Chef Tanya Petrovna, who is a native of the desert, opened her first vegetarian restaurant in 1990 in Palm Springs.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY CHEF TANYA PETROVNA
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Are you a strict vegetarian?’ “My reply to them is, ‘Well, I'm a fun one,’” says Chef Tanya Petrovna about being vegan.
Petrovna’s experiences, dating back to 1990 when she first opened a vegetarian restaurant in Palm Springs, told her people assume eating vegan means a required lifestyle change. “I just want them to have a good meal,” she adds.
It was Tanya Petrovna’s mom who inspired her to become a chef. Cooking and creating delicious meals was her passion, and she loved to cook. When she turned 18, Chef Tanya combined her natural passion for animals and the environment and at first became a vegetarian (excluding meat, poultry, fish, and seafood), and later a vegan (exclude all meat and animal products).
At college, Petrovna learned about the two major foods that she sells today —Tempeh and Seitan. “People would always challenge me and ask those questions, ‘Oh, but what do you eat? Vegetables? That’s boring,’” she says. “I knew from growing up, we ate lots of vegetables and they were delicious. Most of the flavor didn't come from the meat; it came from the garden, the seasonings, and the spices.”
Chef Tanya will share more of her story during the free Palm Desert Food & Wine virtual cooking demonstration, “Full Moon Vegan” on Oct. 6. For tickets, visit palmdesertfoodandwine.com. She will also appear at the annual food and wine festival, March 25-27, 2022.
She will prepare an all-Hollow’s Eve themed vegan feast featuring “Transylvanian Ghoulash” and “Road Kill Cobbler.” Palm Springs Life spoke further with Chef Tanya about her passion for food and where she finds inspiration.
What kept you motivated to move on with plant-based food? Was there a time when you thought of changing your career?
No. I was always a plant-based chef. I just went right into it. At 18, I became a vegetarian. I was always eating that way. In 1990 I started my first restaurant. I had a little organic dairy, but even then I was trying to show people it's a condiment; it's not a main course.
What inspired you to start a vegan restaurant back in the ‘90s? How did you wind up in the desert?
I was from the desert originally and I came back. I thought, 'If I was willing to do this, it's easy in your hometown where you know people.'
Everybody might think you're crazy, but your friends and family will at least give you a chance. It feels good, if you exceed expectations, then you have a loyal customer. That's just how it started. I chose Palm Springs; it was easy. It’s been home since the womb. It was definitely a challenge, but I learned how to do everything.
What keeps you fascinated in creating vegan gourmet food?
People always ask, "Where do the ideas come from?" I think that's a divine thing often. It usually happens when I'm gardening or doing something. But sometimes it can be as simple as listening to the radio and hearing a fast food commercial. Then I think, "I want to make that, what would I put in there?" I'd like to give something new with something familiar to people. Some of my ideas came from traveling. That's where the basis for my first restaurant came from. I lived in Asia for a year. I've traveled all over Europe. I just love South American influences. It's just, "Wow, what's this?"
What dishes will you prepare during your virtual demo?
I love Halloween. The main course will be the "Transylvanian Ghoulash”. I always thought it's a little fun to do a parody of a meat style dish sometimes. It is usually spelled g o u l a s h, but I am spelling it “Ghoulash”. Goulash is a Hungarian dish, but Transylvania is close and they have goulash there as well. We're going to have gourmet flavors that have fun names. I like to have fun with the food. Halloween really inspired me with the name for the dessert. I call it "Road Kill Cobbler". I'll mix apples and cherries together because Halloween is about that dark side.
What do you like most about those dishes?
In the goulash, I love the sauerkraut. I put a little bit in that dish and have the sauerkraut implement lots of that umami flavor and balance that people often look for in meat. It just tastes good. I like that, now that's fall, all the yellow and orange vegetables. Every season provides some kind of nutrition for our bodies to store.
What advice would you give people who want to try eating healthier but are insecure about where to start?
I suggest people just try one vegan or vegetarian meal a week. And don't give up the first time. We don't like everything we eat, even with meat, even if it's not vegetarian. Sometimes there is a meal that one doesn’t like. Don't give up. Try other choices. I also suggest don't try to convert yourself right away, just try to have it once a week, twice a week. When you start to crave it naturally because it's delicious and because you feel good, and then just let it flow. Don't be so hard on yourself. People are very hard on themselves. What did I eat? Why did I eat that? And is this good for me? And you can't put stress on when you eat food. It's a joyous occasion.