There will never be much vegetarian food. But there might be food without meat.

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By Ezra Klein

Since it’s about lunchtime, it seems like a good moment to talk about Jay Rayner’s piece on haute vegetarian cuisine. First, I need to make something clear, as these discussions often confuse people: I’m not a vegetarian. I limit my meat consumption to five meals a month, but I’m not a vegetarian.

That said, I eat vegetarian at all but five meals each month, so I’m interested in the availability of vegetarian food. And there’s a lot less of it than you’d think. Take some popular D.C. restaurants that take pride in their use of produce. The Tabard Inn, for instance, makes beautiful use of local produce on their menu but only offers one vegetarian entree. They offer eight meat entrees. Firefly also has nine entrees, and also offers exactly one vegetarian entree.

I take this as a bit of a mystery. The mark-up on a plate of pasta is a whole lot better than the mark-up on a piece of locally raised lamb or fresh scallops. Which leaves one of two possible reasons for the relative dearth of vegetarian food on restaurant menus, and Rayner explains them well:

The conventional wisdom in the catering industry is that there would be more vegetarian restaurants and vegetarian options if chefs and restaurateurs saw a financial incentive in it. After all, they are businesses, not social services. That said, there has long been the suspicion that European chefs, schooled in the animal protein-based French classical tradition, were using this as an excuse so they would not have to engage with something they didn’t understand.

If you look at the business being done by veggie-friendly restaurants like Jaleo and Oyamel and Rasika or Two Amy’s, it’s hard to take the business excuse very seriously. And the economic investment in having three vegetarian entrees rather than one is not great.

That leaves the cook-what-you-know explanation. As Josh from Two Helmets put it to me: “The issue here is this: For better or worse, we in the cooking biz use meat products to express our thoughts and skills and feelings about food.”

I might even say it more kindly: It’s easy to offer vegetarian food at a Mexican place or a Spanish place or a pizza place or an Indian place because vegetarian food is a more organic part of those traditions. You’re not creating a “vegetarian entree.” You’re serving a Margherita pizza, or chana paneer. But if you’re working from a restaurant that’s more in the French tradition, you really have to work to figure out a vegetarian plate that feels natural fitting into the protein-with-sides formula. No one wants to make “vegetarian food” any more than they want to make gluten-free food. But if there are dishes they like to eat and think it profitable to make that don’t include meat, well, that’s a different issue.

Which is why I’m excited about this “haute vegetarian” idea. If trendsetting restaurants begin producing plates of food that happen to not include meat, hopefully other restaurants will just copy their dishes, and over time, adapt them and improvise off of them. It’ll become part of the tradition. And that’s what you need. If veggie-friendly food requires chefs to sit with a pen and a pad and brainstorm meatless recipes, there’ll never be much of it. If it just requires them to emulate and tweak something they’ve long loved eating, then it’ll become a natural addition to menus.

Photo credit: By Michael Temchine/The Washington Post

11 responses to “There will never be much vegetarian food. But there might be food without meat.

  1. I think its darker than this.

    Its easy to copy a recipe, if thats what the ‘secret’ to the food is. But the internet lets anyone find a recipe for anything.

    So the way you express your superiority is saying your food is more local, fresher, more in season, whatever.

    WTF is ‘fresher’ cilantro? I wouldn’t have any idea. Its something only a seasoned chef would be able to know. So i have to go to a restaurant to get it. I almost quit watching iron chef because the only ideology anyone expresses is ‘local/fresh/seasonal’. but i like lots of spices and molecular cooking.

    This doesn’t mean ‘fresh/local/seasonal’ has to be meaty.

    I would guess most chefs, having been poor, understand that meat is a luxury and skill is something they have in spades. This isn’t true for other people. So the answer i have is higher wages for restaurant staff.

  2. Yoyo – that might be the dumbest comment I’ve ever read.

    Ezra – would you be ok with ‘vegetable’ dishes that use some meat stock in the cooking process, or a little bit of bacon here and there? I think there are two drawbacks to chefs when thinking about moving away from meat. One is that meat has deeper flavor (i.e. stocks, searing on meat) and fish has a luxuriousness to it that’s difficult to replicate with vegetables. The other is that those things are typical measures of a chef – getting a piece of meat or fish cooked just right is much harder than to do it with vegetables.
    Having been to ubuntu under Jeremy Fox, though, I’d say it’s possible to make refined vegetable-based food.

  3. Ezra, I have no idea what you could possibly mean about its being easy to “offer vegetarian food in a Mexican place.” Proper corn tortillas are made with manteca (aka “lard”) as are refried beans, and whole beans (charro or cowboy beans) are almost always cooked with pork. Those might be vegetable dishes, but they are not vegetarian and vegetarian variants of those dishes aren’t authentic Mexican dishes. I say this as someone who has lived in Mexico for nearly 10 years and has been cooking Mexican food for over 20 years.

    As for good vegetarian dishes served in fine dining restaurants, I’d have to say that Charley Trotter’s vegetable tasting menu is the best I’ve had. Beyond the obvious reason that Trotter is an amazingly talented chef, I think the reason these dishes succeed is that he isn’t trying to make a meat dish without meat, he’s simply trying to make great dishes that highlight the ingredients. Just checked out his current version of the menu and it makes me want to get on the next plane from Mexico City to Chicago! http://charlietrotters.com/restaurant/cuisine/menu.asp?menuID=14

  4. For most of it’s history in the Western diet, vegetarian food has been primarily associated with motivations separate from “flavor” and “plating” and all the other elements associated with haute cuisine… it’s been about moral/ethical choices and/or a healthier lifestyle… so I think your prescription for improvement is accurate. “High cooking” for vegetarians is still in the process of being invented, so it’ll be interesting to see how that trickles down to your average restaurant.

    In the last month I’ve gone to two places offering multi-course vegetarian tastings alongside your traditional meaty ones… so they certainly can and do coexist. However, I feel you’re still going to need high end exclusively vegetarian/vegan restaurants pushing the boundaries to make real progress.

  5. I actually don’t worry about stocks, though I do count things with identifiable bits of bacon. But in general, that’s the sort of move I’d welcome. I think the veggie movement made a huge mistake by focusing on eliminating meat from peoples diets rather than reducing aggregate consumption. If 5% cuts 100% of the meat from their diets, that’s a lot less than 50% cutting 20%.

  6. I like the concept of eating out: trying new places, trying new foods, heck, I like the service. I love eating out.

    But since I turned lacto-ovo vegetarian, the fun has diminished significantly. It seems that in Holland, there’s only one vegetarian dish: the goat cheese salad. I’ve complained about that before.

    Also, Yoyo, I tend to disagree with most of your interpretation. At least here, there is a discernable growing season for different plants (I don’t know what climate you’re in). And at least here, meat is just so omnipresent in people’s meals for the last fifty years that most chefs grew up with them, not without them.

    And that last bit is -I think- the clue: chefs are tought to think of meat first. First, one determines the meat you want to plate, the rest follows. When the meat is taken out of the equation, most chefs just loose track. They have no idea what to do.

  7. Also, in a less plaintive note, I believe Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything Vegetarian ought to be part of any (professional) cook’s training.

    But then, I plug that book to all my friends too :))

  8. Ezra: When you get back to Irvine, try the Veggie Grill at Univ. Town Center. It’s all veggie semi-fast good. Yummy.

  9. Hungry in Bangkok

    Vegetarian (of the not-even-chicken-stock stripe) chiming in here: Someone on this blog, I think it was Ezra, made some comment a long time ago to the effect that some of the observations in Bill Buford’s Heat explain a lot of things you see outside of restaurant kitchens (notably about the conflict between cooking with love and the profit imperative). To this I would add, first, yes, precisely, and second, that if Heat explains why your boss is crazy then Moneyball explains the whole world. It’s simply not possible to over-estimate the tenacity of bad idea that have set down deep roots in the minds of enough people.

    When I became a vegetarian as a teenager, I learned really quick that what I thought of it as a private or personal decision was going to be met by a portion of the people I met as something to get pissed off over. I didn’t at the time know what motivated that level of scorn, and I never figured out what made people think it would be funny to growl “mmm, meat!” past a shred of pork loin in clenched teeth, but from many other vegetarians I’ve learned it was a common experience. There you have it, one of those dark and sticky little hooks of human nature. In the last twenty years the consensus has shifted quite a bit, to where every restaurant has a single vegetarian option, but rarely more than one. (Someone once told me that in b-school they talk about this in terms of the “veto problem,” or a restaurant losing four desired customers for their failure to accommodate the fifth who will be dining with them. No clue if that’s true or not.) A friendlier consensus, to be sure, but about as rigid as what I remember from the old days.

    Now there’s probably a lot of reasons for the persistence of meat-based dishes. Most non-vegetarians I know are reluctant to order a vegetarian meal. The really impressive dishes of the French tradition do require meat; there’s only so much showing off Alain Ducasse can do with cauliflower, by point of contrast (although they don’t complain about the truffle, I guess). So there’s supply and demand reasons why meat-based dishes will probably always outnumber vegetarian options on restaurant menus. But as Ezra ably points out, if you take those reasons into account but also give a fair hearing to the reasons to have more vegetarian options, there’s no real adequate reason for the ubiquity of the one-vegetarian-option menu, but there it is, imperturbable in its irrationality. If you think about the world as the expression of supply and demand curves, it’s probably pretty confusing, but as I said if you reflect that baseball managers were calling for the sacrifice bunt for one hundred years, it makes sense pretty quick.

    That said, while the Americans and Europeans have done a suboptimal job of accommodating vegetarians, they’re still light-years ahead of pretty much the entire non-Hindu world. I’m writing from Bangkok, where I’m chronically at risk of starvation. I don’t eat food that include, say, fish sauce, which by local custom is added to orange juice, and a common entry under “vegetarian” on the menus I’ve seen is vegetables sauteed in oyster oil. It’s not that the restaurant is careless or cruel, but rather that the idea of vegetarianism simply does not make sense to most people here, or indeed in probably most of the world. Many people I talk to are genuinely perplexed that I don’t want chicken added to my bowl of noodles, and no, not the chicken broth, or the morning glory fried in chicken fat, either. My limited experience in South America was of the same kind, as is that one scene in Everything Is Illuminated of the befogged Eastern European hotelier struggling to understand the narrator’s vegetarianism. While a lot of Americans, like Ezra, think of Mexican and Italian cuisine as veg-friendly, in truth the way they’re traditionally prepared is exceedingly to the contrary—bits of pork and shellfish float in the pasta water at Babbo, there’s pork fat in your refried beans and tortillas, strutto in your bread in northern Italy, et cetera. Italian and Mexican dishes prepared in the United States are often adapted to use vegetable oil instead or otherwise be more vegetarian-friendly, and this tends to obscure the comparative narrowness of the vegetarian-safe zone in world cuisine.

    I don’t want this to sound like an extended complaint, although it no doubt does. I guess my point is that it’s possible to wonder at the irrationality of every restaurant offering precisely one vegetarian entree, and I agree that it makes little sense from a rational-markets perspective. But the greater absence of veg options in the past made little sense, too, but nevertheless persisted; it didn’t make any sense that my vegetarianism would piss people off, but it still did. It doesn’t make sense to me that I can’t get a dish prepared without fish sauce; it probably makes even less sense to the street food vendors I’m asking that someone could possibly want the principal flavoring ingredient ommitted. Thinking about what to do in terms of what’s economically superior isn’t something that people really do with natural ease, but thinking about it in terms of what they’ve always done, and what everyone they know has always done, almost always is.

  10. I will often judge a good restaurant by the quality of their vegetables offerings – whether as a vegetarian main course or as a side dish.
    I think there is a gap in what restaurants offer: at the highest end of the spectrum, chefs like Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthall provide wild and exciting ALL vegetable dishes, full of unexpectedness and interest, applying all the craziness of molecular gastromony alongside very traditional French methods.
    In ordinary good quality restaurants the same innvotion is lacking. But it needn’t be. For example, French cuisine and method is full of traditional vegetable dishes as well as recipes that can be easily made meat free. Artichokes, steamed and served with butter sauce (classic bistro food!)? What about spring peas, broadbeans and lettuce hearts braised in butter and wine wine? Or baby vegetables, each poached in a slightly different poaching liquid (spring garlic in milk, carrots in honey and thyme, leeks in champagne etc)? Poached eggs with polenta and parmasen crips (a Marco Pierre White concoction, I think).
    The point is, not only is it healthful, environmentally friendly and much, much cheaper for the restaurant – it is so damn easy.
    Bring it on, I say.

  11. Maybe 15 years ago I had lunch at a restaurant in Austin. On the menu: a plateful of assorted steamed veggies + a selection of dips. I chose lemon butter. That was the day I realized I just loved vegetables better than meat — which I don’t particularly like except for fish. But “vegetarian” seems like too PC a label for an iconoclast!
    To heck with that. Just cook vegetables well (quick, steamed and roasted mostly, still crispy) and add whatever turns you on! Life gets simpler, more delicious and energy increases.
    Living now outside a small town in TX, I’m astounded to find that our supermarket has a great fruit and veg section which buys, when possible, from farmers in the area. Talk about lucky!

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