The vegolution is not coming, it is HERE!

Kareem Roberts

Kareem Roberts

Other 4th January 2018

The vegolution is not coming, it is HERE!

Ever so often there is an IT word or THING that absolutely consumes our industry. Some years ago it was molecular gastronomy, and a bit longer ago it was nouvelle dining. While the arrival of these particular ‘’in things’’ can rarely be pinpointed to an exact time or origin, their impact can never be ignored. 6 years ago I would never think that I would be saying this, but they won guys. We are witnessing the Dawn Of The Planet Of The Grapes.

I admit. In the past I overlooked vegetarian dishes and shamefully to a lesser degree vegetables in general. When it came to creating meatless offers I struggled with putting the time and care into those dishes as I did with my main courses. I would always put an interesting vegetarian starter on but the rest of the offers were pretty standard. Soups, risotto or rice dishes, pasta, and….yea, that was about it. The radical part is this was acceptable a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s because of better education, louder voices, Dan Barber, foraging, avocado smoothies on Instagram, Alain Passard, strategic marketing, or WHAT but there has been a drastic change. Vegetables are THE THING now.

Well, maybe they are more of a thing NOW than they have ever been. Ignoring the origin of the trend itself we are now at the cusp of it a phenomenal impact. So much so that vegetable spiralizers went viral and kale smoothies littered many social media feeds. So, where do we fit in as chefs? Well, by no means should you stop searing lamb rumps but maybe it’s time to pay as much attention to what we serve with our protein while designing dishes independent of them all together. Vegetables in the past have always been the afterthought of many eateries. Look at how many places serve a set vegetable garnish with their dishes. ‘You can have it with mash or chips and veg’. I doubt I am breaking any hearts here. While that is an unfair blanket assumption I am not claiming for this to be the case everywhere, or has always been the case.

I spoke with two chefs on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean about their different experiences and approach to vegetables during their lives and career. Chef Louis Robinson is a Private Chef pop up owner based in Florida and Chef Ben Pope is the Head Chef of The Plough Coton in Cambridge. It’s amazing how easy it is to get two people from thousands of miles apart in a small digital box at the same time to see what they think about anything anytime. You have to love the internet.

While no chef can argue that vegetables deserve to be treated with equal respect to their pairing options, I asked both chefs where if they feel as if more attention needs to be paid to meatless dishes in 2018 and they both agreed. Ben even goes as far as to say ‘’Any chef who doesn't in this day and age is definitely missing a trick’’ and as a result could be potentially miss out on return clientele. From a business point of view you have to cater to your audience and there is a growing audience that it being underserved. There will always be a market for a good steak or a perfectly roasted rib joint but there is a challenge we should welcome as chefs to not be so reliant on that. We are failing to evolve our abilities and become lazy to a lesser degree. ‘’Meat goes with everything’’ says Louis, and while he was admittedly oversimplifying there is merit to his statement. It is much easier to put something next to stout braised short ribs than it is next to radicchio.

Chefs. There is a huge opportunity here to distance yourself from the herd, and all it takes is a bit of submission. Louis made a good point when he said ‘’you can gauge the quality of a restaurant by how much time they have put into developing their vegan/vegetarian courses’’. Vegetarian diners are the new inspectors. Do not quote me but their influence is not one to be overlooked, and possibly even more formidable as vegans. This is not a bad thing. We should pride ourselves as professionals capable of dynamical creativity. Well, we should at least be more creative than to only have butternut squash and sage gnocchi. They are pushing us to elevate our potential to service a clearly defined group and we need not shun the pressure. We need to get to the drawing board. We need to distance ourselves from the way we used to do things. Ben’s approach to using seasonal vegetables is one that always stood with me from when I was his sous chef. He believed that ‘’a dish should be designed around the vegetable’’ and the reverse is something that I see too commonly.

I can’t blame any chef who is less than enchanted by the change in the culinary climate. Most of us have horrible memories of overcooked vegetables as children and uninspiring repetitive practices early in the field. Both chefs thought back to their earliest professional memories of prepping vegetables in the professional workplace and neither were very remarkable. From Ben’s description of chopping chives, julienned carrots, and potato gratin to Louis’s nightmare loads of tomato concasse for Salsas neither one recalled paying noteworthy attention to what is now considered the meat of the earth, let alone imagine having to build distinct dishes/menus to meet a set standard. Without a doubt dietary awareness and requirements are at an all time high and it is not our place to question what people chose, or more specifically do not chose, to put into their body. We are paid to cook, and it goes without saying we should be doing it equally well for all of our patrons.

As professional chefs we are rarely allowed to develop a true ethos about food. We cater to consumers who are there to eat and not necessarily be educated or converted. The irony is that as chefs we, wrongly, do not feel as if we can receive an adequate education from our customers. I like vegetables. Alot. So much so that I buy spring onions in the winter, which is not necessarily something I should be so proud of. The problem is that vegetables were just never enough by themselves. They always seemed to be missing…..chicken wings and/or bacon. I am a carb lover by nature so I can live on rice, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, scotch bonnets, coconut milk, beans, spring onions, curry powder, thyme, basil, borage, and broccoli in that order. The problem is I eat as much as a cybernetic hammer-headed horse-tiger and its fashionable to be lean. This is where I empathise with those that have a dietary requirement because if I am to take the best care of my own body I need a healthy, balanced diet. It should also be ethical as well. The reality is that the way we farm our meat is subject to debate as far as sustainability but we can not ignore some of the unethical practices undergone industrially. Regardless of that, it is unquestionably more economical for us to shift our consumption trends in favour of ingredients sourced closer to the ultimate consumer. That should go equally for meat, fish, and vegetables.

Be sure to follow both Louis and Ben on their Instagram accounts to see what they currently doing in their respective roles

Chef Louis Robinson : https://www.instagram.com/chef_louisrobinson/

Chef Ben Pope : https://www.instagram.com/chefbenpope/

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