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Dinner, Starring Vegetables

Chefs use meat in moderation as vegetables move into the spotlight

Rebecca Messner

In the drama of dining, a vegetable is rarely cast in the starring role. Vegetables make excellent supporting characters, but proteins are the main event. Meat is what sells tickets, why people come to the show in the first place.

However, chefs are calling for a role change by giving vegetables their time in the spotlight and using meat as an accompaniment or seasoning in vegetable-based dishes. In a departure from the meat-heavy menus of past decades, this trend is largely a result of kitchens recognizing consumers’ changing demands, pushing chefs to find ways to give vegetables the attention they deserve.

“Flexitarian”: A history

    Much of this can be attributed to the flexitarian eater, who has been popping up on the food-conscious dining scene for the past few years. The word flexitarian was designated 2003’s most useful word by the American Dialect Society, and refers to those people who are mostly vegetarian, but make occasional exceptions to eat meat. The Hartman Group believes these moonlighting meat-eaters make up 30 to 40 percent of the population, and that those numbers are ever-growing. Flexitarians are health conscious at the root of it, but ultimately most interested in savoring full-flavored food, which may include meat in moderation.

Executive Chef Trey Foshee of George’s at the Cove in San Diego attributes the trend to what may be a backlash from an onslaught of recent media attention given to flesh-heavy foods. “We went through three years of every chef in the business going on the Food Network and talking about pork products,” he says. “And it’s not that we shouldn’t be talking about pork belly, but we should also be talking about vegetables.”

   Mark Bittman, the New York Times “Minimalist” columnist, admits to staying vegetarian during the day, so that at night he can indulge in heavier meat dishes – calling himself a “smartly thought-out omnivore.” Bittman points out, however, that this
isn’t a strange thing. One point he touches upon is the annual
Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which consistently recommends increasing fruit and vegetable intake, while urging diners to eat protein servings smaller than the size of meat dishes that one would typically find in restaurants. Additionally, Bittman notes the ongoing popularity of food advocates like Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, who champion sustainability in food, which directly translates into consumers reducing meat intake. In light of Waters’ and Pollan’s locavore philosophy, many chefs are catering to the vegetable-loving crowd by staying local.

Start with the season

  Using what’s seasonal is nothing new, especially in abundant areas like California, where variety is everywhere and even off seasons yield fresh produce. Chef Foshee embraces the West’s produce abundance and makes use of his close relationship with Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe to dictate the nature of his restaurant’s menu, which changes seasonally. “Our menu revolves around vegetables,” he says. “If I lived in Vancouver and was visiting seafood purveyors every day, it would be different.”

George’s at the Cove’s dinner menu has its share of protein-centric plates; but it is the vegetarian menu, which proves that vegetables can stand on their own two feet. Chef Foshee’s menu is evidence of his creative veggie-focused dishes, offering diners an inventive appetizer of fried avocado, pineapple miso, Hon-Shimeji, fennel, and frisee or a hearty entrée of charred eggplant puree with ricotta fritters, summer bean ragout, basil, and saffron cherry tomatoes.

Settled in the heart of Wine Country’s culinary destination of Yountville, Chef Dave Cruz of Thomas Keller’s casual outpost Ad Hoc, also starts his dining show with the vegetables. Ad Hoc’s unique menu has just four courses, which change daily and are served family-style. Although the restaurant’s second course is almost invariably meat (they are famous for their fried chicken), the kitchen staff decides the day’s dishes based on what they know will be available in the three local gardens the staff collects ingredients from: one small patch directly behind the restaurant, another larger garden grown strictly for culinary use behind Keller’s French Laundry a few blocks down from the restaurant and Yountville’s very own Jacobsen Orchards.

Chef Cruz and his kitchen staff at Ad Hoc display creativity when it comes to using meat to enhance, but not overpower, vegetables – most often shown off in the restaurant’s first course. He notes that “especially in the springtime, we’ll do dishes like haricot vert potato salad with fresh-dug potatoes, dressed really simply with sherry vinaigrette.” Adding that in order to elevate the dish, they use prosciutto as the salad’s base.

“It’s [prosciutto] a different layer of flavor,” says Cruz. “It highlights another taste bud, and it has a little bit of fat in it as well, which accentuates the flavor of whatever else is around it.”

Overcoming the challenges

Reducing meat’s prevalence on the plate can be challenging – especially when diners bring their own expectations to the table. For his eclectic American restaurant Bottle Cap in San Francisco, Chef Dane Boryta says he initially wanted to showcase vegetables. “I wanted to have a bunch of vegetarian dishes with meat sides,” he says. However, the restaurant’s buttoned-up Washington Square location, forced him to stay traditional. “You have to consider what people want, and sometimes people will want to have their normal entrée … They will think, ‘I want to have a steak tonight.’”

One way Boryta gets around the protein problem is with timing. “It’s a little easier at lunchtime,” he says, “people aren’t looking to spend a lot.” Boryta’s pulled inspiration from having worked at a Mediterranean restaurant for the past four years, where serving tapas and mezze meant mixing things up with vegetable-based dishes. Bottle Cap serves a dish of heirloom tomatoes, flanked by crispy cured pork belly with arugula, buttermilk sauce, and croutons – the emphasis here is on the tomatoes, not the pork belly. “Sometimes you have to fight tradition to do what you want to do,” he says.

Chef Cruz recognizes that “the first thing is to
offer something that tastes really good, something that’s satisfying. The perception is that more is better, certainly when you think of the place of protein, how it’s always been in the center of the plate.” To overcome this, he suggests adding a little fat in a different medium “in the form of cheese, or a different oil, or even the fat of an animal rather than the flesh of an animal.”

Ad Hoc will often feature potatoes or other vegetables cooked in duck or bacon fat. “It gives your mouth a full feeling of an animal fat,” says Cruz. “It kind of bursts in your mouth.”

International inspiration

Executive Chef Suzette Gresham of Acquerello, a highly-lauded San Francisco staple, says that sometimes customers’ expectations can work in favor of a chef willing to experiment with vegetables. “Say I write a word like ‘tongue’ on the menu. You do not have a pleasant image pop up in your mind,” she says, noting, “vegetables are a lot less scary, a lot less intimidating.”

“I’ve had a longtime love affair with vegetables,” says Gresham, who comes from a family of French heritage and now co-owns Acquerello, which specializes in food from all regions of Italy. “I’ve always tried to do justice for vegetables,” she says, crediting her “global perspective.” She closely follows the Italian tradition, where meat appears as an addition to pasta, or on its own, in a moderately sized secondo.

“I grew up in the fifties and sixties … an era when if you wanted to impress your husband’s boss, you bought a steak. Meat was the harbinger of your status,” she says. “What we’re experiencing now is another shift.”

Gresham crafts vegetables in a way that elevates them from objects of childhood dread to luminaries of fine dining. “When you think about fine dining, you never talk about vegetables first,” she says. “At home, I can steam broccoli, drizzle olive oil and pepper and salt, and it’s to die for. In the restaurant, you take it further. You ask, ‘What can I combine that I never have thought of?’ It requires artistry, intricacy, and sometimes technology.”

Acquerello’s plum carpaccio came from Chef de Cuisine Mark Pensa’s experiments balancing acidity, Gresham says. The plum, sliced thin, is accompanied by herbaceous baby mustard greens and shaved porchetta, dressed lightly in a balsamic cipolline. “The plum has enough tartness to replace the acidity of the salad,” Gresham says, “And we treat the porchetta like it’s just part of the salad.”

Re-educating American diners

And so while it’s fairly certain that Americans will never lose their collective craving for a big steak every once in a while, there’s increasing market demand for a more colorful, diverse plate. “A lot of people are becoming more aware of the fact that meat used to be – and still is – a luxury item,” says Cruz. “It shouldn’t be a cheap way to fill your plate.” And although Chef Foshee admits, “We in the industry look at vegetarians as a thorn in our side,” he recognizes the importance of satisfying the customer, noting, “but they [non-meat eaters] still enjoy the experience of a dinner.” As customers increasingly clamor for meat in moderation, perhaps it’s time for kitchens to push protein from the center to the side of the plate, pleasing flexitarians, vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Carparrio of Plum with Baby Mustard Greens, Shaved Porchetta & Balsamic Cipolline Onions
Inspiration for Executive Chefs