Bye Bye Butter
O2’s new chef does a 180, revamping his culinary repertoire from carnivorous to vegan.
Chef Tom Donnelly, a North Salem resident
Chef Tom Donnelly grew up in rural Pawling, New York, fishing and hunting deer and pheasant with his dad and two brothers. After graduating from the CIA in Hyde Park, he worked at Abigail Kirsch at Tappan Hill, Pratt Mansion (on 5th Avenue across from MoMA), and Manhattan’s famed One If By Land, Two If By Sea, where he honed his classic French style. To broaden his scope, he moved to Northern California and worked for two of Alice Waters’s protégées, and it was at this time that he first became interested in the locavore fresh-food movement. He now heads up O2 Living Café, a raw-food eatery in Yellow Monkey Village (Rte 35, Cross River 914-763-6320). Over a cup of passionfruit tea, we asked him some questions.
It’s quite a shift moving from classic French with all the butter and cream to a vegan, macrobiotic, and gluten-free menu. How has your style of cooking changed?
I feel as if I’m learning to cook all over again. I have to be more creative today than in the past twenty years of my career. One thing I’ve learned is to use tempeh instead of meat. It’s an underutilized food.
Do you use different tools, techniques?
A serious blender is key for vinaigrettes, soups, and smoothies—a tool all vegetarians need. We use the Vita-Mix blender here; it’s the best on the market. And foams can make an ordinary dish sing! Sprouting is tremendous, and we do that in the café. Mung beans have an earthy, mushroom-like flavor while sunflower seeds taste like spring. You can feel the heat, the energy, as they sprout—it’s as if they’re saying, ‘We’re alive!’ You can’t be afraid to go out on a limb. After working in Japan for the Pan-Pacific Group, it seemed like heresy to suggest vegetarian sushi rolls—but they are among our most popular dishes. I’m working on a fruit sashimi for spring, using mango and melons.
Do you still eat meat and dairy?
I believe in eating everything in moderation. We have canine teeth for a reason—we were meant to eat meat. But since I started working here in June 2009, I’ve had my breakfast and lunches here every day and usually have a greens drink, a kind of a liquid salad with celery, fennel, kale, and other good things. For dinner, I eat whatever I want.
How has this diet affected you personally?
I was thirty pounds overweight and my cholesterol numbers were through the roof. My doctor told me my blood pressure was so high that I was ready to have a stroke. I even used to get kidney stones from all the butter and cream I consumed. In just six months, I lost the weight, am completely off my blood-pressure medication, and my cholesterol levels are back to nearly normal. I feel better now than I have in my whole life.
What do you do to make dishes taste good, if you can’t use butter, cream, or meat juices?
I use lots of extra-virgin olive oil, for starters. And avocado is a vegan’s best friend; I steep it with a little tea water and mulch it into a purée for a creamy texture and great taste. Plus, I’ve found that pink Himalayan salt is the cleanest and purest salt.
What is your favorite grain?
Red quinoa—we make a salad here of red quinoa with almonds, scallions, and flax that I love.
So, what do you eat when you eat out?
Last night at Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua, I had the beef carpaccio, followed by the beef short ribs—one of my favorite meals. I was having a carnivore craving.
Do you take advantage of the yoga classes at O2 Living?
Not yet. I find that being in a kitchen, working with food, is my meditation.