When one of my chefs tells me about a place I just "have to try", I go running. I couldn't wait to speak with John Lenhard, Culinary Team Leader at Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, because my fascination with the vegan lifestyle. I am awed by the skill and knowledge that executing vegan fare takes, let along the discipline when leading the lifestyle. Some of my Chefs and colleagues challenged this statement triggering a few debates. When it comes down to it my only real question is, how do they do it?
Are you vegan?
I have been vegan almost 21 years. I read a book by John Robbins, Diet For A New America, and I realized that I didn't have to take a life to sustain my life.
Are you trained as a vegan chef?
I was actually a latchkey kid in the 70s and 80s. My sister and I would make dinner, so I would call my granmother for recipes and that's pretty much how I learned to cook. I became vegetarian in 1989 and the products weren't available at Publix like they are now. So I had to start experiementing.
Are you able to create a dish in the typical format, from recipe to ingredients? Or do you find you have to start with ingredients and develop the recipe?
Well, it works both ways. Sometimes I'll first determine the ingredients to make the dish. Sublime is very innovative, we don't make mock meat dishes. We have a Piccatta dish that's amazing and people some times swear it has meat in it. But we just using amazing products and techniques to create great food. We are here for animal rights and to make people understand their impact on the world.
What is Gardein?
It's a soy protein. We can get it in different shapes and textures make different dishes. For the Piccatta, we use a "chicken" cut that's made with peas, carrots, and spices. It's like making a veggie burger, if you put those ingredients in a grinder you come up with a great tasting product. People swear it's meat.
Please tell me about your "cheeses"?
There's actually tapioca in the cheese which helps it to melt very well and gives it a great flavor.
Can you tell me about your technique of making your "cheeses"?
We use different probiotics to age them. There's different techniques to fermenting them as well. I can't give away all our secrets (coyly smiling) but we aren't able to make all our "cheeses" here. We get an incredible cheddar and mozzarella style, things that you can't find any where else. But Whole Foods do have some similiar things.
What is something on the menu that people are surprised to find?
The Piccatta and the Enchiladas surprise people, they just don't expect them. I'm from the midwest, where they think vegetarian food is all steamed vegetables. Like our Frito Misto is something that people are surprised by. It's probably the best cauliflower dish I've ever had and I don't normally like cauliflower. If I saw a vegetable plate with raw cauliflower on it, I'd go right by it.
Speaking of your Frito Misto, I've been trying to figure out how you do it without any egg or milk?
We use a rice flower which gives it a great crispyness. Then we dip it into a "liquid" (coyly smiling again) and fry it. It's almost like a tempura batter. We aren't low calorie, we are here promoting animal right and a plant based diet but we don't do health or diet food.
Do you need special equipment in your kitchen? Or perhaps something you don't use in your kitchen others might?
(Laughing) There's nothing back there as a vegan kitchen that other kitchens don't have. We do have a pasta maker to make our own pasta. But it's a pretty typical line.
What's it like working with your proteins? Are they like chicken, where you can do anything with them?
Somethings, like tempeh and tofu depending on the marinade and texture. Tempeh is a misunderstood protein. Tofu can come in several consistencies. We use silken tofu in pasta but use the extra firm in "steak" and bar-b-que. The texture does play a big part in it. If we were catering to just vegans it wouldn't matter, they would probably love anything we'd create for them. But since we are catering to people who typically are on a meat based diet it's important to have the right textures, consistency and using the right techinques with the different proteins.
How do you bake for a vegan lifestyle? What are your baking techniques?
There's an organic shortening we use in a lot of our pastry. But we had to experiment to find the right way to do it. We do use icings and dark chocolate. I try to find a lot of quality and organic ingredients. I look at cookbooks, menus, and talk to people. I take bits and pieces of what does work. Like right now, I'm trying to make a "parmesan". I haven't been able to get it to age. We aren't cheesemakers but we do make a great cashew cheese. I'm using those techniques for the parmesan but I just haven't gotten it to age right.
Do you find people are coming to Sublime because it's vegan or because the reputation of the food?
Reputation. Maybe one person in a party is vegan but people come to try the food. People are thinking of it as cuisine, not health food. Maybe they aren't converting to vegetarianism but they are trying it. Like Italian or Chinese, people are seeing it as a cuisine.
Do you use a lot of local vegetables?
We do with specials and soups. But like artichokes, the growing seasons change depending on where you are but items are still available in other parts of the country. With the volume we do it's hard to use only local and seasonal veg.
So you do high volume?
Well because people are more educated now. If you go back 5 years even, now Publix has a whole organic section. Go back even 15-20 years. We have healthy option but our food isn't minus calories. It's not just vegan, it's cuisine.
What do you think about people who say they're vegetarian but still eat animal products?
I find it fascinating. It's like saying I drive a porche but it's a mazda. What Nanci wants for this restaurant is people to understand that they can make a difference in the world one meal at a time. For us, knowing about the restaurant and animal rights is what it's about. Like we don't allow balloons in the restaurant because if a balloon is let go and pops an animal might see the pieces, eat and choke on them. We aren't trying to change people people but get them to think about things.
Do you think you could work in another type of kitchen?
When you have that sort of positive energy I don't think I could or would want to go any where else. Nanci keeps this place going with her generosity. We recycle, I was composting when you came by. I use the kitchen scrapes and Nanci takes the bigger leftovers to an animal shelter out west. We recycle. Any little shift in someones thought can change the world. For years I've been trying to get my dad to recycle. One day my nephew says something like "you're killing the earth" and he like that he starts. Just cause something my nephew said.
What kind of food do you eat?
I eat a lot of oatmeal more than anything else (laughing). I eat a lot here, steamed vegetables and unprocessed things.
What's your favorite time of year for food?
Summer is one of the best times of year. Everywhere is growing season, mushrooms our of the Northeast. Things are more easily available and more variety of things, you know there's 40 variety of mushrooms? It's not the typical portobellas and button mushrooms but all kinds. We also grow in the summer. Up on top of the building, at my house, all sorts of herbs.
What's your favorite ingredient to use in the restaurant?
One ingredients would be peppers. They can be in any dish, they can be sweet or hot. Scotch bonnets give a great kick to any dish. They add texture and flavor.
Why don't you have the typical vegan dishes on the menu? Hummus, babaganoush, etc?
If we catered to just vegans, we would do those dishes. Vegans would love anything we had to offer. But we want to entice those people on a meat based diet. It's like anything else. We try to make the food tasty, amazing and not think about the time that goes into making it. We want to satisfy people, not convert them.