Vegetarians are taking over the globe. You can`t fill a restaurant these days without at least one popping up during service, and although Gordon Ramsay may be comfortable with turfing them out on their behinds, many chefs are taking notice and bucking the trend for meat-free food.
With around 1.3m vegetarians in the UK alone the demand for meat-free food is forcing chefs to rethink their steak-laden menus to incorporate more healthy, veggie dishes. And with animal welfare campaigns, environmental issues and healthy eating trends swaying more people to ditch their steak knives for salad forks, vegetarian menu options have become more popular than ever before.
But despite an increase in the amount of meat-free dishes now appearing on menus, many vegetarian diners feel hard done by when it comes to eating out. We are serving more varied options than some of our European counterparts (don’t even mention the term vegetarian to a Frenchman), and yet the most creative dishes the majority of our chefs can conjure stops at a pretty uninspiring penne in tomato and basil sauce, or a mushroom risotto.
“Basically chefs have a lack of imagination and knowledge about what they could be doing,” says Annette Pinner, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society. “Vegetarian food is an art on its own; you don’t just take the meat away and work with what’s left, you do need to actually understand how to flavour and texture the food in a way that’s going to be delicious and exciting.”
Understand the basics
Although student chefs studying for their Professional Cookery Diploma learn how to work with vegetables and cater for diners with specific dietary requirements throughout all three levels, there is an unfortunate tendency for professional chefs to consider vegetarian cooking dull, with many uninterested in learning and understanding more about the cuisine.
“There’s an old school mentality that vegetarians are a bit annoying, and because the chef does eat meat, he can’t understand why they don’t,” explains Matt Gillan, head chef at The Pass at South Lodge Hotel in Sussex. “There’s definitely a lack of knowledge and skill amongst chefs when putting together a dish without meat or fish, but sometimes its just laziness.”
Although The Pass is not a vegetarian restaurant, Gillan has created an entire vegetarian tasting menu, believing it important to appease vegetarians as ‘they expect a dining experience just as meat-eaters do.’
“You can’t have one half of the party happy and the other half not - if they’re paying the same money they deserve the same experience. I don’t think there’s any excuse for a chef at this level not to bother with vegetarians. There is quite a high proportion of them that want to come out to eat, and restaurants could be missing a trick and losing out on a lot of business by ignoring their needs.”
Creativity is key to veggie success
Amanda Powley, co-founder of Brighton’s premier vegetarian restaurant Terre a Terre, agrees, claiming restaurateurs could make more of a profit by offering dishes that appeal to both vegetarians and meat eaters alike.
“The hardest thing for restaurants to push is the vegetarian dish, because they don’t bother spending time on it,” she said. “But I think chefs need to be a bit more creative with them because unless a particular dish stands out, people won’t order it.
“If they put something more tempting or a bit more quirky on the menu I think sales would rocket. If they bothered a bit more and took their time to think about this vegetarian thing then sales would definitely go up.”
Terre a Terre has been serving quirky-named dishes such as Wild Side Souffle (twice baked asparagus and Duddleswell sheeps cheese souffle wrapped in Parmesan parchment pastry, served with wild garlic and vermouth cream and buttered lemon, mint and parsley Jersey jackets) and Better Batter with Lemony Yemeni Relish (soft buttermilk soaked halloumi dipped in chip shop batter, served with vodka-spiked preserved plum tomatoes, bright fresh pea mint hash with pickled quails egg, sea salad tartar and chubby chips, finished with lemony Yemeni relish) for the past 16 years, and Powley says it’s her inventive, healthy and intriguing dishes that are partly responsible for creating a clientele that consists of 80 per cent meat eaters.
While vegetarians may make up only eight per cent of the population, their influence on their dining companions over where they eat out is vastly greater. Meat eaters will quite happily forgo a restaurant if it means their vegetarian friend is unhappy with the choices he/she is presented with. Therefore restaurants serving inadequate meat-free dishes not only miss out on the vegetarian’s custom, but on that of their friends as well.
The experts’ top tips on vegetarian cooking:
Seasonal. Vegetables that are in season have more flavour, so pick one or two as the base ingredients and work around them.
Research. Look at what other chefs are doing with meat and fish dishes and apply the same creativity and imagination to your vegetarian dishes. You may have a piece of broccoli, but you don’t have to serve it as that – you can puree it down, blend it with cake mix and serve as a broccoli fondant.
Pulses. Think broader than just dairy, wheat and pasta and consider how to incorporate nuts and pulses into your dishes to add texture and heartiness.
Tofu. A very underrated product that can be versatile if you know what to do with it. Tofu is delicious grilled with a squeeze of lime juice over it, or by squeezing the water out of it first, you allow it to absorb more flavours and can make the tofu a firmer and more manageable product to work with.
Be brave. Be experimental and creative and cook something slightly recognisable with a little twist on it to make it its own. Vegetables can be manipulated in many ways, so have a play around.
Spare the cheese. It’s easy to go heavy with cheese in vegetarian dishes, so remember to keep it healthy yet satisfying.
Protein. Make sure there is an adequate amount of protein in the dish. Vegetarians look to nuts, cheese, pulses and beans instead of meat to get their daily allowance.
Flavour & Texture. Try to keep the plate balanced in terms of flavour and texture. Just because they don’t eat meat doesn’t mean vegetarians have no taste buds whatsoever.
With National Vegetarian Week on our doorstep there has never been a better time to embrace vegetarian cooking. For a little inspiration, check out our recipes kindly donated below by Amanda Powley, Matt Gillan, Chad Sarno, and Maria Elia.
National Vegetarian Week: Chad Sarno’s Beetroot Ravioli National Vegetarian Week: Maria Elia's Aubergine Parcels National Vegetarian Week: Tony Bishop-Weston's Pumpkin with Vodka and Cinnamon Syrup National Vegetarian Week: Amanda Powley's Smoked Sakuri Soba Noodle Salad National Vegetarian Week: Matt Gillan's Cylinder of Red Onion