Green Revolution: Top chefs doing amazing things with vegetables

By Nici Wickes

Exciting, meat-free dishes are taking centre stage in top Auckland restaurants. Even committed carnivore Nici Wickes is a fan . . .

Clooney's Chlorophyll with grains from the vegetarian tasting menu. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Clooney's Chlorophyll with grains from the vegetarian tasting menu. Photo / Babiche Martens.

Meat is falling, not off the bone, but off the menus in top-end restaurants in our city. Highly regarded chefs are turning more convincingly and, it has to be said, creatively, to vegetarian cooking.

Ask any committed vegetarian what restaurant dining has been like for them until now and they will no doubt sigh in resignation and name the few eateries that make an effort, listing the many who pay only token dues to those who choose to omit meat from their diet.

But now the best chefs are seeing it as the next great challenge for their skills - turning out highly developed, complex dishes with vegetables as the hero. And I think nose-to-tail dining has a lot to do with it. Hear me out.

More than a decade ago we began to hear the expression "nose-to-tail dining" with top chefs like Fergus Henderson, of London's St John restaurant, leading the charge, publishing his Nose To Tail cookbook in 1999 and devising dishes that, instead of lazily using only the easy, choicest cuts of meat as the main ingredient, began to use lesser known cuts in an attempt to use the whole beast.

The effect of such a philosophy was two-pronged: it made economic sense with cheaper cuts enabling restaurants to curb food costs and it also broadened the minds of diners, encouraging them to eat something apart from their usual.

It did something else - it challenged and stretched chefs to show off their culinary skills because to cook the perfect eye fillet is hardly technical but to create a dish from jowls or ears and be able to sell it to the public is more of a contest. And leading chefs are like fashion designers - they are always looking ahead of where their buying public are at.

So, after the whole beastly focus on meat, the next frontier among the higher echelon of chefs had to be vegetables. How to turn the products of the plant world into dishes worthy of sitting alongside other signature dishes on menus at top-end restaurants?

Chef Michael Meredith collects greens from the field and greenhouse. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Chef Michael Meredith collects greens from the field and greenhouse. Photo / Babiche Martens.

For three years, Noma, in Denmark, which places as much emphasis on vegetables as meat, was named No 1 restaurant in the world by San Pellegrino. It is now No 2. Suddenly, there's more, way more, than a stuffed eggplant or spinach and ricotta-filled cannelloni on offer when dining out. And just like that, it's not only those who have made an ethical choice who are greedily eating it up, it's non-vegetarians who are taking to it in droves. Even I am making the shift.

For as long as I can remember, vegetarianism has been part of my life and I say that as someone who eats meat most days.

I grew up watching as, one by one, three of my four sisters began saying no to the family roast. There are many different reasons and roads that people take to saying no to meat, from reducing cruelty to animals, improving human health, protecting the environment and preserving world food resources, but these ideals have never gripped me long enough so that I was able to forget the smell of bacon crisping in the pan or the taste of thick juicy slices of slow-roasted lamb.

Vegetable-only dishes have never come close in terms of taste and salivation factor. Until now.

As Des Harris, head chef and co-owner of Clooney, runs through his dish "chlorophyll with grains" (pictured) I begin to salivate uncontrollably.

"I use five different grains, which are all cooked separately, and these are bound with a parsley butter. That's what gives it this incredible vivid green colour, and celeriac stock. Then I hit it with a full-flavoured pecorino, which sharpens it up. Once it's in the bowl the whole thing is then beautifully loosened up with a kind of frothy milk-shake that I make with warmed celeriac juice and milk and garnished with crispy farro. Kind of like a risotto but not."

At Clooney there is no freakout in the kitchen when a diner requests vegetarian or vegan dishes.

"I've always challenged myself to look after vegetarians as well as I do any diner. I don't believe they should be marginalised in any way - our job when anyone dines at Clooney is to provide them with an exceptional dining experience and they deserve the best of our cooking."

And it's working well for them with their seven-course vegetarian degustation menu, introduced two years ago, hugely popular and at least four or five dishes from it ready to go at all times on the main a la carte menu.

Greenhouse where Michael Meredith collects edible greens for his dishes. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Greenhouse where Michael Meredith collects edible greens for his dishes. Photo / Babiche Martens.

Last year chef and owner of Meredith's, Michael Meredith, made the decision to dedicate one night every week at his highly acclaimed restaurant to offering only a vegetarian menu.

"It used to be a big deal but now people know we do it and it's why they come to dine with us on a Tuesday. People's minds are shifting, slowly, and our lifestyles now dictate that we make more healthy choices. Making vegetables the hero is challenging for a chef and that's what I like.

"In your prep you're thinking about how to honour the purity of the ingredients. Last year, having made the decision to go 100 per cent plant-based for one of our services, I remember coming into spring and noticing that there are just so many great options on offer."

Why has it taken him, and others, so long to come to this? "Chef training focuses on meat and protein ... and purees - oh, I am so over purees - but it's funny how these things follow you through life.

"My first partner 12 years ago was a vegetarian and I noticed it then and have always incorporated it into my menus because it makes sense to me. And I feel it's more challenging to get the right flavour and mouth-feel from a plant-based dish."

He's doing this because of the challenge.

"Being truthful, it's hard to do eight courses when you've got yams and swedes in season and you're trying not to repeat yourself! For vegetables to taste as good as pan-fried scallops, for example, it's a test. You've got to work at it and also stay out of the way of the ingredient.

"Cooking solely with plants forces you to cook with what's available more and you have to trust what the ingredient is and what it isn't. It brings you into clean cooking. You have to be honest and you can't do too much." Needless to say the vegetarian service at Meredith's has been a worthwhile punt and Meredith hints at wanting to expand his vegetarian offering to a stand-alone restaurant - but all in good time.

Meredith sorts his green treasures. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Meredith sorts his green treasures. Photo / Babiche Martens.

Also proving the demand, Auckland's Heritage Hotel has been offering a vegan menu in the hotel's restaurant Hector's for the last three years. Over that time its creator, chef Jinu Abraham, has seen it steadily trending upwards: "We began because I could see there was an international leaning towards meatless menus from the increasing number of our guests who requested it. But from the start, I wanted to create a vegetarian menu that would stand on its own and be so good as to appeal to meat-eaters also.

"Three years in and we know we've achieved that because when we offer our six-course vegetarian degustation event dinners they are always a sell-out and the guests are a combination of both vegetarians and their non-vegetarian dining companions, who all enjoy the fact that they are eating the same food as each other rather than one group, usually the vegetarians, feeling marginalised.

"We've also recently introduced a raw bar to our breakfast buffet, which is plant-based and where nothing has been cooked over 40 degrees and the feedback we're getting from business travellers and guests is that it's so refreshing as an alternative to the usual."

The best thing about the shift to more vegetarian food on top-end restaurant menus is that the meatless dishes coming out of the kitchens are as tantalising as anything else you'll see and in no way is this tokenism to a trend.

Talk to Meredith and he is adamant he's "not in this for gigs, this is real". Ironically, he tells me this in the same week he is due to go hunting. How does that work?

"I believe we're here to eat everything but I want to stay close to the whole process, to make sure I have compassion. If it's already dead and broken down you're just actioning something without the compassion. I always want my cooking to mean something and to raise one's awareness."

Another chef who can be found wading through the fields in the interests of making vegetables the star at the tables of two of the Ponsonby's busiest dining rooms is Che Barrington of Moochowchow and Blue Breeze Inn.

Blue Breeze's Che Barrington with Jeffrey McCauley from New Zealand Native Concepts. Photo / Babiche Martens.
Blue Breeze's Che Barrington with Jeffrey McCauley from New Zealand Native Concepts. Photo / Babiche Martens.

When I ate at Blue Breeze Inn recently the stand-out dishes were both vegetables; one, a stir-fry of "NZ weeds" grown and gathered on Auckland's west coast for Barrington by Piha resident Jeffrey McCauley from New Zealand Native Concepts - and another, a simple black pepper-pickled cabbage, shallot and ginger salad. Both were sensational.

With Barrington's passion for creating innovative Asian-inspired dishes, it's hardly surprising that vegetables play an important role on these menus, given that protein is generally used more sparingly in Asian cooking with vegetables and rice or noodles forming the mainstay of any meal.

With chefs at this level paying attention to a wider spectrum of ingredients, we've also seen a whole new variety of grains, pulses and vegetables on our supermarket shelves, in response to a demand created by the restaurant industry.

Have you noticed how common it is to see quinoa, chia seeds and celeriac on even casual cafe menus lately, as well as in the main aisles of supermarkets? You can bet these were little-known before the chefs began playing with them.

Michael Meredith: "You work with chia seeds, for example, and this opens doors - there's this seed that creates a viscosity that you can play with. Or even the act of flame-grilling a vegetable - it's that simple, but it gives it a complete lift. In the end it's how it's going to eat and vegetables and grains eat equally as well if they're in the right hands."

Opting for a meat-less meal is no longer the realm only of those for whom an ethical decision has been reached. These days it's de rigueur and restaurants are well and truly stepping up to the plate with chefs dazzling diners with plant-based creations that unashamedly leave meat off the menu.


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