Chefs Embrace Veg-Centric Cuisine

Radish SaladRadish Salad from The Kitchen's Upstairs restaurant in Boulder, CO.

Customer demand ensures meat shares space on the plate

Vegan. Vegetarian. Raw. Paleo. Omnivore. It’s easy to dismiss these dietary labels as just more noise about the diet du jour. After all, the most recent survey by Chicago-based food research firm Technomic found only 3 percent of diners said they were vegan, 7 percent labeled themselves vegetarian, and 15 percent were “flexitarian” (vegetarians who occasionally eat meat or fish).

However, a much larger piece of the populace might well be “vegivores,” a term New York magazine coined to describe a large new tribe of vegetable-centric carnivores.

The signs of resurgence are clear beyond the uptick in “Meatless Monday” promotions. “Vegetables are the hero this year,” trumpets the annual predictions from San Francisco-based consulting firm Andrew Freeman Restaurant and Hospitality Consultants.

Meanwhile, at San Francisco’s Al’s PlaceBon Appétit’s Restaurant of the Year in 2015 — roasted Fingerling potatoes and glazed Cippolini onions are served with a side order of roast beef. Maybe the nation isn’t quite ready to relegate beef to a garnish yet, but America’s slow turn toward a less carnivorous path is packed with opportunities to showcase fresh produce. Year-round specialty produce sourcing from various regions made dishing less meaty fare accessible to restaurant chains, independent restaurants and foodservice operations at facilities, schools and colleges.

Less Meat, Not Meatless

“We’ve seen a growth in plant-based eating for many years. But now, people say they are taking a break from meat without becoming a vegetarian or a vegan,” says Kara Nielsen, culinary director at the Boulder, CO-based Sterling-Rice Group (SRG), an advertising firm that works with large-scale food companies. SRG’s 2016 Culinary Trends range from a boom in bottled, chilled, sippable soups (including gazpacho) as well as pickled and cured vegetables on menus to spiralized zucchini replacing pasta on dinner plates. “I’ve seen roasted and pan-seared cauliflower steaks as entrees, whole roasted cauliflower as a centerpiece, and cauliflower as a rice or starch substitute great for Paleo and gluten-free diets,” says Nielsen, labeling it a “stealth vegetable.”

She also notes food-, health- and travel-oriented TV, magazines and social media exposed consumers to many more kinds of vegetables and fruits. The rise of farmers markets connected restaurants more directly with local growers. “Fine dining restaurants have always had connections to farmers. Now treating vegetables with a lot more care has trickled down to mainstream restaurants and consumers,” says Nielsen.

Increasingly popular health-centric restaurant chains are giving consumers a change of taste: meals centered by vegetables. First are the “greens” or salad-centered chains and fast casual Asian and Mediterranean chains offering plant-based dishes such as falafel. “Even the better burger chains, oddly, are part of the trend. They each have a pretty good veggie burger with all the usual toppings. Small chains like Lyfe Kitchen, True Food Kitchen and Veggie Grill are making a difference, too,” says Nielsen.

A radish salad was on the menu recently at The Kitchen’s Upstairs restaurant in Boulder, CO. “Raw radish is the forward flavor, but they have to be sliced carefully and thinly — not in chunks,” says Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef. “With vegetables, technique matters as much if not more than it does with meat or fish. We add apple for sweetness, Spanish Valdeon blue cheese, toasted Caraway seeds, smoked pecans for a depth of flavor as well as shallot and sherry vinaigrette.” Opened 11 years ago by Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, The Kitchen group includes eight restaurants in Colorado plus The Kitchen Chicago and others in the works. The restaurants are known for supporting local agriculture, zero waste and bringing edible learning gardens to schools across the country.

“To us, a carrot is as precious as a filet mignon. It is a reverence for what farmers produce.”

— Executive Chef Kyle Mendenhall, The Kitchen

Produce Challenges

Changes visible on the plate have been slow and incremental. “At the restaurants, we’re serving plates that have a little less red meat and a few more vegetables,” says Chef Mendenhall. “Fewer people are turning their noses up if the plate isn’t centered with a big, fat steak. More people are comfortable with the idea of eating a meatless meal.” The Kitchen’s produce-forward approach was tweaked for the Midwest. “Chicago is a little different. We make sure there’s a big steak on the menu when it’s 12-below,” he says.

Sourcing produce has been job No. 1 since The Kitchen first opened 11 years ago. “To us, a carrot is as precious as a filet mignon. It is a reverence for what farmers produce,” he says.

That belief comes with a cost. “When we buy organic heirloom tomatoes from a farmer only 7 miles away, it can cost $4 a pound. I can find other tomatoes for $1 a pound, but they don’t taste like anything. It may seem more expensive, but in the end, it really isn’t,” says Mendenhall. However, keeping it simple can be a challenge for foodservice operations. “There is not much to hide behind. You can’t just throw baby carrots on the menu and expect it to work. It also means you don’t serve asparagus in December — it’s a spring crop, and tomatoes and BLTs are off the menu until July or August,” says Mendenhall.

The Veggie Generation

Whether you label them hipsters, Millennials or Generation Z, younger diners are the largest demographic driver behind the growth of plant-centric fare ahead of increasingly health-concerned Baby Boomers. Some have ethical and environmental motivations, others worry about food safety and knowing the source of their food.

Mushroom appetizer

Mushroom Appetizer. Photo Courtesy of UMass Amherst Dining

“Millennials are very interested in vegan and vegetarian food. They were not raised as meat-and-potatoes kids,” says Corry Laurendine, sales manager for Los Angeles-based California Specialty Farms, a division of Cooseman’s specializing in ready-to-cook vegetables as well as exotic and specialty ingredients.

She notes a rising demand for Asian ingredients from foodservice, but not necessarily just for Asian dishes. “The original ethnicity of the dish doesn’t tie the ingredient to the original cuisine. It’s just another ingredient chefs can use and adapt to various cuisines. Now you see Matsutake mushroom, which was originally used in Japanese cuisine, on French and New American menus,” she says.

Vegetables have a built-in cost advantage for foodservice operations. “You don’t have all that cost tied up in a piece of meat in the center of the plate, so you can serve a much more interesting plate for the same food cost. I think the real problem is chefs who haven’t changed their mentality yet and still think of vegetables as side dishes,” offers Laurendine.

Technomic confirmed in recent surveys that women and younger consumers lead the pro-veggie parade. Not surprisingly, when it comes to meat or seafood as a preferred dinner ingredient, men significantly outnumber women. When it comes to being vegetarian, women (39 percent) greatly outnumber men (29 percent) and the same is true for vegan (20 percent women versus 11 percent men). About 85 percent of those surveyed by Technomic said they were eating the same amount or more vegetarian meals than two years ago — again with a much higher percentage for women, Millennials, and members of Gen Z.

The University of Massachusetts has been ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering produce-centered cuisine to students and staff and has been schooling students as well as other foodservice operations how to make plant-forward cuisine a success.

Sauteed Rainbow Chard

Chef Steven Satterfield’s Sauteed Rainbow Chard with Stems. Photography by John Kernick from Root To Leaf Cookbook

“A plant-based way of eating gained popularity each year at UMass, and it is happening everywhere in colleges and universities,” says Ken Toong, executive director of UMass Amherst Dining at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The nation’s largest university foodservice program spends more than $3 million annually on produce, he says. “This year alone, we increased our plant-forward offerings by 30 percent with new recipes focused on the Mediterranean Diet,” says Toong.

Some might wonder whether those students secretly rebel against dinner choices that include smaller burgers (made from a beef-mushroom blend) or cucumber, avocado and mango sushi rolls with spicy mayo. According to Toong, student-customer-satisfaction survey scores are at “an all-time high.”

‘Respond To The Harvest’

Sarah Brito, executive director of the Boston-based nonprofit network for culinary professionals, Chefs Collaborative, attributes the rise in meatless dining to a confluence of factors including news about diet-related diseases, a generational taste for produce fostered by upgraded school lunch programs, and familiarity with vegetable-centric fare at Chipotle, Panera Bread and Asian restaurants.

Evidence of the change in approach is most apparent in the fine dining arena, says Brito. “So often in the past really good vegetable dishes were relegated to the side dishes section that nobody pays any attention to. Now, at Charlie Bird (an American-fare restaurant in New York) “there is a whole section called Vegetables that’s given the same status on the menu as Pasta and Meats,” says Brito.

The up-and-coming generation of chefs is focusing as much attention on vegetables and fruits as earlier culinary creators did on meat, poultry, fish and seafood. “There is a movement toward eating less — but much better — meat with an emphasis on sustainability,” says Brito.

Chefs Collaborative did a podcast with Chef Steven Satterfield in March 2015 (“Can Veggies Take the Center of the Plate?”), which discussed how a veggie-centric eatery can turn a profit, fight food waste, and dependably source sustainable produce. Satterfield is executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union, a farmstead-inspired restaurant nominated for a slew of James Beard Foundation awards.

“We aim to remake the traditional dishes I ate when I was growing up in Georgia, but everything doesn’t have to be heavy and deep fried. The whole idea of the restaurant was to respond to the harvest,” says Satterfield.

Satterfield meets weekly with his staff to evaluate which produce items are in season and to build a menu around them — whether they were grown nearby or brought in by produce distributors. The meat or fish are matched to the produce.

“The area around Atlanta is very fertile farmland and there is a huge number of farmers markets in the city itself. There’s a really cool service here that picks up unsold produce from the markets and brings it to restaurants the next day,” he says. Satterfield says that the produce he uses at the restaurant is a little more expensive. “It should be. It was raised right with lots of labor and no cheating with pesticides. You want to use every little bit of it, get the highest yield, because it’s expensive,” he says.

Labor-Intensive Vegetables

Raw Ccocunut Medley

Chef Mark Reinfeld’s Raw Coconut Curry Veggies. Photography by Erik Rudolph

Vegetable-focused fare is also hard work requiring lots of trained labor. “We start with whole vegetables, so there’s a lot of washing, peeling and chopping. We have dishes that use different parts of the same vegetable cooked different ways; for example, a roasted root with its sautéed stems and greens,” he says.

“Beyond making stock, we’re trying to use the whole vegetable and turn odds and ends into flavor,” says Satterfield. In practice, that means a steak served with leeks will have a sauce made from the tougher leek parts.

Satterfield’s recent cookbook Root to Leaf, A Southern Chef Cooks through the Seasons (Harper, 2015) offers detailed information about individual produce items followed by a few select recipes. “It’s like a field guide that gives you different ways to prepare the same item. Take beets: they can be sliced on a mandolin and then quick-pickled in hot brine, so they’re still crisp. You can also make a red velvet cake with beets that has a Chevre goat cheese frosting,” he says. Diners arrive at his restaurant well educated about a wider range of vegetables and fruits and a willingness to try new ones, he says. That familiarity means Satterfield can comfortably add a changing array of produce items into the Miller Union menu ranging from persimmon and celery root to kumquats and sour oranges. “We do cook in season, and we source locally. I love artichokes, and they don’t grow in Georgia, but we serve them anyway,” he says with a chuckle. A lot has changed in the 20 years since Chef Mark Reinfeld started teaching vegan-cooking classes. “It was definitely more fringe back then, but there was still a lot of interest. Now you have a former president who is vegan. Even gas stations have a ‘Proudly-serving-vegan-options’ sign on the wall,” he says.

Chef Reinfeld’s cookbooks include The Complete Idiots Guide to Eating Raw, and his Miami-based Vegan Fusion firm offers restaurant consulting services and vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and raw food classes.

mark reinfeld headshot

Chef Mark Reinfeld

A recent professional workshop he taught for Palo Alto, CA-based on-site foodservice management enterprise, Bon Appetit Management Company included chefs from Wolfgang Puck’s restaurants, John Hopkins University and the Newseum in Washington, D.C. “They all reported a massive increase in interest in creative plant-based options from their customers,” says Chef Reinfeld, adding that even trained chefs get stumped when it comes to center-of-the-plate vegetarian entrees. Chef Reinfeld’s vegan restaurant trends include the use of jackfruit, which can have an almost meaty texture. “It’s being used to make meatless pulled pork or Sloppy Joes. I’ve also seen beets, turnips and other roots cut very thin as ‘noodles’ for raw ravioli with cashew ‘cheese’ filling and creamy sauces. The hottest new thing is called aquafaba, the liquid around cooked and canned chickpeas. You can whip up a vegan meringue out of it, which works really well,” he says. Chef Reinfeld also sighted sautéed (but still crispy) lotus root slices on a veggie burger and slivered hearts of palm subbing for crab meat in pan-fried, Old Bay-seasoned crab cakes.

In 2016, Reinfeld will team up with a friend who runs an organic farm to open a fresh food market in Miami. “The idea is that plants are the way we need to eat to preserve the planet. It’s the wave of the future,” he says.

Bringing Meatless To The Masses

The meatless movement isn’t limited to fine dining or small vegan café chains, and is a long-term dining trend restaurateurs and foodservice operators can’t afford to ignore.

“The fast food folks know they have to change, or they’ll miss the boat. Even McDonald’s has kale on the menu now,” says Kyle Mendenhall, executive chef of The Kitchen, which is expanding its farm-to-fork mission. The Kitchen at Shelby Farms Park opens this year in 2016 near Memphis.

Kara Nielsen, culinary director at the Boulder, CO-based Sterling-Rice Group (SRG), says significant challenges lie ahead for produce companies and foodservice operators bringing meatless cuisine to the masses.

“I think it’s a real opportunity area to come up with convenient ingredients to use in meatless sandwiches. Roasted, peeled, red bell peppers have become commonly available. We should have more choices of roasted, ready-to-use peppers for use in restaurants and college cafeterias,” says Nielsen.

Some vegan chefs are trying to put the meat back into the meatless sandwich — including Minneapolis-based Herbivorous Butcher. The company crafts plant-based meats including Jalapeno Cheddar Brats, Korean Ribs, Andouille Sausage and pepperoni.

In 2016, Reinfeld will team up with a friend who runs an organic farm to open a fresh food market in Miami. “The idea is that plants are the way we need to eat to preserve the planet. It’s the wave of the future,” he says.

Fresh Takes: Foodservice Experts Talk Obscure Produce

Executive Chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen restaurants in Colorado, Illinois and soon-to-be Tennessee talks about a few of his favorite produce items:

• Rutabaga: “A few years ago you really couldn’t find a rutabaga. Now there are a lot of varieties available. They taste like a cross between a turnip and a radish. My favorite way to cook them is a long, slow salt roast — roasting radishes completely covered in salt. It seasons them and makes them creamy inside.”

• Kohlrabi: “It’s a brassica like broccoli, a root that can be steamed, sautéed or roasted. People see it and say ‘What is this weird vegetable?’”

• Watermelon Radish: “It has a sharp, fresh radish taste. The name is because it’s green outside and red inside.”

• Sylvetta Wild Arugula: “These greens are mild and just a little bit peppery. It’s a break from Baby spinach, which is not one of my favorites because it really doesn’t have much flavor.”

• Treviso: “It’s a green in the chicory family so it has a bit of bitterness that’s good for mixing with milder greens.”

• Finger Limes: “Very tart taste. Split them open and it looks like citrus caviar. They are great in sorbet and add these little blasts of tartness.”

• Pomelo: “Known for its large size, thick skin and a citrus flavor that’s less bitter than grapefruit.”

• Green Strawberries: “Unripe strawberries are perfect for pickling.”

• Bubble Gum Plums: “We love these plums. They really have a bubble-gum aroma.” Corry Laurendine, sales manager for Los Angeles-based California Specialty Farms, talks hot produce items requested from foodservice orders.

• Beets: “Not that long ago beets had a bad reputation for tasting earthy, but they are coming back now. Baby beets are huge. I especially like the Chioggia.”

• Potatoes: “There’s so much going on with potatoes, especially in the Fingerlings. There are a lot more colors including some that are red inside. I like the striped Masquerade, and the little Pee Wees and Marbles. Fingerling-sized baby yams have become incredibly popular.”

• Chilies: “It’s all about the hotter-the-better peppers. First we had jalapeños, then habaneros, Ghost peppers, then hotter still to the Scorpion pepper and now, The Reaper. Peppers are very important in vegan and vegetarian cooking where you need to perk up the flavor.”

• Turmeric: “I’m seeing fresh root grated on dishes (particularly South Asian) and also added to smoothies.”

Galangal: “Galangal is a root similar to ginger except milder and more fragrant. It’s used in Southeast Asian soups and stir fries.”

Legumes: “Plant-based protein is big now in foodservice. We have a strong demand for all kinds of lentils and fresh peas and beans including colorful varieties like China long Purple “Snake” beans and Dragon Tongue beans.”