Los Angeles gets a lot of grief for being home to an inordinate number of celebretards, pseudo-celebretards, star fuckers, and vain VIPs. Although the city is thusly stereotyped, it’s also home to a thriving population of unique and noteworthy people whose pursuits add diversity and depth to a seemingly shallow pool. LA’s Better Half profiles distinctive Angelenos doing something remarkable and original. This week: Tanya Petrovna, chef and founder of the always packed and ever-expanding Native Foods.
Tanya opened her first Native Foods restaurant in Palm Springs over ten years ago, followed by a second in Palm Desert in 1996. The third shop, her Los Angeles Proper location, opened in Westwood in 2000. Now the diminutive space on Gayley–always packed with dedicated customers–is expanding, and so is the business as a whole. I recently caught up with Tanya to talk about her childhood memories of Los Angeles, her path to and passion for gourmet veganism, and the very promising future of Native Foods.
Tanya Petrovna can cook. Her Native Foods menus are famous for their creatively vegan answers to a meat-based diet. She can also talk. Meeting with her recently, I found that it only took one question to set her off and running.
“I happened in an LA weekend,” Tanya says when I ask where she was born. “I was born in Palm Springs, it was 124 degrees.” She goes on to describe how she almost immediately got heat rash from the diaper, and how her immigrant mother, with a misspelled note from the doctor, accidentally applied foot fungus cream instead of Desitin. “She put that on my ass and I went through the ceiling,” she tells me, eyes sparkling.
Petrovna’s life has been as rich and varied as the recipes she concocts, and she shares her stories with the same love and vivacity that goes into her cuisine. She recalls a desert childhood in “the enclave” which saw weekenders such as Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra passing through and partying. From her vantage point, Los Angeles seemed peopled entirely by celebrities. Her first journey out of the desert and into the city provided a different view.
“What are your first memories of actually coming into LA?” I ask her.
“The smell,” she replies, “and the smog.”
Happier memories include occasional visits to the original Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax, where her European parents–both of whom worked in the restaurant business–would shop for groceries and supplies.
“Being European, my parents didn’t eat junk food. We never had white bread. I never had soda. Root Beer tasted like medicine. My mother cooked like Julia Child every day, everything from scratch. She had talent, and she read a lot of cooking magazines, which at that time were in German.”
When she started going to school, she became aware of the differences in her friends’ and her diet. She’d open her lunch box to reveal Mortadella sandwiches on French bread, while her schoolmates chowed down on Wonder Bread. Embarrassed, Tanya would try to hide her lunch under the table, sneaking stealthy bites when the coast was clear.
“I wasn’t going to give it up,” she says, exhibiting the strength of personality and character that clearly drives her business. “I never went home and said I don’t want this anymore. I remember going to a friend’s house and they gave me American cheese with mustard and mayonnaise on white bread. That was it–no lettuce, nothing else.”
“Did you like it?” I ask.
“I hated it,” she tells me. “I really tried to like it. Peanut butter and jelly on white bread? I really tried to like it.”
She explains that she grew up with a great flavor balance, talking about food with her parents all the time, and even participating in its preparation.
“My mother would hand me a pair of scissors and say ‘Go get some chives and marjoram.’ That’s just how it was back then.”
Her father ran restaurants and dining rooms in high-end hotels and country clubs like the Eldorado. As a maitre d’, he’d show Tanya how to execute appropriate dining service.
“I’d carry the plates around and just pretend. It makes all the big stuff not seem so ornate, when you see how it’s all put together.”
In high school, her best friend moved to Los Angeles, and Tanya started spending more time in the city. It was on one of those visits in the late 60s or early 70s that Tanya tasted Thai food at the first and only Thai restaurant in LA, which opened on Vermont in 1969 and was closed within a few years. By that point she was a vegetarian, and was thrilled by the flavorful vegetable options available in this totally new cuisine.
“It’s amazing,” she says of the Thai food explosion. “Now it’s on every street corner.”
“Okay, I’m vegan, what does that mean?” Tanya says, explaining the personal and career path that brought her to Native Foods. “To me, vegan means it’s another delicious style of eating that’s not just for vegans. Vegan cuisine should be like the introduction Thai food was in LA back in the seventies. It’s just another style of eating that you can enjoy.”
She created Native Foods to up the ante and to set the record straight.
“Vegetarian food has been called ‘rabbit food,’ ‘bark,’ ‘sprouts,’ and when people say that to me, I like to say, ‘Oh, you’re dating yourself.’ Other people tell me, ‘I’d eat this way all the time if I could get it.'”
Tanya sees it as her job to offer choices that they don’t seem to have elsewhere.
She became a vegetarian at 18, when she moved out of her parents’ home to go to junior college, although the seeds were planted much earlier. She recalls a teacher in the 9th grade who taught a lesson on how to read the newspaper. When she opened the paper, she was confronted with a full-page ad by Animal Welfare about the killing of the whales. The picture showed a bloodied mother gasping along the surface of the ocean, with harpoons being blown up inside of her while her baby swam alongside.
“It tripped me right out,” Tanya says. “I was a Save the Whales fan.”
Her teacher then instructed the class to choose a crime topic to report on. Tanya chose animal cruelty as her topic, and proceeded to write a letter to the San Diego Humane Society asking for info. To her surprise, they sent her graphic, Polaroid pictures of neighborhood animal cruelty. After putting her report together, she started a “Friends of Animals” club. Later, she became VP of the Palm Springs Animal Protective Association. A big, ongoing project of theirs was subsidizing the spaying and neutering of dogs and cats.
“We’d have bake sales, so I started baking and making carrot cake. Carrot cake is our signature here at Native Foods!”
By the time she was 18, five years later, she had graduated from high school early and was taking biology classes in junior college. Through her science studies, she began to recognize that not only was her vegetarian diet friendlier to animals, it was healthier for her as well.
“You kind of start to understand nutrition if you understand basic biology. Hmm, that’s what a protein is, and that’s what a carbohydrate is, and that’s what a fat is. It wasn’t brain surgery by any means.”
She transferred to UC Santa Cruz to study Marine Biology, where Ken Norris was her adviser. She took time off throughout her college career to travel, lived in Japan for a year, and nearly went to India to become a yoga teacher, but “accidentally” started her restaurant during the yearlong wait for acceptance to the institute. While at UCSC, she had rented a room from a woman who was making her own fresh tempeh and seitan. Between that, her year in Japan, and various other travels, she had collected all kind of unique ideas.
“I was like, oops, I started a restaurant.”
It started as a grocery bag delivery service. She and a friend prepared food at home, then later graduated to a rented kitchen. Each week they’d fill the bags with ready-made meals and deliver them to customers.
By the time Native Foods blossomed out of this initial service, Tanya realized that it was about more than just eating–it was about learning. There’s always reading material and information about animal welfare and the vegan lifestyle available in her Native Foods shops–if people want it. Nothing is forced on customers, it’s simply made available.
“When you’re ready, you look for it,” she says. “Twenty-five percent of university students request vegan meals. Remember, they already get vegetarian options in college dining halls, but these are specifically vegan requests. It’s the environment and the animals that these kids are interested in. That’s good news. For the next generations, this is just going to be second nature.”
THE FUTURE OF NATIVE FOODS
Native Foods in UCLA’s Westwood Village is always packed. Thus far, Native Foods has been an entirely grassroots endeavor. Tanya chose the Westwood location with her gut, not with research. The tiny little eatery has had it’s home on Gayley Avenue for nearly 8 hugely successful years, and it’s finally expanding into the space next door. The new space will contain more seating, all refrigerated, to-go items, all take-out, and will host cooking classes in the back.
The Westwood expansion is symbolic of the company as a whole.
“It’s at the point where we’ve made the big shift. It’s a corporate entity now, I have a finance person watching to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. Today we had a nice meeting, and everybody got bonus checks. It’s nice to be able to do that. I’m trying to redefine corporations. I think corporations are a good structure, because systems provide easy means for people to have a lifestyle. If the main intention is to make money, you’re in trouble, but if the intention of the corporation is to do something good in the world, then the money comes.”
She intends to open a number of new LA shops in the near future, with a few more planned for next year.