Today the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Tal Ronnen, the “vegan rock-star chef” who once persuaded Oprah to try a “vegan cleanse” for 21 days. (She eventually bailed on the experiment, explaining: “After four days everybody's like ‘How do you feel? How do you feel?’ I feel like I want a cheese sandwich. That’s what I feel like.”) The L.A. Times is positioning Ronnen as a “classically trained chef” bent on “taking the movement back from those militants brandishing bumper stickers that admonish us not to eat anything with a face.” But if you peel back the layers of tofu, he’s little more than a PETA retread who spent several years on the animal rights group’s payroll.
Curiously, today’s profile never mentions PETA. Not once. But Ronnen’s work with the radical animal rights group should be impossible to overlook.
Tal Ronnen wasn’t always a chef. In 2000 he was credited as the cinematographer for a video titled Paul McCartney and Friends: The PETA Concert for Party Animals. By 2003 he was a PETA spokesperson, advocating for jail inmates in animal rights-related cases to get vegan meals in the slammer.
Later in 2003 Ronnen, a Jew, was a spokesman for PETA’s disturbing “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign—a touring photographic exhibit that rationalized comparisons between Jewish Holocaust victims and farm animals.
The Associated Press covered the installation’s arrival in Charleston, WV: “Tal Ronnen, one of the campaign's organizers, said the disturbing imagery is necessary to catch the public’s attention.” That was two months after the Anti-Defamation League denounced the “Holocaust” campaign. (PETA later issued a “non-apology apology” for the entire debacle.)
In 2004 the Jewish World Review reported that Ronnen posed as a baal teshuva (a recently converted Orthodox Jew) in order to persuade one Rabbi, the American Jewish Committee's director of Interreligious Affairs, to endorse PETA’s position on a video that a PETA undercover operative shot inside a kosher slaughter facility. The Rabbi later said he was unaware Ronnen worked for PETA.
Writing for Matzav.com, attorney Nathan Lewin interviewed the Rabbi:
On Sunday morning I called Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen in Israel. He told me on the phone (and then confirmed in an e-mail) that a purported ‘baal teshuvah’ named Tal Ronen had shown him a video, refused to tell him where it was taken, and said that he wanted to communicate with the rav hamachshir at the slaughterhouse to tell him how to improve his shechita. Rabbi Cohen had expressed his opinion based on that representation, without being able to view the shechita personally or more closely than shown on the video. (It now turns out that Tal Ronen is the PETA employee who sent out the PETA video. Rabbi Cohen has written to PETA forbidding use of his name and his opinion.)
Most of today’s Times profile focuses on Ronnen’s recent work with a vegetarian foodservice consulting company called Veg Advantage. (To her credit, Times reporter Rene Lynch disclosed that Ronnen is also a paid consultant with a vegan food company.) Ronnen claims to have founded Veg Advantage in 2004, but the Internet tells a slightly different story.
For starters, Ronen continued his professional role as a PETA spokesman until at least the fall of 2005. But in July 2006, an analysis of the web domains that PETA controlled showed that “VegAdvantage.com” was hosted on PETA’s servers. (We confirmed this with our own analysis in September 2006.)
We’re not passing judgment on Tal Ronnen’s promotion of veganism. It’s a free country, and vegans are entitled to their opinions. But as his star continues to rise, it’s helpful to know that his philosophical eggs, as it were, were incubated at PETA–even if he now feigns a “moderate” approach like that of the Humane Society of the United States. A tiger doesn’t change his stripes—just his PR.