Chef Kirsten Taggart sets down a tray of gourmet cupcakes on the countertop of her Windsor Street vegan eatery, Wild Leek. Today’s special is chocolate peanut butter. It comes with a big chocolate-drenched pretzel on top. “I can’t keep cupcakes long enough,” she says. “They are my top sellers.”
Taggart opened Wild Leek in June 2013, after cooking for over 12 years in some of Canada’s top kitchens, including Wickanninish in Tofino, B.C. and the Vancouver restaurants Quattro on Fourth and Joe Fortes. She honed her vegan cooking skills during a 2.5-year stint at Aux Vivres, a popular vegan restaurant in Montreal.
Inspired by Joaquin Phoenix’s animal-rights documentary Earthlings, Taggart became vegan five years ago (she’d been vegetarian for four years at the time). “It made me question the ethics of where we source our food,” she says. “But I’m not on a vegan crusade. I just really enjoy cooking—it’s my passion. This is my preferred way of cooking and I can’t imagine going back to cooking with meat and animal products.”
Now, she’s putting everything she knows on the line at Wild Leek and loves the creative freedom that entails. “I’m not making other people’s creations,” Taggart says. “It’s exciting because I have the artistic license to make my own things, so I can switch it up and make what I want to make.”
That means a menu that changes monthly, boasting daily specials and a bevy of breakfast, lunch and dinner items. “I try to use as much local produce as I can,” says Taggart. She sources organic tofu, beets and apples from Acadiana Soy in Wolfville, for example.
She also creates a range of sumptuous desserts. “I’m a sucker for the almond butter cup,” says Lindsay Umlah, a holistic nutritional consultant who lives a short walk from the eatery. “It’s like a Reese’s peanut butter cup but made with almond butter and dark chocolate, with sea salt on top.”
Making food without animal products means almost everything is from scratch. Taggart creates all of the sauces and condiments in-house, including vegan mayonnaise and cream cheese. She makes her “meats” in-house, too, including lox. “It’s made with carrot pulp and is really delicious,” says Taggart.
Wild Leek offers the expected smoothies and fresh-pressed juices but Taggart shows her creativity with comfort foods like mac and cheese, eggs benedict, house-made seitan sandwiches, and a popular coconut bacon “CBLT.” “Thankfully, they sell the coconut bacon by the mason jar,” says vegan customer Suzanne MacMaster, who lives in the North End. “For an entire week, my boyfriend and I made vegan caesar salad with coconut bacon on it.”
An important part of Taggart’s cooking philosophy is making good use of each ingredient. “I like to experiment and throw things into something else when they don’t work out,” she says. “Low waste is an important part of vegan cooking… I don’t think vegan cooking should be overly pretentious. I get a lot of people coming in who say they don’t normally go to vegan restaurants and that’s OK. You don’t have to be vegan to eat at a vegan restaurant—you just eat where the food is good.”
She hopes her recipes inspire non-vegans familiar with the heavy, seed-laden vegan recipes of the 1970s to give the cuisine another chance. “A lot of people have misconceptions that vegan food is heavy hippie food,” she laughs. “It’s not the case—it’s evolved past that. Now, there’s a fine-dining aspect to it.”
Halifax’s vegan scene is growing fast. “It’s definitely come a long way,” says MacMaster. “We have fantastic new restaurants opening and becoming more busy “Now I actually have legit vegan places to go where I don’t have to worry about how it’s prepared and if it touched some meat juice [She laughs].”
Apart from offering vegan items, Taggart is also tuning in to the needs of customers with food sensitivities, and crafts many items to be gluten, soy and nut-free. “I always have to think about how I can make a recipe available for people with dietary restrictions,” she says.
And omitting those elements doesn’t make the food bland, she says, turning to another daily dessert special to make her point. “I made chocolate cashew cream-pie bars this morning, which are not only vegan but also gluten-free.”
Customers appreciate the versatility. “She’s constantly creating new things, which showcases how talented she is,” says Umlah. “A lot of people I work with are on plant-based diets to eliminate common allergens like soy, gluten and dairy, so it’s great to see more places in the city where I can go and enjoy a great meal and introduce the vegan world to my clients.”
And Taggart just enjoys sharing her passion. “Vegan food is really tasty and it’s so inventive,” she says. “You can make really anything without animal products—anything is possible.”