I am not a vegan.  I eat a lot of meat.  I should incorporate more non-meat foods into my diet, but hey nobody's perfect.  The Springs, located in LA's up and coming Downtown Arts District won't convert me to an all-vegan diet, but it was fun to live the fantasy for a night.  Chef Michael Falso has dedicated himself to creating a menu that tastes like an enchanted garden: fresh, colorful and nutritious.  His dishes exhibited creativity and deep knowledge of texture, which I believe a Vegan chef would be nothing without.  I toured his dishes and though my palette is more attune to cheese plates and charcuterie, I appreciated his menu nonetheless.

It always takes me a moment to wrap my head around a complete meal that has no egg, milk, cheese, or meat and still tastes good as if it's a magic trick I can't figure out. When I tasted the Rangoon, I nodded.  It's coconut skin literally wrapped me in.  The creamy "cheese" center and sweet chili sauce captured me. I wanted more. 

The Watermelon Gazpacho was composed of the freshest reds mashed into each other all at once: watermelon, strawberry, tomato and red bell pepper.  With the complimenting juices of cucumber, jalepeno, red onion, cilantro and lime.  It looked and tasted equally as vibrant.

Noodles made of zucchini twirl just as easily as noodles made of wheat.  I discovered this with the Spaghetti Alla Carbonara.  How does carbonara get a vegan makeover you ask?  With smoked coconut bacon, black pepper cream, peas, mint, coconut yolk and black olives.  It didn't steal my heart the way the nacho salad did, but I don't regret our introduction.

If dinner had been a great first date, dessert was the kiss that seals the deal.  This Butterscotch Budino, served with rosemary shortbread cookies, can't be left unfinished.  Each bite was cloud-soft.  The added curves of coconut caramel and whipped vanilla cream newly completed this old-classic flavor.   

Other items to try:

  • Samosa:  curried cauliflower samosa, mango-habanero salsa, tamarind chutney, cilantro-mint coulis
  • Sweet Corn Ravioli: arugula-mint pesto, red bell pepper cream, cherry tomatoes
  • Beet Tartare:  beets, apples, pickled shallots, red wine vinaigrette, horseradish cream, avocado mousse, dill, pistachios, truffle foam

I can imagine The Springs being an easy "Yes, please" for vegans, but for non-vegans with a curiosity for culinary creativity, I recommend a visit.  FYI, you can also take a yoga class and admire impressive murals while you're at it.

Q & A with Chef Michael Falso

FP: How did you become a Vegan Chef?

MF: I became a vegan chef by accident. I was working in New York for Mario Batali at his fine dinning restaurant Del Posto I was part of the team that garnered 4 stars from The New York Times, which was the first Italian restaurant to do so in over 40 years. While everyone was celebrating the success of the restaurant, I was getting some other news and experiencing some very serious health issues for the first time in my life. 

I was miserable and getting nowhere fast. I tried everything. While waiting for yoga class, I was perused a copy of the book “Eat to Live” by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. I found myself unable to put it down. For whatever reason, I started reading and it was probably the first time in my life I made the connection that food is directly related to health. It was one of those light bulb moments where you realize something that you can never un-learn. In the book, Dr. Fuhrman sort of dares you to try modifying your diet for 6 weeks and see if you have any drastic results—the only premise being eating only vegetables and fruits in whatever quantity, cooked or raw. That sounded impossible but I was ready to try. It was only supposed to last 6 weeks and seemed like a prison sentence, but by the end of the first week I felt so radically different that I knew that I could never go back to my old way of living and eating. I had literally become vegan overnight without even realizing it. I ended up losing over 100 pounds in 6 months and felt better than I ever had in my entire life, no longer suffering from high blood pressure or experiencing symptoms of diabetes. 

FP:  Did you study at Culinary School or go straight into the kitchen?

MF:  I studied at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

FP:  What is your favorite benefit of Vegan Cuisine?

MF:  My favorite benefit of vegan food is that it has the potential to make you feel, look, and see differently. There is a misconception that vegan=healthy and that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my opinion, a lot of vegan food is “frankenfood” and heavily, heavily processed. It may not be made from animal products, but it is completely synthetic food—which there is no place for in anyone’s diet. Most vegans have never made fresh almond milk let alone soy milk and fresh tofu.  

FP:  If you could describe your cooking style with only three words, what would they be?

MF:  Playful. A lot of the food I make has references that are anchored in familiar non-vegan dishes, flavors, or ideas, yet nothing is ever meant to be a complete or definitive representation of any one dish--it's merely my expression. I really want people to see that this food is playful and innovative, while all at the same time has the added benefit of actually being healthy, too. In a lot of ways it's stealth nutrition. My intention is to make food for anyone and everyone to experience--not only raw foodists, yogis, or vegans--but anyone that enjoys food and innovation.

Whole.  I do not use products that I cannot make myself. While there are a few exceptions to this rule, like kelp noodles (I wouldn’t even pretend to know how to make them), we make every single item in house—whether it be mustard, sriracha, almond flour, oat flour, almond milk, dressings, cheeses, crackers pickles…everything. We start with whole ingredients and then process them ourselves, which is quite different from the norm. It takes a lot more time, planning, and labor than is required of a normal restaurant. 

Spicy.  And I don’t necessarily mean hot as spicy alone, I just mean I really appreciate bold flavors--and sometimes those flavors are hot as hell. While I understand the reasons for light and mild applications in certain dishes and applications, I have always found that I like the brighter, unmistakably bolder, and louder qualities of heat and spice and how to accentuate those nuances. 

FP:  What chef has inspired you the most?

MF:  John Besh, a chef from Lousiana. It might have been the Cajun/Creole food, his fierce creativity and refinement, or the fact that his food is a literal melting pot of Cajun, Creole, Spanish, Italian, German, and sprinkled with some various Asian techniques and ingredients without feel like the food is “fusion”. It’s incredibly layered, often simple, but full of heart and soul.

FP:  What are the challenges when creating a Vegan menu?

MF:  Raw food is my favorite style of food because while it appears so restrictive and confining, it actually allows me to be my most creative and be the most playful.  For me when I’m creating a vegan menu, raw or not, I want the items to be able to stand-alone. 

Going out to eat shouldn’t be reminiscent of traveling down the vegan section of Whole Foods—Veganaise, Daiya Cheese, Soy Rizo, and/or Veggie dogs. I know it might sound snobby, but I’m not interested in that because anyone can do that with ease. It’s not creative, it’s being convenience. Perhaps it’s because at The Springs we make everything ourselves, and I prefer it that way—and when we call something bacon or tuna, for example, it’s not meant literally. It just meant to plant the idea in your mind so you have something to reference as an interaction between what you may have experienced and what is being expressed—without actually trying to replicate tuna.

However, on the flip side, creating innovative and avant-garde food that looks like a diorama scattered about your plate with unique and idiosyncratic ingredients are sometimes incredible, but also something I try to avoid. I find that it’s hard for people to relate that kind of food. It’s beautiful, often delicious, but it doesn’t have a soul you don’t have reference to compare--and although the experience may be new and unique, it still has to be relatable in some way. The food has to be able to be communicated and understood. I think those are the greatest challenges in creating a vegan menu—and I usually find truth somewhere in between those 2 extremes. 

FP:  What is your favorite item on the menu of The Springs?

MF:  My favorite menu items changes quite fast, depending on my mood. I have to say that I like Nacho Salad the best. Whenever I’ve had a bite of it after not tasting it for a while I stop myself and think, “Yes!!”

FP:  When did you come to Los Angeles?

MF:  I moved to Los Angeles in September 2013 to be the Executive Sous Chef at Matthew Kenney’s now closed restaurant M.A.K.E. 

FP:  What is your favorite restaurant in LA?

MF:  Currently, my favorite restaurant in LA is Meals by Genet in Little Ethiopia. It’s not a completely vegan restaurant but the chef, Genet, is vegan. It’s the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had and I crave it often.

FP:  How would you describe the LA culinary scene?

MF:  The LA culinary scene is diverse and getting stronger. I think the food here in comparison to New York, I don’t feel there is as much ethnically diverse food. To think that LA sits on the lap of some of the freshest produce in the country, I’m often a little disappointed that people don’t take better advantage of that—but it’s really nice to see more restaurants in LA taking center stage nationally. 

FP:  If you could only cook with one ingredient for a year, what would it be?

MF:  Onions. I love them in almost every form, raw or cooked. There is something missing when they are not present. In raw food, we use them with some restraint because you don’t want anyone to walk away smelling like they just ate an onion with an apple as a little goes a long way. 

FP:  What do you enjoy cooking at home?

MF:  I am always perusing a cookbook, so what I make at home is usually dictated by and idea or recipe that has caught my attention. My go-to comfort foods that I cook are tamales and some variation of coconut curry—it’s never the same twice as there really is no recipe set in stone. 

FP:  What is the best burger you've ever had?

MF:  The best burger I’ve ever had was at the original Shake Shack in Madison Park before the restaurant blew up and sprouted chains all over New York. I remember waiting in line for 30 minutes in the freezing cold (which I would never, ever do) and it was because a friend that was visiting really wanted to try it. I could have cared less but went along for the experience. After the first bite I thought ,“what the hell is this?” Needless to say, we both finished our burgers and getting ready to leave the park with an almost unspoken grace, got right back in line and waited in the freezing cold for another round. I’ve always loved potato buns. Their Portobello burger is equally to die for, thank god! 

The Springs
608 Mateo St, Los Angeles, CA 90021
(213) 223-6226