Jared Simons is at the top of his game as a plant-based chef and triathlete. On the cusp of opening his latest restaurant, Taco Vega, he reflects on his journey.
Wirehair bearded. Fully tatted. Undeniably lithe. Utterly zen.
Jared Simons isn’t your typical chef. His calm demeanor and measured way of speaking upend the chef-as-shouting-kitchen-tyrant trope. Effortlessness emanates from the “hang ten” sign he often gives when he's photographed while in motion.
And he's constantly in motion. He's opening a new vegan taco spot, Taco Vega, in Los Angeles' Fairfax District this summer. He runs a handcrafted soap company. He's a five-time Ironman Triathlon finisher, powered by the food he's committed to serving at his restaurant: plants.
“People look to chefs as ambassadors of food, and they like to see what chefs are doing [and] eating,” Simons says. So he's decided to demonstrate plants can do it all: fuel intense training and tantalize every taste bud. “I realized there's so much more that chefs could offer the world,” he says.
That realization has opened a path to plant-based excellence.
Simons, who's worked in kitchens since he was 16, got his first taste of the athletic life early on.
He wrestled competitively in high school until an injury dashed his chances of a college scholarship, ultimately leading him to attend California Culinary Academy in San Francisco—a viable backup plan since he'd always loved food.
Southern California set the stage for his career, and he opened his first restaurant, French bistro Le Passage, at the young age of 22 in Carlsbad, near San Diego. In the early 2000s, he sold the restaurant and moved to Santa Monica to open Violet, a popular haunt that served classic, unfussy comfort food.
It was then that he lost touch with a regular exercise regimen and subsisted on what he calls the “chef's diet: anything, everything, and a lot of it.” Junk food, late nights, and drinking led to weight gain.
Simons’ goal-oriented psyche kicked into gear. He found a personal trainer and bartered lunch credits at his restaurant for training sessions. With the goal of “looking like Brad Pitt in Fight Club,” he changed his diet, eating chicken, low-carb foods, brown rice, and lots of vegetables. He took off 50 pounds.
There was a caveat, though: “Over the years, that [diet] allowed me to maintain a physique on the exterior, but I don't know that I felt that good on the inside,” Simons explains.
After closing Violet, Simons bounced around restaurants, eventually linking up with Steven Arroyo at Escuela Taqueria and learning a lot about Mexican food. Then, he headed to No Name, an incognito, intimate supper club with a super exclusive guest list, where he was given carte blanche in the kitchen.
Lifestyle-wise, however, he needed yet another goal. He decided to train for a triathlon.
To prepare for his first triathlon, Simons researched plant-based diets for peak performance. He decided to cut out one food per week over six weeks. First, he cut out fish—then beef the next week, since he was already not eating much of either. Next was chicken, and then dairy, and so on.
It took two months for Simons to really feel the benefits of his new diet. “I started to have more energy and far less stomach issues. My sleep was getting better, and my wife said the snoring wasn't as bad,” he recollects.
The changes didn't come without ridicule from his colleagues—all of whom were wondering when he was going to start eating meat again. But Simons persevered. By the end of 2016, he'd completed three Olympic-distance triathlons and a half-Ironman. A year after he started training, he signed up for his first full-length Ironman.
Simons' personal diet began to shape his professional cooking: He started a plant-based dinner series at No Name. He hoped to fill 50 seats at his first dinner; it was sold out at 70 seats. This set the stage for two-and-a-half years of plant-based dinners, occurring once a month.
The most popular dishes found their way onto the No Name menu (think salivation-inducing beet hummus, mushroom Bolognese, eggplant Parmesan, and country-fried maitake mushroom).
Eventually, Simons’role grew beyond the kitchen and into operations. He wasn't cooking day-to-day, and this left him energy to concentrate more on his plant-based experiments both at his pop-up and at home.
He arrived at a crossroads. “I came at [being] from a diet perspective—I'm not really an ethical vegan—and even through that, I realized after a couple years that I didn't want to cook animals anymore,” Simons says.
In case you're wondering, an Ironman covers a staggering 140.6 miles in total—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. Quads everywhere quiver at the thought.
What can you expect to find at Taco Vega? There are tacos, burritos, bowls, and sides aplenty—but these are some standouts:
the mushroom chile verde (Simons’ version of a chicken pozole verde) coupled with refried beans, topped with cashew crema, and served with a slice of cornbread on the side
the oyster mushroom asada taco that could fool any meat eater, topped with creamy avocado, deep-hued salsa roja, herbaceous cilantro, and crunchy onion
the sweet potato taquitos complemented by a flavorful farro chorizo, spiced with chipotle crema, and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and mustard greens
Thus was born the idea for Taco Vega, a fast-casual concept he hopes will bring plant-based food to the masses—starting from the first location at 339 North Fairfax Avenue. He’ll entice diners with vibrant flavors, juicy bits, and textural intrigue—all through the humble taco. The formula is simple: “Be creative and serve amazing food.”
Angelenos aren't the only ones who'll be able to enjoy Taco Vega, as Simons plans to take this concept to other American cities and to diners of every stripe.
“I want people to say, ‘Let's go get a taco’ or ‘ Let's go get some Mexican’ without saying, ‘ Let's go get the plant-based stuff,’” he says. For Simons, plant-based food doesn't need to prove it can go the distance again and again. It's already won.
Esther Tseng is a food and culture writer based in Los Angeles. Her work can be found at estarLA.com. She tweets and Instagrams at @estarLA.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2020 issue of alive US, under the title "Simons Says."