“Vegan food is good. That’s always the message,” enthuses Tanya Petrovna as she prepares to open her second Chef Tanya’s Kitchen location in Palm Desert.
An animal-rights advocate since childhood, the talented chef found success with Native Foods Café. It grew to more than a dozen locations before she left.
My wife is vegan, which occasionally makes me vegan by association, and I’d heard a great deal about Chef Tanya before meeting her. You immediately get her sense of energy, enthusiasm and humor. She’s constantly busy, expressive, waving her arms and quick to laughter.
“I’ve always had a love for food,” she says. “My mother always made fresh food. As a kid, I was chopping herbs or washing spinach. Twice!”
She soon learned what truly created flavor: “Vegetables,” she sings, “garlic, onions—the whole spice rack.”
She became vegan, she says, due to a sense of compassion
“As a 7-year-old, I cared about the dog left in the street, or animals that couldn’t fend for themselves,” she says. Her high school reports centered around whales, veal and dairy. In college, she was a biology major and an aspiring veterinarian. However, when she learned someone in the program was raising kittens for use in medical studies, she got in her car and never looked back.
She went vegan at 18, but didn’t want to give up “good, tasty food.” Her college landlady taught her how to make tempeh. “I was blown away by the texture. I discovered seitan—these Eastern foods that have existed for hundreds of years. I learned how they combined so well with Western flavors. Other people had to know about this.”
She’d found her calling. “Once you learn, you can’t unlearn. You have to put it somewhere,” she says.
A desert native, she opened a small Palm Springs restaurant in 1990. That morphed into Native Foods Café.
“My goal was to put one on every street corner,” she says. “People told me they’d eat like this all the time if they could get it. That became my job in life.”
Native Foods established Chef Tanya as a vegan celebrity chef. The brand flourished and was highly acclaimed when she left in the business in 2012. She authored cookbooks and was an intrinsic part of a new movement—one that transformed vegan food beyond bland stereotypes, making it widely recognized as potentially creative and flavorful.
An extended sabbatical followed. She traveled to India to study Iyengar yoga, and to Nepal to save elephants. Locally, she enjoyed a stint on the Palm Springs Animal Shelter’s board, helping start the trap-neuter-release program—and turn the shelter a no-kill facility.
After returning to the restaurant business with Chef Tanya’s Kitchen in 2017, she continued to advocate for causes like Save Oswit Canyon. We spoke the day after she’d appeared on the local news, throwing herself in front of golfers who were shooting coots off the course.
“Everyone has always felt something but never thought they could do anything,” she says. “When you reach the critical mass, it gives everyone the opportunity to feel a little stronger. Now there’s a whole group of people. We can make a change.
“But wait—I’m opening a restaurant,” she jokes, bringing us back on track. “I can’t really do all that anymore. But, well, OK.”
What brought her back to the restaurant biz?
“After all those years of practice, I’m kind of good at what I do,” she chuckles.
The initial plan of a tempeh and seitan production facility explains the industrial setting of Chef Tanya’s.
“The commercial meat-alternative market had just started,” she says, “but there was still a lot of room for growth—and flavor. I don’t condemn anything. Highly processed vegetable proteins are a good intro. I had Beyond (Meat) at Native Foods, but I always craved the seitan more. It digested easier. And tempeh is such a beautiful food that goes back centuries in eastern cuisine.”
She also makes her own cultured cashew cheese, emphasizing the “live Palm Springs microbes.” The secret to the flavor is vegetables, she reiterates, again breaking into song.
“When I cook seitan, it’s sliced like a roast,” she says. “For the El Cubano, it’s marinated with orange, lemon juice, garlic and oregano.” This sandwich is especially popular with non-vegans.
“There really weren’t a lot of good sandwich options,” she continues. “I had the deli meats and thought: ‘Let’s do a sandwich shop.’”
Chef Tanya’s grew from there; she expanded the hours and the concept to include on-premise eating. You can get a hot sandwich, burger, salad, soup or dessert—and then you can take a lasagna home for dinner.
You’ll find traditional vegetable dishes and greens, but the tempeh and seitan form the highlights. The Chupacabra Chick’n sandwich and the Pastrami Mami are mainstream hits. She also highlights the Modern Hippie Veggie sandwich, with avocado, jicama, pickled cabbage and crack cheese.
“All those flavors just dance. It’s not just a boring veggie sandwich,” she says.
My wife’s favorite? The original tempeh powerburger; add Anaheim chili, guacamole and chipotle mayo, and it’s the Guadalajara. My favorite? The Tu‘No’ Salad, aka chickpea-of-the-sea. You could hardly tell the difference.
The mail-order business took a backseat as the deli thrived, and she was just getting back to that before COVID hit. The small dining area was repurposed.
“It was always my goal to create a curated marketplace,” she says. Various vegan treats and ethical goods were added. She’s even partnered with local farmers and a donut-maker. “There are so many small places, and it just feels good to be able to showcase them.”
The grab-n-go concept was ideally suited to COVID. “We had a strong push,” she says. “We have a good crew that likes what they do—and for the customers who like this lifestyle and want to eat this way, there aren’t many options.”
Customers have been agreeable to the changes, with some eating in their cars. “I have one couple that comes from San Bernardino with their own foldout picnic table,” she says with a laugh.
As we spoke, her team was getting set to open the Palm Desert location—just off El Paseo in the Palms to Pines shopping center—in April. Palm Springs will serve as a central production facility, but each location has its own on-premise kitchen, where food and baked goods will be made from scratch. The business models will be reassessed as COVID dictates, but for now, both spots will both be grab-n-go with retail.
The next step is licensing and packaging, with a goal of expanding beyond the two delis—part of the original goal of focusing on online and mail orders. You can already find Chef Tanya’s grab-n-go at Tower Markets, those gourmet gas-station stores that are popping up across the valley, as well as a few other places. You’ll also see Petrovna out in the community as she continues to spread the word through her e-books and cooking classes.
“It’s camaraderie, but I also want to help the environment, animals and people,” she says. “It’s about dispelling the myths. If everyone could do this on their own—show one friend that vegan food is easy and tastes good—that’s the goal.”
“People are coming in with a different perception. They’re no longer offended by all these foreign meats. It used to be people saying, ‘I didn’t want to come here; she brought me.’”
Petrovna remains quite humble and non-judgmental. As a carnivore trying to do better, I prepared to speak to her like I was entering the confessional box.
“People can make their own choices; we just try to offer an alternative,” she assures me. “If we get them to change one meal, that’s a difference.”
For more information, visit cheftanyaskitchen.com.