British Columbia·Growing Vegan

Meet the non-vegan chef behind Vancouver's most sought-after vegan creations

Chef Tomoko Tahara has worked at meatless restaurants Acorn and Harken, but enjoys all types of food herself.

Chef Tomoko Tahara says experience eating meat helps her create 'umami' for vegan mouths

Chef Tomoko Tahara is helping design a Japanese-inspired vegan menu for Harken, a soon-to-open coffee shop. (Jake Costello/CBC)

Tomoko Tahara is a very busy chef in Vancouver.

She's helping design a Japanese-inspired vegan menu for Harken, a soon-to-open coffee shop. She has worked for one of Canada's top vegetarian and vegan restaurants. She regularly hosts "pop-up" vegan meals.

There's just one thing: she's not vegan.

"Vegan people miss the taste of animal protein. I want to bring the depth of flavour. If I was vegan, I wouldn't know how it tastes," she said.

"Umami is important."

Tahara makes vegan stocks and broths, and uses mushrooms and other ingredients with bold flavours to create that umami — a Japanese word describing the savoury taste often found in broths and cooked meats.

Tahara works with a lot of mushrooms to create her bold flavours. (Jake Costello/CBC)

She started cooking exclusively vegan about four years ago.

"I saw my vegan friends were eating junk food. I felt sad to see they can't have nice food. Then I started vegan cooking," she said.

Tahara moved to Vancouver from Japan in 2004. She shares her work on Instagram, and has built a community of vegan-minded friends in Vancouver. She often runs her recipes past her best friend — a food scientist who runs an independent tempe company in Vancouver.

"It Japan, it's getting popular," she said. "Vancouver has a bigger community. I was surprised."

Mengya Xhao isn't strictly vegan, but often eats vegan food, and says Tahara is her favourite vegan chef in Vancouver. 

"It's really delicate and elegant, it's not something that's really heavy. And also she has discovered so many local ingredients," Xhao said.

Mengya Xhao says Tahara is her favourite vegan chef in Vancouver. (Jake Costello/CBC)

Tahara's interest in local food goes beyond the 100-mile diet. She will even knock on doors in her neighbourhood if she spots ingredients, like local plums.

"Sometimes it's easy," she said. "They say yes, and kindly share with me."

Other times, people aren't as receptive. But Tahara doesn't mind.

Ben Milne has been vegan for 19 years. He is about to open Harken, a Japanese-vegan coffee shop in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and hired Tahara to help create the menu.

He says the current trend of plant-based products helps everyone in the vegan food industry.

"You can go to Tim Hortons now, and have a sausage on a vegan biscuit," he said. 

"I used to be a huge meat eater when I was young, so I actually do enjoy the fake meat products."

Chef Tomoko Tahara, who is a fan of local food, also looks for foraged ingredients to use in her work. (Jake Costello/CBC)

Tahara rents a kitchen space, and hosts a pop-up vegan restaurant every few months in Vancouver. But beyond breaking even, she doesn't do that for the money. 

"This is about sharing," she said, and then added with a laugh:  "I just wanted to clean my pantry."