LA’s Vegan Godmother

When Real Food Daily’s Ann Gentry waved her magic spatula, she sprouted a new generation of chefs.
by Abigail Lewis

Twelve years ago, when Wild Oats was still untamed and Whole Foods LA was just a twinkle in Papa Foods’ eye, vegan chef Ann Gentry had enticed so many clients to her home delivery service that it became obvious: it was time to open a restaurant. Gentry knew that despite LA’s plethora of excellent eateries, people didn’t necessarily want fancy, high cholesterol meals, even if Disney or Universal was picking up the tab; some, like former private client Danny DeVito, longed for “real food” — nourishing food they could eat every day.

Fast forward to Gentry’s two Real Food Daily restaurants (the original in Santa Monica and a sleeker West Hollywood version, opened seven years ago), aka RFD, coincidentally a postal acronym for Rural Free Delivery. Gentry’s RFD delivers food that feels rural and satisfying, but with a sophisticated, urban edge. And the free part? Prices are reasonable but even better, the food is free of toxins, chemicals and animal products.

Composed and “ladylike,” Gentry is a child of the south; her accent wraps around your ears like warm pecan pie with creamy tofu whip. Although early adulthood found her waiting tables (at New York’s Whole Wheat & Wild Berries, her intro to healthy fare), the chef’s gracious sensibility evokes more Tennessee Williams and lawn parties than crunchy granola on the commune. She explains: “My mission has always been to raise the standards and expectations of vegetarian restaurants. When I opened 12 years ago, everybody said, hippie, crunchy, granola… women who didn’t shave their underarms. I was clear that wasn’t who I was or what I wanted to look at or deal with every day.”

Despite her genteel upbringing, coming of age in the feminist era left its mark.Gentry wanted it all and made darn sure she got it. A former actress and protege of avant-garde dancer Meredith Monk, Gentry’s current troupe is her extended RFD staff (many of whom are long-time employees), husband Rob Jacobs and their two young children, ages two and six. She has a new cookbook from Ten Speed Press (The Real Food Daily Cookbook), and another, more dessert-oriented recipe collection poised for production.

Food at RFD is simple and satisfying, yet a far cry from brown rice and stir-fry. There are plenty of grains and veggies, which arrive in appealing presentations that make you forget you’ve chosen this particular restaurant for its health benefits. An early reviewer advised, “Don’t expect greasy comfort food,” but in fact, this is the very place to go for comfort food that restores rather than fatigues.Rich, dairy-free soups that change daily. A TV Dinner of baked tempeh with mashed potatoes and gravy. A Club sandwich that contains the only non-bacon bacon you’ll ever crave. Served on your bread of choice that might be toasted hemp, creating complex reactions on your taste buds that knock a standard BLT right out of the neighborhood.

Last month, Gentry expanded her menu to include raw, or living, food offerings.A dozen years ago, an RFD entree, harkening back to Gentry’s earlier forays into macrobiotics, demanded extensive chewing and was a true commitment to the process of ingestion. Today, with lighter items like the pasta-free Living Lasagna and Living Paradise (julienned veggies and melt-in-your-mouth almond cheese rolled in rice paper), vegan dining can be almost as evanescent as the rarefied air of the Hollywood celebrities who can’t seem to get enough of it. Although enthusiasm for the raw menu inclusions has not been universal, most RFD customers have welcomed this addition to an evolving vegan panorama.

And evolving it is. Despite LA Times’ concerns about the “Incredible shrinking restaurant scene” (10/05/05), vegan restaurants of every stripe are popping up around the metropolis, and thriving (see sidebar). Celebs aren’t the only ones drawn to healthier fare — industry insiders from both sides of the camera eat regularly at RFD, along with families grateful for the children’s menu and business folk from every walk of life. The decor is subtle pastels and modern art conducive to measured eating, yet every table sports cell phones and Blackberries placed conveniently at hand by multi-tasking diners.

Not that all are true vegan devotees — they come here for a good meal as much as anything. Says Gentry, “If I look out into my restaurant at any given time, 60 to 70 percent of the people in here are not vegetarian, are never going to be in this lifetime. “She pauses to reconsider, then grins: “Maybe some of them will be when they realize they can get great-tasting, satisfying vegetarian food.”

Real Food Daily, Santa Monica: 514 Santa Monica Blvd.; 310.451.7544. West Hollywood: 414 N. La Cienega Blvd.; 310.289.9910.