Photography by Danny Fulgencio

How does a Texan describe Frito pie to a room of Europeans? Chef Troy Gardner found himself in this dilemma at the Sabor Vegan Academy in Spain. “I realized for the first time that Frito pie was a Texas thing,” Gardner says. “One of the instructors asked about the most popular items I had on a menu, and I just got crickets and blank stares, and they asked if it was a dessert.” After traveling around Europe, learning new culinary techniques and absorbing foreign culture, chef Gardner came back to the States and founded V-Eats Modern Vegan in 2018. A former Wildcat, Gardner has returned to Lake Highlands with his latest venture, TLC “Tastes Like Chicken” Vegan Kitchen. The ghost kitchen provides delivery and takeout to the Lake Highlands area.

Initial interest in vegan food:

I started cooking a lot of vegan items years back when I was in college. I was in a band, and I played for a lot of musicians around the U.S. In the music world and the arts, you meet a lot of vegan individuals. I started to make items for them that didn’t involve just hummus and French fries. I enjoyed the challenge and making something a little bit different, and that’s how it all kind of launched.

On attending the Sabor Vegan Academy:

That was absolutely amazing to be able to be immersed in food all day long throughout the week and then jump around Europe on the weekends. I would have loved to do that full time. The nice thing about Spain is that the south of Spain is really like being in a combination of France and Spain. There’s so many incredible food influences. It was just an awakening experience for me being able to work with mainly organic products because there’s so many farms and vineyards up and down the mountains. It’s funny because these farmers have been using the same techniques for hundreds of years.

What is a ghost kitchen?

A ghost kitchen is a brick-and-mortar restaurant that doesn’t have a dining room. It’s just a restaurant where you serve all of your food out the door without customers coming in.

How has COVID-19 impacted business?

We launched right in the middle of it. It was a little bit easier for us to get the word out because people have already become accustomed to delivery and curbside takeout. You’re not teaching people how to wait outside for it to be brought to them. They’ve already started dealing with that at their regular restaurants.

Why Lake Highlands:

There’s not a huge vegan community in Lake Highlands, but it’s incredibly popular in the area. There are a lot of folks that partake in vegan food that aren’t necessarily vegan, which is kind of the route I was going for when I first launched V-Eats. I was trying to create a vegan restaurant that appealed to nonvegans because vegans are going to come to a vegan restaurant regardless because there’s a limited number of them. They broaden your client base while exposing more people to an entirely different type of food and lifestyle that they ordinarily wouldn’t eat.

Favorite item on the menu:

Our sausage and mushroom pizza.

Favorite vegan restaurant:

Crossroads Diner in L.A.

Must-have item in the kitchen:

I do a whole lot of zesting, not going to lie. I really love my peeler because you’d be amazed at all the cool things you can do with a standard potato peeler.

Message to people who are nervous about trying vegan food:

I would say that good food is good food. Don’t be fearful because there’s the word “vegan” in front of it. Most people say, “I could never eat a vegan dish,” and I tell them, “Well, you’ve had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” Just because we add the word vegan doesn’t mean that it’s not food. It’s not like we’re introducing some extreme foreign substance. It’s just reorganizing a recipe, and it just happens to not involve animal products.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.