that was one big nightmare for me. Nothing I did was really perfect because I was trying to do so much. There’s wisdom in being practical about what you can do with the ingredients you have and the people you have.

The biggest crash in my career was dumping all the cash I had into an expansion of Horizons in 2001, right before 9/11. And it was brutal after that. I had to ask my dad to lend me money to make payroll.

Philadelphia restaurant, Vedge, is helping define today’s vegan cooking, making vegetables exciting and satisfying.
Philadelphia restaurant, Vedge, is helping define today’s vegan cooking, making vegetables exciting and satisfying.

Lessons learned?

Go into every situation expecting some hardship, some little bit of failure. You have to be positive and think, “This will succeed,” but you have to have a backup plan because anything could happen. I was a little too reckless.

What advice do you have about building a résumé? Better to stay in one place for a while or to move around?

I read résumés where people have spent six months to a year in each place, and I rarely hire those people. They’re going to become un-hirable after a while. I highly recommend staying in one place and evolving with the restaurant. Become part of a team and live the triumphs with the team. The most important part of cooking is having that family, that support.

Any tips for a new hire in your kitchen?

Work very hard. Don’t be cocky. Ask the right questions. I don’t need a robot; I want somebody who’s involved, enthusiastic. Leave the complaining at the door. Yes, the job has long hours and some of it is monotonous. That’s not going to change in this business. I want people who recognize the beauty of the job and appreciate the simple pleasure of feeding people.

Some young people don’t have a mentor in their lives. Any advice about finding one?

I don’t think a mentor needs to be there in flesh and blood. A mentor can be the spirit of a great chef, dead or alive. You can lose yourself in the cookbooks of the great old chefs who speak to you about their passion. It’s almost like religion. You have to have those kinds of voices in your life, the voices that prevent you from making terrible mistakes.

I believe in hanging out with people who are smarter and more successful than you are. They will take you where you need to go.