Forget lentils and tofu. Vegetarian cooking is enjoying a makeover, prompting meat-eaters to put down their steak knives. New green cuisine is tapping into the rise of the "flexitarian", the occasional vegetarian who is helping their waistline and the planet by eating less meat.
A new crop of vegetarian restaurants is springing up, catering to rising demand for meat-free dining options. Even established restaurateurs, such as Aldo Zilli, are jumping on the bandwagon: Zilli is considering axing meat from one of his London eateries to cash in on the new trend. He is even mulling rechristening one of them Zilli Green. And other chefs, including Oliver Peyton, are increasing the number of meat-free choices on their existing menus.
From Sir Paul McCartney, who wants us all to eschew meat on Mondays, to Lydia Guevara – granddaughter of the revolutionary Che – who is starring in a new anti-meat campaign for Peta, there is no shortage of high-profile figures banging the vegetarian drum. This is boosting sales of meat-free foods in supermarkets as shoppers swap minced meat for substitutes such as Quorn. The meat-free market was worth £739m last year, up by a fifth in the last five years and is forecast to enjoy similar growth until at least 2013, according to research by Mintel.
Vegetarian food is no longer the crunchy preserve of a small minority but is hitting the mainstream. A recent poll for the Food Development Association showed that 86 per cent of Brits eat non-meat meals once or twice a week, forcing restaurants to follow suit.
"Historically, chefs haven't liked vegetarians but that is changing. Younger chefs particularly understand the need for vegetarian food," said Peyton, who owns several restaurants in London. "So many more people want vegetarian food these days and it's my job to cater for them." His restaurants, which include Inn the Park, in St James's Park, now offer up to three meat-free alternatives per course, he said. He is one of a band of chefs, including the IoS's Skye Gyngell, who is backing Sir Paul's "Meat Free Monday" drive, which wants people to cut out meat to help slow climate change since livestock production pumps more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere than transportation.
Andrew Dargue, who owns Vanilla Black, a vegetarian restaurant that relocated to London from York last year, said that his customers are increasingly meat-eaters looking for something different. "People can have a block on vegetarian food and say they don't like it but they don't stop to think that even tomato soup or scrambled eggs on toast is vegetarian," he said. His food, dubbed "haute vegetarian" by the critics, is certainly finding favour: Vanilla Black even gets a mention in the Michelin Guide.
Other newly opened meat-free restaurants in London include two branches of the Swiss chain Tibits and the vegan diner Saf, which also has outposts in Turkey and Germany. They join the capital's vegetarian stalwarts such as Manna in Primrose Hill and Soho's Mildred's. Outside London, Heather Mills opened a vegan cafe in Brighton, V-Bites, earlier this month.
Richard Harden, who owns the Harden's restaurant guide, said specialist vegetarian eateries are "growing in popularity". He said more people, himself included, were happy to forgo meat for at least one meal. Ben McCormack, editor of the Square Meal guide, said: "Vegetarians are better served than they used to be. With the rise of the 'flexitarian', restaurants are improving their vegetarian offerings."
The doyen of crossover cooking is the French triple Michelin-starred chef Alain Passard, who took meat off the menu at his vaunted Parisian restaurant L'Arpège at the height of the BSE scare in 2001.He has since reverted to serving steaks but he remains the acknowledged father of the new green cuisine. British chefs who cater well for non-meat-eaters include Simon Rimmer, who owns Greens, near Manchester, and Yotam Ottolenghi, who writes a weekly vegetarian cooking column.
Top vegetarian chef: Simon Rimmer
TV chef Simon Rimmer calls himself an 'Accidental Vegetarian' in one of his cookbooks, but that doesn't lessen his impact on the new green cuisine scene. His Greens restaurant, near Manchester, has done much to fly the vegetarian flag outside London.
Top vegetarian cookbook: Café Paradiso Seasons
Silence any vegetarian doubters out there with a meal whipped up from Irish chef Denis Cotter's Café Paradiso Seasons, a gem of a cookbook that will have even meat-eaters salivating. A guaranteed nut-roast-free zone.
Top non-vegetarian restaurant for veggies: Morgan M
It may sound contradictory, but Morgan M, in north London, is a French restaurant that is as admired for its vegetarian cooking as for its meat and fish dishes. Chef Morgan Meunier first offered a seven-course 'garden menu' in 2003 and hasn't looked back since.
Top vegetarian restaurant: Vanilla Black
Vegetarian restaurants and Michelin guides may sound like unlikely bedfellows but Vanilla Black, one of London's newcomers to the non-meat scene, scores itself a mention for the quality of its cooking, which owner Andrew Dargue hopes appeals as much to carnivores as their more discriminating friends.
Top meat-free ingredient: Mushroom ketchup
The humble mushroom is no Quorn, the fungus-based meat substitute, but it is the vegetarian chef's secret ingredient when it comes to whisking up something satisfying that didn't used to fly, run or swim. Add a few drops of mushroom ketchup to just about anything you're cooking to see what we mean.
'We wanted to help the planet, so we had to go veggie'
Debbie Howard, 44, persuaded her partner, Ryan Morley, 35, that it would be a good idea for their family – her children, Jasmine and Sonny, and his daughter, Ella – to become vegetarian:
'I was a vegetarian for 10 years until I got pregnant and suddenly had cravings for meat. I struggled for a couple for years after that, so we did eat a bit of meat for a while. When the twins were old enough, I explained to them that meat is a dead animal, and they've never wanted to touch it since. But I found it hard to keep off meat, much to their complete disapproval. When they were five, I ordered meat at a restaurant and they both got up to sit at another table. I had to change my order! Nowadays though, we're all committed veggies.
For me, not eating meat is mainly about animal cruelty. But for Ryan it was because of environmental issues such as intensive farming and greenhouse gas emissions. It's hard because he really loves meat. But we couldn't keep talking about wanting to help the planet, while destroying it by eating in a way that is badly harming it.'