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Mohawk Bend's Chef Mike Garber On Inventive Animal-Free Cooking

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In honor of National Vegetarian Awareness Week, LAist is running a series of features and Q & As with our city's most prominent meat-free personalities. Stay tuned throughout the week for more.

A new favorite among vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike, Echo Park's Mohawk Bend has become one of the city's most popular destinations where guests can get anything from French Toast to honor Elvis Presley (with real bacon) to new comfort classics made entirely animal-free. But while diners can open the menu at Mohawk Bend and find something to suit veggie or non-veggie diets, what kinds of challenges does that pose for the person creating that menu and those dishes?

We talked with Mohawk Bend's Executive Chef Mike Garber, to find out how his own eating preferences influence his menu, what inventive choices he makes in creating vegan dishes, and why it's so important to know your farmers.

LAist: Are you vegan or vegetarian? If not, do you follow any particular philosophies about your own diet?

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Garber: I am not vegan or vegetarian. I go through many different "diets" ranging from eating healthy, organic, vegetable heavy to "I don't care I'm going to eat all the yummy pork products I can." I stay away from anything mass produced or processed.

What is your culinary background with vegetarian and vegan cuisine?

Almost everywhere I've worked I have had a vegan or vegetarian option on the menu. I have always tried to do something better than just a Portobello mushroom or plain pasta.

Mohawk Bend serves both veggie/vegan and non-vegan items, so what is it like as a chef creating and executing that kind of menu?

It hasn't been easy. Sometimes it's almost like running two separate restaurants. There is a lot of balance involved between the vegan and non-vegan as to how much of the menu will be vegan or not. Whenever I test a new dish I have to decide if it's just going to be exclusively vegan or if I need to do a non-vegan version of the same dish, and vice-versa. I get a lot of people asking for vegan versions of our non-vegan dishes or specials.

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Do you think omnivores are generally receptive to eating vegan or vegetarian dishes? What kind of feedback do you get from omnivore guests whose meals end up being mostly or all vegetarian?

I feel that most are receptive. I think a lot of omnivores try and compare vegan dishes to their non-vegan versions and are underwhelmed. For example, a lot of people just don't get that vegan sausage doesn't taste like pork sausage, and are very quick to critique it.

Where do you like to get your ingredients for vegetarian cooking?

Most of our produce we get through our produce company, though I try and go to the farmers' markets whenever possible. I usually pick up things for specials, "Meatless Monday" dinners etc. I have started building relationships with some local farmers and will hopefully be getting some ingredients directly from them, which is amazing. We are very lucky here in Southern California to have so much amazing produce available, and to have it always be super fresh!

How do you feel about vegan or vegetarian products that substitute animal proteins, for example things like vegan cheese or meats recreated with soy or other plant products?

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I try and stay away from them. In moderation they are okay, but I feel that there is a misconception that because they are vegan, they are healthy. A lot of "fake" cheeses and meats use all kinds of chemicals and additives. I don't want to eat or cook anything called "fake."

What one omnivore dishes are you eying to tackle in a vegetarian or vegan interpretation?

I've been working on making decent vegan bacon for a while. We get a lot of requests or it. In October I'm going to do a vegan equivalent of a "nose-to-tail" dinner; instead of using every usable part of an animal, I'm going to use every usable part of a vegetable. I'm going to use fall/winter squash, so it will feature the flesh, skin, seed, greens and flowers. I'm not sure how many courses [I will do] yet but its something I've wanted to do for a while. It will also be a good kick-off for the fall season. We are also working with doing a vegan "charcuterie" platter. Think vegan cheeses, salami, pates, terrines, all made in-house.

What are some fun ingredients that you use in place of animal-based ones in your dishes?

I make a vegan "crabcake" from hearts of palm, and we do a buffalo style cauliflower that is our version of chicken wings, and our most popular dish. We also do avocado and chips instead of fish and chips. I stole that idea from the L.A. County fair a few years ago.

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Any advice for someone looking to cook more vegetarian meals at home?

Go to the farmers' markets and talk to the farmers. Ask them what's really fresh and in season. Ask them the best way to cook their produce. They are a wealth of knowledge.