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