Grilled leeks might not be the most obvious main course choice to feed 300 hungry restaurateurs. But Damian Clisby will elevate the British winter staple to top billing when he dishes up a special lunch to celebrate the UK’s most sustainable restaurants later this month. The chef is on a mission to convince his industry that vegetables deserve star status with the meat-free menu he has devised for the Food Made Good Awards.
The trick to appreciating vegetables is – Clisby says – treating them like a prize cut of meat. “Imagine saying, ‘I’m going to look at that celeriac like I’d look at a piece of steak. I’m going to cut it nice and thickly, and I’m going to season it really well, maybe put a dry rub on it, and roast it,’” he says.
“When I was a young chef, I didn’t really understand about sustainability. It was all about how pretty the plate of food looked, and how good it tasted.” Now, the chef, who has worked for the celebrated restaurateur and The Independent’s long-term food writer Mark Hix, values “integrity” when sourcing ingredients above everything else.
At Petersham Nurseries, where he has been head chef for two years, customers eat more fish than meat, he said. And vegetables feature strongly on the menu.
For the Food Made Good Awards lunch, to be held on 22 March at the Royal Horticultural Society, Clisby will serve a starter of salad leaves, flowers, and chickpea fritters. He still doesn’t know if the dressing will feature wild garlic or nettles; that depends on what his forager can obtain “at the very last minute”.
Then those leeks. “They’re so tender. When you grill them like that, you get that lovely caramelised flavour on the outside and a really tender heart. I’ll use some Kirkham’s Lancashire and a little bit of sage,” he added. Dessert will be a honey and custard tart, with brown butter ice cream, made using free range eggs, naturally.
Clisby spent summers on his grandfather’s farm in Cork, Ireland, where he honed his passion for food. He applauded the work that the Sustainable Restaurant Association, which is running the awards in partnership with The IoS, is doing.
“You’re rewarding people for doing good, fastidious work. It’s not just about the restaurant and the food and the chef being amazing, but has more integrity.”
You can vote for your favourite until 13 March by visiting foodmadegood.org/peoplesfave16 or tweet @foodmadegood using the hashtag #fave and the name of your chosen restaurant