VegeNation defies all expectations when you consider its surroundings—and that's a good thing.
Consider the dream cuisine of Las Vegas. Surely, you will think of certified Kobe beef at SW Steakhouse, silky slices of inventively presented sashimi at Yellowtail, decadent osso bucco at the old-school and off-Strip Piero’s. Then, situated in the neon-drenched heart of downtown Las Vegas, there’s the bluntly named VegeNation, where steaks are made of seitan and cheeses gets spun up from cashews. Meat is verboten and if you want eggs, well, you’ll be getting stir-fried soy.
Viva Las Vegan?
Producing what chef Donald Lemperle characterizes as global vegan cuisine, the restaurant offers inspired cooking with bold flavors (portobello sliders are punched up with Sriracha aioli), surprising ingredients (avocado sushi is made with black rice) and impressive technique (the bao and mole make no concessions on flavor or authenticity). The latter is unsurprising when you realize that Lemperle cut his teeth at temples of gastronomy that include Quilted Giraffe, La Cote Basque and Le Bernardin.
Lemperle was heading up his very first kitchen—the Scottsdale, Arizona, offshoot of Asia de Cuba—in 2005, when, just one month into the job, disaster struck. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer. Desperate to get healthy, Lemperle vowed to change his diet. “Oxygen [derived from leafy green vegetables] is the enemy of cancer,” says Lemperle, who received his diagnosis early enough that it went into remission via what he calls “drip treatment” instead of a stem-cell transplant. “I’m not saying that being vegan cured me, but it did change my lifestyle and increase my health.”
It also taught him how to be a little sneaky. Overseeing the prep of Asia de Cuba’s stalwart dishes such as roasted pork and duck confit did not exactly jibe with his new diet. “I was like an undercover vegan,” Lemperle says. “I would not have had the job without eating meat.”
He confesses to being adept at covering up: “I would taste the pork belly and spit it out. I’d have to taste sauce made with beef stock. But I had salad for lunch and ate a lot of greens.”
The job lasted two years, until the housing crisis hit Arizona especially hard in 2007 and layoffs ensued. Lemperle relocated to Las Vegas, where he worked at the steak-centric Red Square in Mandalay Bay.
While broiling sirloins and slinging cream-laced sides, he remained a hardcore vegan. Dining out around town, Lemperle couldn’t help but notice that few restaurant meals conformed to his current way of eating. It left him wondering how many vegans there actually were in Vegas.
Then, a few years ago, Lemperle happened to hit a farmer’s market. “It was a Thursday morning and the place was packed,” he remembers. “There was obviously a demand for healthy, natural food in Las Vegas.
Lemperle lucked out in that Tony Hseieh (pronounced: Shay), the near-billionaire founder of the shoe retailer Zappos, was in the midst of buying land and funding businesses in downtown Vegas. He became a VegeNation partner and backer – and had the portobello slider named for him. “A lot of the items on the menu are things that I made for myself at home,” says Lemperle who opened his doors in 2015. “I had the place in mind for nearly 10 years, so I knew exactly where I wanted to go with the food.”
While dishes such as Buffalo sauced cauliflower, superior veggie burgers and a Thai curry vegetable bowl have been no-brainer hits that are even enjoyed by carnivores – “We get women bringing in their meat-eating husbands who start out as total crybabies but then come around to liking the food,” says Lemperle – there have been some culture clashing wrinkles along the way. “Last year a regular guest brought some friends,” recalls Lemperle. “They pulled up in a limousine and some of the women had fur coats. Some of the women who work here were up in arms. I told everybody to calm down.”
Then there was the time when a nearby restaurateur thought he was doing a favor by bringing over cartons of milk that he would not be able to use before they expired (his offerings were politely turned away). Or the time a guest mixologist had the temerity to use honey in one of his cocktails – a vegan no-no. “I told the bartenders that they didn’t have to serve the drink if they didn’t want to,” says Lemperle.
But Lemperle takes those hiccups in stride and does not seem to miss his velvety sauces or perfectly marbled meats one bit. As he puts it, “I feel like I’m living the dream!”