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Swap Meat

Swap Meat

Vegetable-focused chefs have started to convert even the most meat-centric eaters

There was a time in American dining that if you didn't have red meat prominently featured as the main course on your menu, you may as well not have bothered serving dinner. Oversized T-bone steaks, burgers piled high on sesame seed buns, steak tartare front and center at the start of a meal — this was how the average American diner, well, dined and maybe they'd have some creamed spinach along side to get their recommended vegetable.

As we moved into the '80s, people became more health conscious and white meat — pork, chicken, turkey — became more the norm and fish started swimming its way in front of more people, especially with the sushi boom in the '90s. Now as the country gets even more health savvy, chefs have started making vegetables the star at the center of diners' plates, but that doesn't mean everyone is ready to give up their meat. So, as a chef, how can you help convince even the most meat-centric eaters that vegetables are their friends?

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Charleston's Harold's Cabin

"You have to get people to try it," said Justin Pfau, executive chef at Harold's Cabin in Charleston, S.C.

While Harold's Cabin has meat dishes like a bison burger with onion jam and flounder with lavender-roasted pears, its main focus is on presenting beautiful seasonal produce as the star. It has a farm on its roof and an in-house farmer to tend to all the herbs and vegetables they grow. Meat eaters may visit Harold's looking for a hearty, meat-focused dish, but once they experience more vegetables, especially when presented on Pfau's forage board — the best way to describe it is like a charcuterie board, but with a focus on vegetables, fruit, herbs and edible flowers in lieu of cured meats — they quickly change their tune.

"It happens with the forage board a lot with people who aren't vegetable eaters and they love it," Pfau said. "I asked a table one time if they enjoyed it and they weren't really sure what it was, but thought it was delicious. This was someone who elsewhere would have gotten a burger or fried chicken. Just give them vegetables in the first place. When we get repeat customers, they come back and want to try other things."

Don't worry: Chefs don't want to take away your meat, but rather start introducing more vegetables slowly so people understand that produce doesn't need to be relegated to merely showing up as a second-thought side dish. It takes more to get creative with vegetables and to bring out their natural flavor than simply cooking a steak over coals. Chefs use a variety of cooking techniques, seasonings and spices to entice diners to try vegetables, and once they do, they're usually more interested in exploring what vegetables can offer.

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Bryce Gilmore, chef/owner of Austin restaurants Odd Duck and Barley Swine

"The idea is if we have a couple of items that are more vegetable focused, maybe enough people will get turned on to something that's different," said Bryce Gilmore, chef/owner of Austin restaurants Odd Duck and Barley Swine. "You have to find a balance of things that will attract the average consumer into your restaurant, but then open their eyes to a new way to eat."

This is a perspective shared by a number of chefs across the country. Many new restaurants have emerged from the Northeast to the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest where vegetables have started taking center stage to show diners that meat isn't the only way to leave a restaurant feeling full and happy. At Los Angeles spot Botanica, which is scheduled to open this April, Emily Fiffer and Heather Sperling, two former food journalists, created a place where diners could eat more healthfully without feeling like they dropped into a "health food" restaurant.

"I can make someone a dish like gigante beans and greens with spiced tomato sauce and smoked labneh," Fiffer said. "It's all vegetables and legumes and it's hearty and good for you, and wildly satisfying. You feel like you're eating a really meaty, flavor-packed, richly spiced dish."

Fiffer, like others who have started paying more attention to vegetables, encourages chefs not to fear experimenting with different ways of preparing vegetables. Plenty of chefs have started doing whole roasted cauliflower and cooking a variety of vegetables over open fire, which gives it a steak-like taste with the char from the flame. Others use a variety of spices and seasonings from around the world like Japan, India and the Middle East to help take the overall flavor up a notch.

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Dan Snowden, executive chef at Chicago's Bad Hunter

"The goal at the end of the day is just making delicious, craveable food," said Dan Snowden, executive chef at Chicago's Bad Hunter. "This idea of luring in meat eaters to try and change them is not a goal of ours. It's not the end game. I'm a meat eater — I enjoy seafood and meats — but I eat them in smaller portions. We wanted to create meat and seafood as sides. If you're dying for protein you can add it to your meal in smaller portions and feel satisfied."

While more diners have started gravitating toward eating more vegetables, many still feel like a meal isn't a meal without some sort of meat on the plate. However, there are ways to fill people up without having a hefty sleep-inducing 32-ounce ribeye as the main focus.

"We have to get people to move beyond that," Snowden added. "And it's not just eating a bunch of broccoli on a plate with nothing else. It'll have grains, breads, cheese — all of this amazing food that really does round out a meal."

To get people to start eating differently starts with chefs at restaurants. Many new food trends begin with more prominent chefs and trickle down to restaurants across the country. But to start that movement, more chefs need to start cooking more vegetables.

"People want to eat this way, but don't know how to," said Rich Laudau, chef/owner of James Beard Award-nominated Vedge in Philadelphia. "We can fix that. We can show you that vegetables can give you that same satisfaction as meat. You have to rewire your brain; it's like exercise. It's not going to happen in the first month, but after that you're going to start feeling great. You'll understand there's more to life than just eating meat as the center of your plate. Put vegetables in the center and give them enough flavor from smoke, char and spice and you won't miss the meat. You'll be as satisfied by not eating meat."

Another way to ease diners into eating more vegetables is to present a dish with tastes and textures as if it were a meat dish. At Charleston's Harold's Cabin, Pfau would likely never have a pastrami or corned beef sandwich on the menu, but he does have a mushroom Reuben, where he seasons fresh mushrooms with black garlic and pastrami spices and serves that on a bun with caraway pickled cabbage, gruyere cheese and roasted tomato aioli. While it may not be an exact match for the traditional Reuben, people find it wholly satisfying.

"That's a thing we do a lot here is take something traditional and familiar, and evolve it to fit this place," Pfau said. "We strike a balance between satisfying what people want and give them something new, and familiar."

That all starts with you experimenting to make vegetables taste unique and as interesting as you would a new cut of beef, a game meat you've never worked with or a different type of fowl. You can take baby steps by cooking vegetables in animal fats or in a bone broth or pork stock to add a meatier texture. Lead your meat-loving guests by the hand and show them how good vegetables can be.

"Create something people don't realize they're craving," Bad Hunter's Snowden said. "If they try it and enjoy it, they'll realize it's an interesting way to approach and think about food."

To start, however, you just need to trust yourself and believe you can approach cooking vegetables the same as you would any other ingredient you're used to cooking.

"You have to play around and experiment, and devote ample attention to vegetables," Botanica's Fiffer suggested. "Spend a day devoting as much to a vegetable as you did with venison the day before. There are chefs who are really talented with cooking vegetables, but they're not paying enough attention to them."

Is it time you started paying more attention to vegetables?

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