Cheese is a deal breaker.
Even ardent vegetarians will tell you they could go vegan if it weren’t for cheese; there’s just no substitute for its creamy, melty charms.
And because its flavour and texture are so distinctive, a lot of vegan cooking shies away from recipes that would use it, knowing they just aren’t going to taste the same.
Not so at Roughage Eatery, which embraces the challenge of cheese — not to mention the daunting task of recreating all types of meat — on its menu of vegan comfort food that includes "chicken" dumplings, bahn mi sandwiches, pizza subs, nachos with cheeze and even a charcuterie board, all made without animal products of any kind.
"I like to play with meats and cheeses, those flavours that I miss," says chef Jessie Hodel, 34, gesturing to the spread of snacks she’s laid out for our interview, which includes a creamy cashew brie, a spreadable dill havarti and spanakopita stuffed with a tangy almond feta — all of which hew amazingly closely to the real thing.
"Usually one of the things people say is the hardest to give up when going from vegetarian to vegan is cheese… So this is my challenge, especially for Candice, who is a huge cheese lover."
"Candice" is Candice Tonelete, 38, co-owner of Roughage and Hodel’s wife of seven years. The two have been operating as a catering company and doing the occasional pop-up dinner for about 18 months. Now they’re ready to launch a restaurant: Roughage Eatery will open at 126 Sherbrook St., in the space formerly occupied by Khao House, sometime in May, if renovations go as planned.
The licensed space will seat about 10 for lunch and dinner, and will include a takeout counter stocked with to-go items, including Hodel’s vegan cheeses and deli "meats," sandwiches, wraps, salads, hand pies and calzones.
The couple came to veganism later in life. "I think we tried it one New Year’s just because we wanted to make a resolution to eat healthier. Jessie stuck with veganism and I did not," Tonelete says, laughing. "But I’m 90 per cent vegan. Well, 99 per cent. It’s not like I can cook meat in the house, or want to."
Tonelete, who is a full-time graphic designer, calls herself sous chef to the Regina-born Hodel, who worked in IT before becoming a self-taught chef.
She is the culinary visionary, coming up with such items as vegan pepperoni and tocino (Filipino-style bacon).
"I think we looked at three or four different meat recipes and trying to adapt them with a tofu or seitan or some kind of vegetable that would give that texture," she says of the tocino, which was taste-tested by Tonelete’s Filipino family.
"We ended up winning it with tofu that’s been manipulated in multiple ways and then marinated. The whole process to make the tocino is three to five days, but it’s all tita (auntie) and lola (grandma) approved."
Hodel makes everything from scratch and is dedicated to expanding the culinary options available to vegans, who are often stuck with salads when dining out.
"I don’t want to say that salads are not a part of our menu, but anyone can make a salad at home; you can buy those ingredients easily," she says. "Being vegan in Winnipeg, there was just a lack of diversity.
"I don’t just want tofurkey slices on some bread. I don’t want a burger, I don’t want a stir-fry. There’s so many more things we can do."
FP: The path from IT to professional chef is not a common one. How did that happen?
JH: I guess what made me want to quit my job and pursue a passion was when my dad passed away. In the last five or six years, my stepdad died and then (Candice’s) dad died and then a year or two ago, my dad died. I was so sick of that.
You know, life can be so short, it can end at any time — both our dads died very young — and I was like, why am I suffering and making myself miserable going in to work and being harassed? So I started cooking more and offering it to people. "Is it good?" "Yeah, it’s good... for vegan food." No, I want it to be good in general.
It was always kind of a retirement plan to open a bed and breakfast and feed people. That push and drive came from thinking, "I could die tomorrow and I don’t want to be sitting in an office with a bunch of computer nerds."
I mean, I’m totally a computer geek at heart and I love technology and learning new things, but that’s also what’s fun about vegan food — no one’s doing this in Winnipeg, especially not at this calibre.
FP: Veganism is increasingly popular, but it’s still considered kind of a niche diet. Do you think there’s a big enough market to sustain a vegan-only restaurant?
CT: Absolutely. We get asked every day, "When are you going to open a restaurant?" Because there’s Boon Burger, but people want more, a sit-down dinner with a whole menu. We go to markets and we sell out.
FP: Have there been hurdles to getting non-vegans to accept food that mimics meat?
JH: Lots of people, when they put it in their mouth, they’re like (makes grossed-out face). "Ew, tofu." But then they start chewing and they’re like, "Whaaaaat? How did you get that texture? How did you get that flavour?"
CT: We get that face every time, and then our samples will definitely change their minds.
FP: What is your most popular, most requested dish?
JH: And a lot of the cheeses and Filipino food we do, the tocino and siopao (stuffed steamed buns). I make a homemade seitan and then I infuse it with an adobo sauce that I make. I use oyster mushrooms in more adobo, and sweet siopao dough. They’re steamed and served with a sweet chili sauce I make.
FP: Is there a food you won’t eat (other than animal products)?
JH: I really don’t care for onions but I use them all the time. They add so much extra depth to all the food.
CT: I don’t like peaches. I think that’s the only thing.
FP: What dish would you make to win over a child?
JH: We make some pretty mean chicken wings, seitan wings, that I think are pretty realistic. My nephews and nieces will eat them. And our calzones.
CT: We tell them they’re pizza pops. They can’t tell the difference. We sold pizza buns at Festival (du Voyageur) and a lot of parents would get them for their kids and didn’t tell them it was meat-free.
FP: What ingredient is always in your fridge or pantry?
JH: Nutritional yeast. Pounds upon pounds of nutritional yeast.
FP: What about beverages?
CT: Soy milk and almond milk. If someone comes over, all we have to offer is water or milk.
JH: And beer. I love beer. Barnhammer and Little Brown Jug and Trans Canada always have vegan options.
FP: What’s your guilty pleasure?
CT: Pizza. Always pizza. We go to Slices on Stafford; I’ll get a veggie pizza (with real cheese) and Jessie will get a pizza with no cheese.
JH: I’ll take it home and add my own toppings.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.