Chef Kenny Chye is on a mission to make the world vegan, one “meaty” burger at a time
On a recent Monday afternoon at Vege-Way’s South Jones Boulevard location, a saffron-robed monk enjoyed a meal fewer than 10 feet from the vegan burger joint’s owner, Kenny Chye, who was giving a press interview: “In Asia, vegetarian food originally came from the Buddhist temple,” he said, gesturing toward the monk. “When Asian people stop eating meat, it looks like something has happened to them — they have family problems or health problems. So, when I stopped eating meat, my friends would say, ‘Hey, Chef, what happened to you?’ I would tell them, ‘Nothing. I’m 55 years old. I ate so much meat the last 50 years, the next 50 I won’t eat any.’”
That a Buddhist monk happened to be sitting there, a convenient prop to help make Chye’s point, might have seemed like divine providence or crafty public relations had the monk’s companion, a middle-aged woman, not stopped by the table to greet the chef on her way out.
“They go to Veggie House a lot,” Chye explained, “but this is their first time here.”
The way Chye tells it, Vege-Way owes its existence to Veggie House, the restaurant he opened on Spring Mountain in 2012 to offer plant-based simulations of traditional Chinese dishes. As it gained popularity and attracted a following, the chef got to know his regular customers. When they talked about the vegan lifestyle, he says, they’d frequently say that what they missed most from their meat-eating days was a good hamburger.
“So,” Chye says, back at Vege-Way, “I made this place for them.”
It’s a striking imitation of classic fast-food hamburger restaurants, from the bright, primary-color décor to the ambient ketchup-and-mustard scent. The burgers come wrapped in paper and stuffed in a mess-minimizing envelope, a necessity for the mouth-watering handful of meaty deliciousness Chye has managed to concoct using zero animal products. Yelp critics give it four and a half stars, often comparing it to In-N-Out.
‘I want to live longer’
Customers, family and friends are behind a lot of Chye’s professional accomplishments. From a line of restaurateurs, he trained with a master chef in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and dreamed of having his own place in the U.S. In 1981, he got the chance: a San Diego restaurant sponsored him to come to the country on a special visa. Seven years later, he had his own place, Overseas, in Carlsbad. Now operated by his brother and sister, it was the first of three Southern California restaurants Chye opened before moving to Las Vegas in 2001.
Here, he worked for a decade as a food wholesaler who (irony alert!) specialized in meat. Indirectly, it led him to be one of Southern Nevada’s best-known vegan chefs. His mother, a devout Buddhist, frequently urged him to get out of the meat-trafficking business. Then, a close friend and fellow meat supplier narrowly survived colon cancer.
Chye recalls: “He said, ‘Kenny, I want to change my diet. I want to live longer. I don’t want to disappear from this world.’ Now he’s 78 years old. After he became vegan, he was fine. That’s what inspired me to do a veggie restaurant.”
Another source of inspiration is Chye’s own taste in food. His restaurants recreate dishes that are familiar to carnivores, in part to attract a mainstream audience, and in part because Chye himself loved the taste and texture of meat.
“I duplicate the food I like,” he says. “I don’t like salad. I like sea bass. And we’ll have sea bass on the menu (at Veggie House) in a few weeks.”
Fans of Chye’s restaurants marvel at his plant-based approximations of Mongolian beef, roast pork, crispy scallops, Hon Hon shrimp and curry duck. He’s spent countless hours perfecting his own recipe for most of these “meats,” all the while denying that he’s a food scientist. It’s simply cheaper, he says, to buy wholesale ingredients and make your own meat analogs than to buy them premade. And his often taste better.
At Vege-Way, Chye walks briskly back to the galley area where employees spend eight hours a day making 1,000 or more of his secret-recipe beef-, chicken- and soy-free patties. They mix rice with beans and other vegetables in huge bowls, press the patties into custom-made moulds, steam the patties and then freeze them for storage. Patties are fried before going into burgers and sandwiches, or sold frozen by the half-dozen.
It’s hard not to see the potential for scaling up such an operation. Chye says he’s had plenty of franchise and wholesaling offers, but he has his own plan.
“The next thing we’ll do is a main kitchen,” he says. “We’re going to make our veggie patty, of course, chicken patty with different flavors … fish, beef skewers, and then we can supply them to the hotels. When we open Vege-Way in San Diego and L.A., we can freeze (the products) and ship them. But without the main kitchen, we can’t do anything.”
First, though, Vege-Way needs a few more months to get established. The Jones location opened last September, and a Centennial Hills one in February. Chye says customers are already asking for one in Henderson.
Why so popular?
“I get a lot of word-of-mouth,” he says. “I help the vegan community with events, like donating food to fundraisers for animal charities. We donate food to the homeless every month. … I talk to people. I tell them what the good things to eat are, what type of work we should be doing for our health, the environment and animals.”
Sounds like a man who’s gotten religion.
5115 Spring Mountain Rd.
7790 S. Jones Blvd., 702-614-3380
6410 N. Durango Drive