Roberto Martin never planned on being a vegan chef. And even a call from long-time vegan (and big-time talk show host) Ellen Degeneres asking him to be her family’s personal chef wasn’t going to change that.
“I was this close to saying ‘Thank you, but no thank you,'” Martin says. “But then my son heard me saying to my wife, ‘I don’t think I can cook vegan food.’ He said, ‘Dad, you can cook anything.’ At that point, I half teared up, and I knew I had to give it a shot.”
Fast-foward six years, nine appearances on The Ellen Degeneres Show, and a cookbook later, and the now celeb vegan chef plans to open his very first restaurant, called Elevate, in Santa Monica this spring. And it will be 100 percent vegan and organic, he says.
After attending The Culinary Institute of America in 2001, Martin became a personal chef focusing on “fun healthy cuisine that’s not spa food,” he jokes, and it drew clients like Tom Cruise to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver. But it was his take on vegan cuisine, which he refined while working for Degeneres and Portia De Rossi from 2009 to 2012, where he truly blossomed.
“My approach to vegan food was very different,” he says. “They were used to life-coach-yogi-vegan chefs, but they just wanted food. I cooked vegan food like a non-vegan chef by substituting the protein. They were ecstatic.” Degeneres was instrumental in securing his first cookbook deal, Vegan Cooking for Carnivores, he says, and getting giving him a national platform. (Big vegetarian food brands also tap him often, like Gardein, which hired him to make faux meat shine at a recent event.)
With Elevate, there will be a similar theme to the food he served Ellen and Portia: “It’s in the vein of vegan cooking for carnivores,” he says of the menu that he’s currently developing. “We understand that most people aren’t going to go vegan. What’s happened is that there are a growing number of people who are more than happy to have a phenomenal vegan dinner, and go have chicken the next day.” It’s contemporary American food “that happens to be vegan.” Think marinated chickpea burgers and braised daikon “scallops.” And at the bar, green juice martinis will be served alongside smoothies.
Meanwhile, Martin’s been working away at his second cookbook, Roberto’s New Vegan Cooking, which will debut alongside the restaurant. Whip up this recipe from his new book below—and get a taste of what’s coming. —Jamie McKillop
Blackened Plum Tomatoes over Cucumber and Fennel Salad
(Makes four servings)
4 really firm plum (roma) tomatoes
4 Tbsp Cajun blackening spice
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) or as needed
3 Tbsp sugar
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
3 hot house cucumbers, peeled
2 large fennel bulbs, trimmed
1⁄4 cup pickled ginger (2 oz.), minced
1⁄2 bunch scallions, green parts only, sliced very thin on the bias
1⁄2 bunch fresh mint leaves, stacked and sliced into thin ribbons
10 large basil leaves, stacked and sliced into thin ribbons
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, as needed
Slice the tomatoes into quarter-inch slices and discard the end pieces or save them for stock. Pat the tomato slices dry with paper towels and season them generously with blackening spice. Place the tomatoes in a single layer on a large plate. (Use more than one plate if necessary.)
Heat a large cast iron pan or skillet over high heat and sprinkle it with kosher salt. When the pan is hot, add 1.5 tablespoons of EVOO and wait until the oil shimmers. It’s important that the oil is hot or the spices will stick to the pan and the tomatoes will be bare, and that’s no bueno! Carefully place the tomatoes in the pan and blacken both sides for only two minutes per side. Using a spatula or a pair of tongs, return the tomatoes to the large plate and allow them to cool. Use the rest of the olive oil to blacken the remaining tomatoes. When the tomatoes are no longer hot, place them in the refrigerator to chill.
In a large bowl, whisk the sugar and vinegar until the sugar is dissolved. Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, slice the cucumbers crosswise very thin. Add them to the vinegar mixture. Slice the fennel bulbs in the same fashion and add them to the cucumbers. Add the pickled ginger, scallions, fresh mint, basil leaves, and combine thoroughly. Season the salad with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Cover the bowl and place it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to two hours.
Drain the liquid from the cucumber and fennel salad in a colander. Squeeze the salad firmly with paper towels to remove as much of the liquid as possible. Mound one-fourth of the cucumber and fennel salad in the center of a cold, medium-sized plate. Bank one-fourth of the blackened tomatoes on the mound of cucumber fennel salad. Garnish with sauce of your choice. Salad and tomatoes are good for up to four days refrigerated.