The cheese plate at M.A.K.E., a raw restaurant located at The Market inside Santa Monica Place, features not only some of the absolute best vegan cheese in Los Angeles — it's some of the best vegan cheese anywhere.
Sure, the bar for vegan cheese is pretty low, thanks to a variety of store-bought brands that either smell funny, don't melt, taste horrific or all of the above. But this bad reputation has nothing to do with what's going on at M.A.K.E., where owner Matthew Kenney says the "keep is simple, stupid" mantra is what allows for an array of delicious nut-based cheeses.
By keeping the ingredients simple, Kenney says, customers can enjoy nut-based cheddar and truffle cheese — while wondering how the hell fake cheese can maintain the texture, profile and consistency of "real" cheese, and taste amazingly good. Naturally, we had to go ask the chef exactly how he does this.
Squid Ink: I've been vegan for about 10 years, so it's hard for me to say your cheese tastes just like "real" cheese, but it has a consistency that really reminded me of cheese. How do you do that?
Matthew Kenney: It's pretty straightforward; we published this in our latest book, Plant Food. We can do it with cashews and macadamia. Nuts without skins are the best — they process a little better. We soak the nuts over night to soften them and then we'll blend them with water and a probiotic capsule to make it very smooth. Then we'll transfer that to a strainer and cheese cloth so we can let the excess liquid drain. We put a weight on it so we really get that liquid out. The probiotic reacts overnight and it starts to ferment.
After 24 hours, it starts to get that sour, fermented aroma and once it has, then you can open the cheese and the inside will have air pockets that are a little sponge-y. At that point, you can mold it and flavor it. For example, we'll add truffle and salt to that cheese and we'll mold it into a ring mold and let it sit for at least 48 hours.
You can eventually remove the mold and refrigerate it. We did a test on one that was aged for six months. It got really firm. The fermentation process is really fast. Not to have a lot of proteins and enzymes that milk has, so it's just a chemical or scientific process that we've stumbled onto and we're really happy about.
SI: So the process takes about two days?
MK: That's a really young cheese. To do the 48-hour cheese, you have to finish in the dehydrator for five or six hours to give it a little bit of a rind. I would rather age it for a month, but you can do it in 48 hours if at the end you dehydrate it at 100 degrees.
SI: So the cheeses you're serving — are they aged for a month?
MK: Yeah. Usually three to four weeks. It varies. We go through them as fast as we can make them because we don't have a big production.
SI: Do you rotate the cheeses or are they always the same?
MK: We change them a little. Our smoked cheddar, truffle and herbs are kind of the mainstays, but we've done black pepper, rosemary and different ones. What changes the most are the condiments. Scott, our director of culinary, is so passionate about The Market — we all are — that if kumquats are in season we might do a pickled kumquat. Or if plums or some type of stone fruits are in season, we might do some type of relish for that. Or we might change the flatbread. Or do spicy mustard instead of a chutney.
There's just unlimited examples of variations we do to supplement it, but these cheeses themselves, they largely stay the same. I'm more of a purist. I'd rather keep the cheeses consistent and change the garnishes seasonally.
SI: Why's that? Why are you a purist?
MK: Cheese is pretty pure, if you think about it. The great cheeses — Parmesan, mozzarella — are more about their texture, their aging process and the type of milk you use, rather than infusing a lot of weird flavors into them. Because our cheeses are all based on nut milk, I'd rather do maybe a Macadamia cheese or a Brazil nut cheese.
When I say I'm a purist, I mean not putting a lot of things into it. It's more about the texture, the aging process, the salt, how it's stored and handled. These are great, even on their own, and I like people to experience that.
SI: What are you doing differently than store-bought vegan cheeses?
MK: The store-bought cheeses are either soy-based or have some kind of genetically-modified fats involved in them, and a lot of preservatives. Even ones that are nut-based are often made from nut milk — and that's just not going to produce the same quality product. The real fat in the nuts is what gives it that richness and creaminess. We also don't add anything to it. I think it's the purity. It's one of those things like "keep it simple, stupid."
SI: How popular is the cheese plate?
MK: Pretty popular. A lot of our tables get it. People comment on it and we teach it in both our level one and level two classes. It's a big part of their curriculum, so the third Friday they present their cheese plate. The students really love it. I think it's really popular because if you hear from vegans, 60 to 70 percent of the time, they say the hardest thing to give up was cheese. And also, because it's good and beautiful. It's popular, and becoming more and more so.
SI: Is the cheese difficult for students to make? Do I need a degree in science to do it? Or can the average person follow the recipe and more or less get it?
MK: We simplified it in Plant Food — it's really easy. I'd love to say it's complicated and you need to be a NASA engineer, but you don't.
SI: What's your favorite cheese and why?
MK: Probably the truffle. It depends on what I'm having it with. If I'm having it with a salad, that would be fine. But if I'm having it on a taco at home, I might have some cheddar because it's smokey.
SI: What pairs well with the cheeses?
MK: The truffle goes well with fennel or celery. Something clean. I often get a cheese plate and then I'll have a lighter dish after. I like the cheddar with spicy flavors, so sometimes I'll bring it home and make tacos at home with summer vegetables, sprouted corn tacos, cheese and hot sauce. It's such a great meal.
See also: Besha Rodell's review of M.A.K.E.
SI: Why aren't more vegans — and people in general — searching out more natural, raw-based foods instead of pre-made, microwaved stuff like veggie burgers?
MK: None of our restaurants use any of that. We don't use soy or meat-replacement products. We have a few things we create similar like the cheeses. That cheese product should be in Whole Foods in a couple of months, but it won't be called "cheese." It's going to be called the name of the flavor. We're not using the word "cheese" at all. It's been my goal for many years never to use the word "burger" or anything that refers to a dairy product. The transition of the consumer has taken awhile.
We like to call things by their ingredients — squash blossoms, heirloom tomatoes, peaches. That's what you say if you're getting a steak — you say steak, potatoes and cauliflower — so I'm not ashamed to say wood-roasted shiitake mushrooms with heirloom beets. I think that's great and that's where we're going with it and that's where the future is. That said, I do know a lot of successful businesses and brands do use those products and there's a place for them because there's a transitional crowd. But for pure nutrition and culinary art, I don't incorporate those items.
SI: What sort of response do you get from other chefs? Do they think you're nuts?
MK: Ten years ago, I would read an article and the comments would be "crazy vegan Matthew Kenney" or snide mockery. Over time, that's shifted to the point where now we get calls from some of the biggest culinary companies in the world. Some of the chefs I was colleagues with who sort of rolled their eyes have come around and think plant-based cuisine is the future. I think you're starting to see a lot of chefs recognize that.
SI: As chefs come around, do the consumers come around?
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MK: That's been my strategy forever, so I'm glad you asked. Thank you. Nobody ever asks that way. Most of the people in my market, their strategy over the years has been to do it for passion, which we do, but also to scare the consumer, showing videos of the farms and things like that.
I always thought that helps, but I think more importantly, people are pleasure-seekers and the only way to really change the way the world eats is to give people food that tastes great and that looks beautiful that makes them feel better than they would otherwise. You have to hit on all three points and in order to do that, it can't just be one or two restaurants. There has to be a shift in the culinary world.