Elle Murtagh is the head chef and owner of The Coronado vegan restaurant in Phoenix, Arizona. Murtagh is a passionate vegan chef, as she improves her dishes to perfection and experiments with revolutionizing plant-based cuisine to be both tasty and delightful. She has also been an active representative of and advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community in Arizona. With Emily Spetrino, her wife and co-owner of The Coronado, they make a dynamic culinary team that has resulted in The Coronado being named Best of Phoenix 2019: Best Vegetarian Restaurant by Phoenix New Times.
WOD: How would you describe your culinary style?
Murtagh: I am a French trained chef, so I tend to do everything from scratch. I’ve lived in Phoenix most of my life so I pull a lot of southwest flavors and dishes in. As a vegan chef, I feel like there are two stereotypes: either kale smoothies and salads, or over-worked mock meats. I try to strike a balance and make comfort foods with a vegetable forward approach. When I was in culinary school, it wasn’t vegan, but I learned about developing flavor. Using those techniques excited me, since I was told that vegan food couldn’t be as flavorful.
WOD: What inspired you to open The Coronado?
Murtagh: Honestly it was the building itself. Someone asked us to look at the space. There wasn’t really a plan. When we saw it, we saw possibility. We immediately saw it as a neighborhood haunt: someplace you could go to- morning to night- and just hang out.
WOD: How does your culture/identity influence The Coronado?
Murtagh: It’s a reflection of who we are. We’re always trying to learn and grow and do better with and for our community.
WOD: What are you most passionate about embellishing in your culinary endeavors?
Murtagh: I have been working on some fermentation, for the sake of wanting to make great vegan cheeses. I want cheese that is not just “good for vegan cheese” but like really good. It’s a bit of a personal project so far, but I am enjoying exploring that process, and wanting to eventually bring that in.
WOD: What’s your favorite dish so far?
Murtagh: Speaking of making cheese, we have a jalapeno marmalade and cashew chevre quesadilla. It’s a really fun and unique flavor profile.
WOD: How does your love of food translate into your life?
Murtagh: It’s funny, my wife and partners all give me a hard time. I can’t help but critique or try to understand everything that comes to the table. It’s not because I don’t enjoy the food- it’s because I want to see more, to be surprised, or to learn something. No matter where we go, I take vegan dishes personally, because a restaurant’s vegan dish is a reflection on what I do. If someone tries their first vegan dish and it’s not awesome, that’s setting a tone for them of what to expect from other vegan dishes.
WOD: How has living in Phoenix influenced your art?
Murtagh: It’s shaped a lot of what we do, from the restaurants we cut our teeth in and share space with, to the staff, to the folks coming through the doors. We’ll never stop learning and creating. Phoenix is a really weird and hard place to be sometimes, but it’s also a place of rebirth, where it’s easy to carve out your own niche, so it’s allowed us to try things we might not have the ability to in other cities.
WOD: Who do you hope your work will impact?
Murtagh: We’re just a little restaurant doing our best to be supportive of our community. If folks get something more from that, awesome, but we recognize that we’re doing our best to take cues from the people that have been doing the work for years.
WOD: What motivates you to keep The Coronado open even during the pandemic?
Murtagh: It’s been hard to be motivated. The Government has truly abandoned the people, never mind small businesses. What does keep us motivated is our staff, and doing what we can to keep them safe while also keeping everyone employed. The other thing keeping us going is our community.