Vegan chef shares culinary creations at pop-up Billings restaurant – Billings Gazette


Chef Josh Ploeg poses for a photo at La Tinga in downtown Billings before hosting a pop-up restaurant there.

As a touring vegan chef, Joshua Ploeg has seen plenty of country and has cooked up meals from California to Washington, D.C. He typically lingers in a city for several days, cooking from private houses and apartments or hosts a pop-up or two.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a sustainable model for most people,” said Ploeg, yet his contact list is filled with hundreds of people willing to host a meal when he is on the road. Some of his favorite cities to work include Minneapolis, Seattle, Atlanta, LA, Sacramento, Portland, Memphis, New Orleans, and Phoenix.

Ploeg was in Billings visiting friends when COVID-19 began ramping up across the country and he had to drop “traveling” from his traveling chef routine.

“The timing was bad, as touring is the larger part of my income,” said Ploeg. Yet, the city was welcoming, and he began to look at a brick-and-mortar life.

“Part of coming here, I wanted to open a place, to become a destination of some kind.” Specializing in a cuisine that in still relatively rare in Billings, Ploeg also picked up some clients he cooks for on a weekly basis.

Chef Josh Ploeg prepares a vegan meal in the kitchen at La Tinga in downtown Billings before hosting a pop-up restaurant there.

The pandemic has made securing a café and opening a restaurant a bit more challenging that usual, Ploeg said. So, he’s begun to partner with local kitchens that are dark during the dinner hour to offer his cuisine. The first, held at La Tinga, a breakfast and lunch joint, was quietly advertised so Ploeg could gauge response. He’ll host a second dinner Friday, July 31 from 5 to 10 p.m.

“If it’s great, we’ll talk about doing more,” said Ploeg. “Hopefully it’s a stepping stone to bigger things.”

Ploeg has been cooking for 20 years, without the aid of culinary school, and began as a way to entertain guests. He was living in the Pacific Northwest, circling between Olympia and Seattle and promoting music shows in the mid-’90s, a foundational time in the burgeoning music scene that would come to define that area. Bands were touring the country and overseas, and friends would bring home tales of European hospitality.

A spicy lentil “Josh Pocket” with strawberry arugula and roasted white corn salad.

“They’d give them a cool place to stay and food. I was trying to add a new spin by representing America with European hospitality, but my food was terrible, so I decided to teach myself how to cook.”

What began as dinner parties became Ploeg’s livelihood, and just as the bands he befriended, he began touring the U.S. cooking for people. He’s also published 11 cookbooks, starting with self-published zines and evolving into recipe books that are “more entertaining than useful,” he said.

Ploeg has a causal humor and describes himself as a cross between a troubadour and a tradesman, wandering around with his wares. “But instead of a band, it’s just me. No noise, everyone’s satisfied. And no bandmates telling you what to do.”

Spices of life

As a 20-something, Ploeg was adventurous in the kitchen, but could also follow a recipe. It was when he began improvising that he decided he needed advice.

“When I went off on my own, I wasn’t paying attention to the methodology,” he said. Instead of culinary school, Ploeg started asking for advice, cooking with other people, and figuring out what doesn’t work.

Vegan chef Josh Ploeg cooks in his kitchen in Billings on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

“Once you understand that, you can cook whatever you want,” said Ploeg, who early on used experimentation to guide his cuisine. “You need to know why something failed.”

In the kitchen, Ploeg has learned to multitask while keeping the process streamlined. “Sometimes, you just have to have tons of things going. If you want it to be over at a certain point, I like to be prepped when people arrive and put it all together in a logical manner. You have to attend to task so you can interact with people and you’re not just sitting there making a huge mess. I know about being organized at this point.”

Cooking is meditation, a dividing of the mind Ploeg finds relaxing. “I can wander off in a dreamland and stay totally focused at the same time. Cooking is very meditative and chill, even when it’s hectic.”

Vegan chef Josh Ploeg cooks in his kitchen in Billings on Wednesday, July 15.

Ploeg’s go-tos in the kitchen are spices, from curry to chili powders and Persian spices. “I tend toward fenugreek, turmeric, curry, coriander … Garlic is my jam, and I like funky salts: black salts, red salts, the whole crowd.”

Salt may be the spice of life, but for Ploeg, he was interested in spicing and first tackled Indian food. “I had a tendency to over-spice and use the same one over and over,” he said. Through the many spices that make up traditional Indian cuisine, he learned proportions and different methods of working with spices. His food combines these foundations with down-home Southern cooking, a style of comfort food that utilizes slow cook methods and intertwines a bit of Cajun and Creole influences – a nod to his Southern grandmother.

“To me, it’s Americana when you see the similarities between one place and another, that connection. It’s woven, a pattern going all the way from Florida to Vermont. Eventually you will find some trace of one in another.”

Vegan “apricot chicken” with homemade gluten in apricot sauce, grilled carrots and peppers, toasted sesame quinoa and tangerine greens.

Ploeg’s family — one side from the Netherlands, the other side a merging of a Southerner and a New Yorker — has influenced his cooking, and he’s studied food history centered on the various cuisines of his lineage.

“All four of my grandparents and my parents cooked,” Ploeg recalled. Food was a centerpiece of getting together. “That would be a reason why people are getting together. Food tends to come down through the ages a bit.”

Accessible cuisine

Ploeg started eating a plant-based diet in 1991, and has been “on and off” the vegan ways over the years.

“I’m pretty strict these days,” he said. “For me, it works and it’s best that I stick to it. It’s easy to do because of the knowledge I’ve acquired or the skill. I don’t really have any excuse.”

Ploeg has always cooked vegan food for others, as he finds it to be an accessible cuisine. “A lot of people with special diets can eat it, vegans can eat it, vegetarians can eat it, and meat eaters can eat it.”

Melon gaspacho with caper roasted poblano relish.

Vegan cuisine has gotten a bad reputation over the years for numerous reasons, including tastelessness. “It was well-deserved at the time,” said Ploeg, who began cooking in the early 1990s in a college town. “There would be one cool ethnic restaurant that would have some vegan stuff, but other than that the recipe books would be mostly bland with a few exceptions.” He lists off foods that veganism began to be associated with, the sunflower seed and lentil burger with sprouts all over it, or enchiladas stuffed with raisins.

“No putting raisins on the taco. Just stop,” Ploeg laughed.

Veganism also comes loaded with moral and ethical ideas, which provides it a confrontational quality. “I don’t really care if someone is totally put off by the term,” Ploeg said. “The visceral reaction is that your lifestyle is being attacked, but that’s not my intention.”

He finds people who eat meat tend to be the most adventurous eaters. “I use a lot of salt and they like it – that might be a slight exaggeration, anymore I don’t think people associate vegan food with tastelessness.”

In Billings, Ploeg’s been met with welcoming vibes at area restaurants. “I haven’t had anyone be rude toward me. They don’t turn their noses up at the idea. They will make you something if you ask.”

Prior to Ploeg’s landing in Billings, sisters Ashley and Katie Klaus opened Billings’ only all-vegan restaurant, which closed in October after less than a year of operation. The sisters described the closure as an issue with an unnamed investor, rather than community support.

This leaves a wide-open market in Billings for an exclusively vegan restaurant, and Ploeg has noticed a lot of interest.

“People here like to go out, and I feel like if you’re not being condescending to people here, they would try something new,” said Ploeg.

Photos: Vegan chef Joshua Ploeg