How the Guru of Plant-Based Cuisine Built His Empire


We sat down in Los Angeles with Matthew Kenney, the planet’s leading raw/vegan chef, to catch a bit of the wisdom he’s acquired from his early days as a hot, New York restaurateur to his current status as the go-to guy for all things plant-based cuisine. 

It was on the heels of a very busy year which saw the openings of a restaurant in Venice, CA, a juice and snack bar in Merida, Yucatan Mexico, a plant-based culinary academy in Thailand, and the release of his memoir, Cooked Raw: How One Celebrity Chef Risked Everything to Change the Way We Eat. The chef’s latest venture, Plant Food + Wine Miami opened this past February. 

Kenney is meticulous, thoughtful and exacting. Like the elevated, beautifully plated and complex dishes he creates, his appearance is sleek, tan and sharp-dressed (in black). He’s the raw foodie’s Johnny Cash. If you want aesthetic proof, check out his Instagram feed–a virtual gallery of vibrant, colorful food, with pictures of his beloved Maine Coon cat, Rumple, looking just as flawless. The New England native’s evolution to the world’s most influential plant-based chef is dramatically documented in his book, divulging his failures, successes and the windy road from mainstream celebrity to businessman, activist, educator and seasoned Ted talker. Frankly, we were riveted for all 236 pages. Here’s a taste of what Kenney has learned along the way.

What was it like growing up in an entrepreneurial family?
My dad was always building–bricks and mortar buildings. He always had a crew around him and they worked cohesively. Simultaneously, he balanced his life. He was able to be with the family, go golfing if he felt like it–and not really separating work. He would sometimes work at night.

Do you think of yourself as a workaholic?
I couldn’t imagine doing it another way. You have to put in the work. Early on, it was imprinted on my mind that’s the only way to do it.

How has –the work’ evolved from culinary school, to your time in the New York restaurant world and to your journey into plant-based food?
The work is different now. I had a big shift when I did my Ted Talks. Having to be present to realize what would resonate with people through verbal communication–I had to be able to do more than just food.

What is the ultimate goal?
Our mission is really to change the way people think about food. I know I can’t do that by myself. Our company desires to be a big part of facilitating that change, so that the bigger chefs in the world and the culinary institutions all realize there doesn’t have to be such a great degree of separation between good health and great food. We’re really trying to shake the tree and show that it can be done successfully. My goal for our company is to build a global lifestyle brand that really does cool projects all over the world. The only way to do this at a level where we want this is to have a team of super talented, passionate people.

So how do you build your tribe?
Sometimes it happens fast. Sometimes it takes a long time. Doing creative, quality work eventually will attract people who are likeminded. I’m not a big networker. I don’t go out at night or to parties. I don’t really reach out to people to have lunch meetings … I just do my thing. And I’ve always been really lucky that I am able to do work that the public or the media takes an interest in. Whether they like it or hate it that’s another story. I think I’ve always had this natural ability to bring attention to the work.

It’s easy to preach to the converted. How do you look at the process of changing minds?
Our restaurants rarely use the word vegan or health that much in our menus. They aren’t labeled gluten free. We’ve taken the position–and it’s how I feel–that this food is the most aesthetically pleasing, best tasting and true gourmet food. So we try not to preach. We are constantly adjusting our message to get people to embrace it.

How does travel impact what you do?
We change our message according to location, community, environment and culture. For the opening in Miami, we are experimenting with food that’s a little bit sweeter, using more fruit, making everything sexier and a little more fun. If we were to do another place like New York City, it would probably be a little more European influenced, a little subtler. Here in Los Angeles it’s based on more local ingredients. In Thailand, we use a lot of Thai coconuts, of course. I’m really into doing plates that are influenced by local, seasonal produce.

What’s next?
We are looking at different projects all over the world at any given time. So we take a good look at the market. We’re doing really high-end, artsy food and we have to think about the best way to introduce people to it. 

How does the raw food lifestyle teach us to be kinder to our bodies?
The proof is in the pudding both in the food and how we enjoy eating it. I want to be healthy for life. If I’m craving sweets I eat ice cream. It just happens to be our ice cream. There’s no compromise. This lifestyle eliminates diet stress. We’re meant to just eat and enjoy and be healthy at the same time. That’s the complicated recipe. 

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Martine Bury is a people person who eats, sleeps and dreams travel. Keep up with her to learn more about who to know, where to go and how to discover the secrets of any destination.