WOKE: Eating is Believing at Vegetable-Forward Restaurants
The revolution is in full flower
As vegetables continue their inexorable journey from small side corner to the very center of plate, restaurateurs who adopt this way of dining are rapidly becoming the industry’s newest overnight sensations, some with decades of experience. We talked to pioneers and newbies alike to learn why they were inspired to become part of this revolution in dining, and how to build devoted followings with offerings that entice the non-vegetarian.
Those who’ve carved a niche in the vegetable-forward space are distinctly diverse, yet share similar inspiration: enlightenment about the cuisine’s unimpeachable attributes coupled with a recognition of the relative scarcity of appealing options. Says pioneering chef Amanda Cohen, who opened her now iconic Dirt Candy restaurant in 2005: “I had been working in other people’s restaurants for more than 10 years and realized that no one was going to let me try my ideas about vegetables unless I opened my own place.
“Back then, most restaurants that served vegetables either relegated them to the sides section of the menu, had a grilled vegetable or Mediterranean plate as the entree, or imitated the ‘meat and two veg’ formula with a chunk of protein at the center of the plate, a heavy sauce and some vegetables around it.”
Vegetarian status is not a requirement, just a genuine admiration for the role of vegetables, says Jill Barron, who established Chicago’s Mana Food Bar in 2008. It’s often ranked as one of the city’s best vegetarian restaurants. “Then, I felt there was a lack of overall respect for veggies in Chicago,” adds Barron. “I wanted to create a place where vegetarians and non-vegetarians could eat together.”
There is also a deep sense of giving back, whether to the environment or to the less fortunate. It underlies Beefsteak, the vegetable-focused passion project of renowned chef José Andrés, for example. A partnership with Veteran Compost, a Maryland-based, veteran-owned business turning organic waste into compost for a local urban farm, and kids-eat-free-Wednesdays encourages youthful adoption of healthier, more plant-based dining.
Ran Nussbacher, owner of the award-winning, plant-based Shouk, fervently believes that “it’s a foregone conclusion that we need to change from a culture that relies heavily on meat, fish and dairy to one that brings in more vegetables, nuts and seeds. People are starting to wake up to how the usual way of eating wreaks havoc on their bodies, and there is a growing appreciation for how this is taking a toll on the planet.” Likewise, Aubry and Kale Walch were moved to open Herbivorous Butcher, the first vegan butcher shop in the United States, because “even a modest reduction in the consumption of animal products would not only spare billions of animals from inhumane treatment every year, but have a huge environmental impact.”
Finding success in this space requires a healthy mix of passion and practicality. Our panel of veggie-forward champions shared their notes from the frontlines of a culinary revolution:
Remember your base of potential customers is more diverse than you may imagine.
Walch says: “If you hang out at Herbivorous Butcher on any given day, you’ll see people from every race, gender and age come through the doors. People from all walks of life are pursuing veganism right now.” At Dirt Candy, Cohen says diners split almost evenly between omnivores and vegetarians/vegans. Nussbacher confirms that Shouk customers are all over the board, with the vast majority not vegetarian, but just diners who want to try everything…and “they keep coming back, attracted by the freshness of the cuisine.” Mana attracts a crowd that can’t be neatly pigeonholed either, ranging from foreign tourists to local stroller moms.
A tasty signature item? Yes indeed, and burgers can top your list.
The sheer range of best-sellers is testament to the cuisine’s wide appeal. At Herbivorous Butcher, vegan Korean ribs and pastrami fly off the cutting boards; Dirt Candy’s Portobello mousse, Korean fried broccoli, carrot sliders are perennial favorites, along with flashier dishes like hush puppies with maple butter and Brussels sprout tacos. Others have created vegetarian burgers that pack a meaty punch: Beefsteak’s version has been rightfully termed a masterpiece, featuring a thick, juicy peak-of-season beefsteak tomato sprinkled with sea salt on an olive oil brioche bun, while at Mana, the ever popular sliders are made with brown rice and mushrooms and tucked into a Hawaiian roll. Nussbacher promises that Shouk’s is “the best veggie burger you’ll ever have. We don’t try to make it behave like beef, but celebrate the grains and beans.” Diners and critics agree, with terms like “revelatory” bandied about to describe the Shouk patty made of chickpeas, black beans, lentils, mushrooms and cauliflower, wrapped in a fluffy pita.
Misconceptions? There are a few.
The bland label has stuck to veggies over the years, along with a vibe of “good for you, but not fun.” That reputation is easily shelved with well-curated offerings, says Eric Martino of ThinkFoodGroup, Andres’ operating company. “When done right, with crunchy textures, and sweet, savory, salty, tart flavors, vegetables are completely craveable.” How about the perception that vegetarian food is not satiating? Nussbacher says simply: “After trying this food, that view disappears forever.”
Sell it with authenticity, and not just to vegetarians.
“A lot of places doing vegetarian food focus on the health and beauty segment of the market, their menus covered with virtuous names for dishes and claims about antioxidants,” says Cohen. “To me, Dirt Candy is a fine-dining restaurant that specializes in vegetables the same way Peter Luger specializes in steak or Le Bernadin specializes in seafood.” At Beefsteak, where “vegetables unleashed” is the slogan, everything from the soil-like floors to the bright blue ventilation system encapsulates the experience of veggies as the main attraction. Shouk markets itself as a new take on comfort food and emphasizes its dishes as Israeli-inspired rather than vegan.
Some words of advice from Cohen: “Don’t expect to sell a lot of alcohol, be prepared to hold your customers’ hands more since a lot of this will be new to them, and really train your staff to understand the food so they can talk about it with surety.” Martino recommends partnering with a great local farmer, and sticking with only seasonal vegetables. Barron urges: “Be confident that non-vegetarians will love your dishes once they try them. I take a gamble when customers hesitate and tell them it’s on me if they don’t like it.” And by all means, begin with a vegetarian pizza or flatbread offering, but she beseeches restaurateurs: “If you’re going to do a pasta, please put some thought into it way beyond a pasta primavera.”
Finally, know that even though vegetable-forward menus may be multiplying as quickly as Instagram food posts, you’re not too late to the party. Says Cohen: “There are so many things to try, so many vegetables to discover, so many crazy techniques to use with them that vegetables have become the unexplored territory of Western cuisine.”