Photo by the author
He did it all for love.Yousseff Fakhouri, owner of Vromage, LA's first all-vegan cheese shop, first cracked the code to artisanal non-dairy cheeses in an effort to impress "a young beautiful woman who was vegan" he was hanging out with back in 2009 While the French-Moroccan former restaurateur admits he used to make fun of vegans when he first came to the United States, he also noticed "everybody in LA had objections about animals, the environment. I used to tell some vegans in Santa Barbara, 'Don't come to my restaurant.'"
But, calling upon his Mediterranean roots, he began playing with ingredients and traditional cheese-making methods of aging and fermentation to "do it just the way the farmers do it," trying to improve upon the bland mixture of cashews and nutritional yeast often passed off as vegan "cheese." He gave away samples of his yields, and even tricked fellow omnivorous French and Italian chefs into believing it was the real thing.The romance ended (they're still friends) after five years, but Fakhouri began to feel confident enough to sell his new product to the public. He opened Vromage last year to a line out the door, some patrons literally crying because they thought they'd never eat decent cheese again.His first order came by phone, when a woman from New York got wind of his wares and wanted one pound of each of Vromage's 17 varieties. He shipped her $800 box (shipping itself was $270) in time for Christmas. "Then I posted on my website that I ship, and we got lots of orders. Sometimes it's $20 for [the] cheese and $60 to ship it." Now he discourages locals from mail-order. "Can you believe they want me to ship to Calabasas and Long Beach? I tell them to just come in and visit instead."But he seems to have won over not just vegans, but food-lovers in general. He's ordering truffles right now from Italy because they "really bring out the flavor" of his Brie—which, like his other cheeses, is made from pine nuts, macadamias, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios, and other nuts, seeds, and herbs, mostly organic when he can find it. And at roughly $2.80 per ounce, his products price like imported dairy cheeses.
But the cheesemeister makes his mission clear. "I did not open this for the vegans. They're already vegan. This is for the vegetarians, people who care about the animals, who might be lactose-intolerant—people who like good food. You need good-tasting food."
Of course, vegans support him. "Mercy for Animals. PETA, everybody comes here," he shrugs, as if he doesn't mind. "They cannot believe I pulled this off. I cannot believe it, either!" he laughs. Though he says Whole Foods and local restaurants want his stuff, he's too busy literally making that cheddar to hire anyone—plus, "everybody wants to know how I make my cheese … some people have a hidden agenda." He seems leery of investors and often finds himself educating the public on cheese in general."The chef in Europe goes to the cheese man and buys the cheese and puts it in his signature dish. Fine. Everybody has their ego. But here the vegan chef wants to get the credit, they want to make their own, but they don't know how to make it. They make hummus! To me, it's not a cheese. I tell them, 'Listen, you want a cheese, you need to be patient—you have to ferment it, age it, wait for it.'"As if on cue, a woman bursts into the shop while we're chatting—on his day off—asking if she can buy the day-old wrapped sandwich on the counter. Fakhouri looks skeptical."I'm gonna eat it on the plane tomorrow morning," says the rock-n-roll-looking lady, grabbing the sandwich, ready to be rung up. The cheesemonger squeezes the length of the sourdough with "Veganzola".
"No. French bread is not meant to be eaten the next day."They have a momentary stare-off. "I'll make you a fresh one."The obviously regular customer happily eats the old sandwich while he whips up a new one. It turns out that she is Grammy-award-winning songwriter Diane Warren (credits include mega-hits such as "How Do I Live," "Because You Loved Me," and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now,") a self-proclaimed "vegetarian getting vegan" who declares Vromage to be the "best shit in the world."A few nights later, I bump into Fakhouri in the produce section of the West Hollywood Whole Foods. He shares that he is working on a vegan pepperoni, but hadn't had meat in so long that he asked for a taste of it in the deli, just to help recall the flavors. He swipes a hand across his mouth, seemingly disgusted with himself. "Now I have to get rid of this taste."We bid adieu, and I am already imagining his next creation.