There's the beginning of a new order in creating menus. It’s a small yet hugely significant restaurant revolution and a most welcome antidote to the absurd transatlantic burger mania. A number of chefs, most notably two-Michelin star chefs Simon Rogan, of Cumbria’s gastronomic arcadia L’Enclume, and Claude Bosi, of Hibiscus, plus Bruno Loubet, of the newly opened Grain Store, are giving vegetables the lead on their menus and on the plate, with meat or fish very much the supporting act. It’s certainly the future I’d like to predict and fits with Socrates’ sage advice some 2,500 years ago: “Everything in moderation, nothing in excess.”
In gastronomic terms, it’s what contemporary New York food guru Michael Pollan, whose recent lecture at the LSE was standing-room only, has pronounced pithily: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Not only would this positively impact on the environment but on personal and global health, too. In a nutshell, vegetables are the richest sources of vitamins, minerals, fibres and vital phytochemicals with disease-fighting properties.
Rogan is unequivocal: “Vegetables are far more interesting and versatile, I believe, and cooking vegetables creatively to be integral to a dish shows far more skill and imagination than turning out meat and two veg.”
We’re standing in the middle of the 12-acre organic farm Rogan has created from scratch that now supplies all the vegetables, herbs and culinary flowers for L’Enclume and much of the produce for The French, his restaurant within Manchester’s Midland Hotel, too. I can’t help marvelling at the sheer variety, from an amazing bulbous, curvy yellow “summer crookneck” squash and “Aztec” broccoli with edible leaves and flower shoots to striped “Wautoma” cucumber and South American herbs such as quillquina with a citrus, spicy scent and flavour.
Rogan, who together with his former Roux scholar development chef, Daniel Cox, describes himself as a farmer-chef, explains: “We are at the farm every day looking at what is growing and deciding what to put on the menu that day, based on this. The farm is designed by and run by chefs and we’re responsible for everything that grows, which makes us unique and is so incredibly fulfilling.
“We begin by looking through books and catalogues to see what to grow, looking at heritage seeds dating back to the 1900s and experimental breeding seeds developed at universities, too. We then look at all the different varieties of that single vegetable and decide which is best. This may involve growing a few varieties to decide which we like best and at which stage of their development we get the most interesting taste. Once we have the vegetables, we think about what to do next and experiment to see what flavours go with it.”
Back in the dining room – a sparing yet beautiful conversion of a former forge – I tuck into one of the most dazzling vegcentric tasting menus I’ve ever tasted, like a poetic rhapsody to the Cumbrian soil. In fact, it even features a mushroom malt soil besides heritage tomato doused in rosehip with smoked marrow and borage and “Tokyo” turnip (with a spicy, radish-like nuance), hen of the woods, truffle and nasturtiums.
Rogan continues: “We are always trying new things and pushing the boundaries with what we grow. We like to play with flavour, which creates excitement.”
In order to really push the limits, making the most of their vegetables, Rogan has revived the Victorian tradition of “clamping” or burrowing vegetables to force new leaves out of vegetables including beetroot, carrot and snow turnips. “Some of the root vegetables we serve are actually a year old and still taste incredibly sweet.”
Bosi may not grow his own vegetables yet, but his formative years were spent in the kitchen of mesmerising three-star Parisian chef Alain Passard of L’Arpège, who famously gave up serving any meat and veg for several years and today serves a decidedly vegcentric menu based around his own two vast vegetable plots.
“Vegetables are so underrated yet their flavour and texture can be incredible. I like them to play a pivotal role in my dishes,” enthuses Bosi. Hence his consummate creativity with vegetables extends to desserts, too. Hibiscus invariably offers a vegetable-based dessert. Right now it is a Piura Peruvian chocolate tart filled with an astonishing fresh pea and coconut confit served with coconut sorbet. Earlier in the spring, Bosi had an asparagus tart on the menu and, come autumn, he’ll revive his phenomenal cep and macadamia dessert.
Another trailblazing French chef, Bruno Loubet, goes further still in putting vegetables first on individual dish descriptions on the menu of his new London restaurant Grain Store, with any meat element very much the afternote – for example, grilled leeks, smoked crème fraiche, chilled lobster Bloody Mary.
“I’ve been dreaming of opening a restaurant like this for many years,” confides Loubet. “I’ve always been passionate about growing vegetables on a domestic scale and wanted to showcase just how versatile they can be, especially when combined with adventurous spicing.”
Modishly, Loubet has been experimenting with sprouting and pickling, too, besides serving many vegetables raw and using them in desserts, such as in tomato confit and horseradish ice cream.
The venerable Alain Ducasse has always been enamoured of vegetables and now insists that every restaurant in his global empire, whether Le Louis XV on the French Riveria or Ducasse at The Dorchester, always has a vegetable dish (currently asparagus, girolles, Comté Grand Cru) prepared and served in a crockpot that encapsulates local and seasonal elements.
It’s exactly the approach former chef and urban gardener Rachel de Thample advocates in her recent Less Meat, More Veg cookbook, which admirably shows how simpler dishes suitable for everyday meals can be adapted to major on leafy and seasonal vegetables rather than meat (De Thample recommends limiting higher-welfare, animal-derived protein to 50g).
At a recent talk at Petersham Nurseries, De Thample argued how this would lower our impact on the environment, too. She quoted Slow Food International’s “Too Much at Steak”: 15,414 litres is the amount of water needed to produce 1kg of beef; only 322 litres are used to produce 1kg of vegetables – vindication that to eat more greens is the urban barometer of both being cool and doing good.