Conscience cuisine

Sacramento vegans have plenty of options—but they’re not always obvious

Kate Alaimo and Genaro Ulloa cooked beets and polenta cakes topped with vegan aioli at a recent dinner party for friends.

Kate Alaimo and Genaro Ulloa cooked beets and polenta cakes topped with vegan aioli at a recent dinner party for friends.

SN&R Photo By Shoka

Contact Josh Ploeg at

Buy Ploeg’s cookbooks at

Contact Genaro Ulloa at

Learn more about Food Not Bombs at

Visit Luna’s Café at 1414 16th Street, (916) 441-3931,

Visit to learn more about Sacramento’s vegan options.

Vegans in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are spoiled. They’re supported by a network of organizations, stores and entire restaurants that promote abstinence from animal byproducts. In Sacramento, it sometimes feels like a reheated pot of lentils from the Co-op is all the movement has.

“We’re in a city that’s certainly moving in a progressive direction,” said Kate Alaimo, a cook at Luna’s Café. “But vegan food has really lagged.”

Still, vegans have always been creative (soy “cheese,” anyone?). And plenty of local folks without the means to open a full-fledged vegan cafe, have found alternative ways to bring cruelty-free cuisine to the people.

Like Josh Ploeg, who caters vegan weddings, music shows and dinner parties. Or part-time chef Genaro Ulloa, who caters dinner parties and offers vegan cooking demonstrations. Or Kate Alaimo, who continuously adds vegan options to the menu at Luna’s Café; or Sacramento Food Not Bombs, the grassroots organization that offers free cruelty-free meals.

These locals support veganism, or the choice to abstain from meat, leather, wool, dairy and other animal byproducts. It’s a choice some make for animal rights, reacting to factory farm horror stories, like when two California farmers tossed 30,000 live “unproductive” egg-laying hens into a wood chipper with permission from a U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarian in 2003. Others cite environmental concerns: A 2006 United Nations report linked the livestock sector to “land degradation, climate change and air pollution, water shortage and water pollution and loss of biodiversity.” Some choose veganism for religious reasons. Buddhists, for example, believe humans come back to inhabit the bodies of animals. And still others cite health concerns: Colon cancer, heart disease and other ailments have been linked to meat consumption.

Vegan caterer Josh Ploeg was raised on a dairy farm in uber-progressive Bellingham, Wash. He won’t tell you any horror stories from his youth, but he’s heard plenty of them.

“Other farms did yucky stuff like give cows hormones or feed them sprayed feed,” Ploeg said. “We didn’t do those things.”

Still, Ploeg got sick of milk and cheese the way a Burger King employee gets nauseated by the repetitive stench of grease. Veganism was an appealing refuge—one that’s become his career, cooking and catering vegan weddings, concerts and popular seven-course dinner parties across the nation three to eight months each year. Ploeg relies on word-of-mouth publicity, and his success can be measured in backstage catering gigs for singer Perry Ferrell of Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros, and the bands Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Subhumans.

Even skeptics of the V-word will find Ploeg’s gourmet party menus appealing. (See page 19).

Since March, Ploeg has based his cruelty-free cooking venture out of Sacramento.

“California was the obvious choice,” Ploeg said of his decision to move here from Hermiston, Ore. “People here are really adventurous eaters.”

Since March, vegan traveling chef Josh Ploeg has called Sacramento home.

SN&R Photo By Shoka

If you ask Ploeg’s neighbor, Genaro Ulloa, about his own vegan cooking demonstrations and catering gigs around town, he’ll tell you that he’s just Ploeg’s sous chef, or assistant. But Ploeg will tell you that he assists Ulloa, too. While they cook on par with a delicious home-style restaurant, Ploeg and Ulloa still get friendly with the grassroots of vegan subculture: They met through the local anarchist community and their first cooking collaboration was a benefit for political prisoners. And both men are musicians. Ploeg sings (or screams) in punk outfit Warm Streams (a name his mom considers disgusting) and Ulloa plays keyboard for electronica ensemble the Evening Episode.

While Ploeg, an established independent chef, charges $20 a head to cater weddings, concerts and dinner parties, Ulloa usually cooks for free.

“Among my friends, I have cooked so many dinners and never really charged because it’s a pleasure to have people come over and eat my food,” Ulloa said.

Kate Alaimo, Ulloa’s recent sous chef at one such dinner of friends, offers a rotating menu of vegan specials at Luna’s Café.

From tofu scrambles in the morning to tabouleh or hummus platters mid-day, Luna’s vegan’s options are a rarity in Sacramento’s cafe and restaurant scene.

Alaimo became vegan while traveling through Asia where, she said, dairy products were scarce. When she returned to the States, she just kept cooking vegan. Ploeg, on the other hand, traveled because of his veganism in 2002, when he needed a strategy to sell his cookbook, Something Delicious This Way Comes.

Meanwhile, Ulloa got his start right here at home, volunteer cooking for Sacramento Food Not Bombs, part of a national anti-war organization appalled by “the amount of money that gets spent on the military, on weapons, on killing people, while people are going hungry,” volunteer Davida Douglas said. Every Sunday afternoon, the chapter congregates in Cesar Chavez Plaza to give away vegan food that they’ve cooked from ingredients donated by the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Sacramento Tofu Company and all-vegan Sunflour Baking Co., among others.

“Everybody is welcome,” Douglas said. “You don’t have to prove that you’re poor. … It’s the Stone Soup Theory that, separately, people don’t have much, but whenever you come together and you pull your resources to share, there’s plenty for everybody.”

Douglas, a vegan for 17 years, used to run the online chocolate company, Vegan Splendor. She baked two nights a week out of a rented kitchen space at Sierra 2, but closed after a year when she needed a $12,000 investment in kitchen equipment to lower the cost of her chocolates.

Financial strain also hinders Ploeg’s dream of opening a vegan restaurant in Sacramento. His generously low-cost events don’t make for a high-profit career. The traveling chef doesn’t even have a car. (“Nothing is crazier than the morning of the wedding having the bride drive me around to get stuff,” Ploeg said.)

Still, as more metropolitan cities indicate, vegan restaurants can survive.

“I think there’s certainly opportunity and potential out there for vegan businesses to be successful,” Douglas said. “Really, I think the hold-up is in the financing end of it.”

All you need is someone who can turn that stone soup to gold.