By John Lehndorff
(This feature appears in the current issue of the trade magazine Produce Business)
Raw. Paleo. Omnivore.
It’s easy to dismiss these dietary labels as just more noise about the diet du jour.
After all, the most recent survey by the food research firm Technomic found that only three percent of diners said they were vegan, seven percent labelled themselves vegetarian and 15 percent were “flexitarian,” vegetarians who occasionally eat meat or fish.
However, a much larger piece of the populace might well be “vegivores,” a term New York magazine coined to describe a large new tribe of vegetable-centric carnivores.
The signs of a resurgence are pretty clear beyond the uptick in “Meatless Monday” promotions. “Vegetables are the hero this year,” trumpets the annual predictions from San Francisco-based consulting firm Andrew Freeman. Vogue looked at the new veggie obsession by foodies and chefs and asked: “Are vegetables the new meat?”
Meanwhile, at San Francisco’s Al’s Place – Bon Appétit’s Restaurant of the Year, roasted fingerling potatoes and glazed cippolini onions are served with a side order of roast beef.
Maybe the nation isn’t quite ready to relegate beef to a garnish yet but America’s slow turn toward a less carnivorous path is packed with opportunities to showcase fresh produce. Year-round specialty produce sourcing from various regions has made dishing less meaty fare accessible to restaurant chains, independent restaurants and foodservice operations at facilities, schools and colleges.
Less meat, not meatless
“We’ve been seeing plant-based eating growing for many years. But now people say they are taking a break from meat without becoming a vegetarian or a vegan,” said Kara Nielsen, culinary director at the Colorado-based Sterling-Rice Group (SRG), an advertising firm that works with major food companies. SRG’s 2016 Culinary Trends range from a boom in bottled chilled sippable soups (including gazpacho) and pickled and cured vegetables on menus to spiralized zucchini replacing pasta on dinner plates.
“I’ve seen roasted and pan-seared cauliflower steaks as entrees, whole roasted cauliflower as a centerpiece, and cauliflower as a rice or starch substitute great for Paleo and gluten-free diets,” she said, labelling it a “stealth vegetable.”
Nielsen noted that food, health and travel-oriented TV, magazines and social media have exposed consumers to many more kinds of vegetables and fruits. The rise of farmer’s markets has connected restaurants more directly with local growers. “Fine dining restaurants have always had connections to farmers. Now treating vegetables with a lot more care has trickled down to mainstream restaurants and consumers,” she said.
Increasingly popular health-centric restaurant chains are giving consumers a change of taste: meals centered by vegetables. First are the “greens” (salad-centered chains) and fast casual Asian and Mediterranean chains that offer plant-based dishes such as falafel. “Even the better burger chains, oddly, are part of the trend. They each have a pretty good veggie burger with all the usual toppings. Small chains like Lyfe Kitchen, True Food Kitchen and Veggie Grill are making a difference, too,” Nielsen said.
A “simple” radish salad was on the menu recently at The Kitchen Upstairs restaurant in Boulder CO. “Raw radish is the forward flavor but they have to be sliced carefully and thinly – not in chunks,” executive chef Kyle Mendenhall said.
“With vegetables, technique matters as much if not more than it does with meat or fish. We add apple for sweetness, Spanish Valdeon blue cheese, toasted caraway seeds, smoked pecans for a depth of flavor and shallot and sherry vinaigrette.”
Opened 11 years ago by Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson, The Kitchen group includes eight restaurants in Colorado plus The Kitchen Chicago and others in the works. The restaurants are known for supporting local agriculture, zero waste and bringing edible learning gardens to schools across the country.
Produce challenges: Sourcing, pricing and seasons
Changes visible on the plate have been slow and incremental. “At the restaurants we’re serving plates that have a little less red meat and few more vegetables. Fewer people are turning their noses up if the plate isn’t centered by a big, fat steak. More people are comfortable with the idea of eating a meatless meal,” he said.
The Kitchen’s produce-forward approach was tweaked for the Midwest. “Chicago is a little different. We make sure there’s a big steak on the menu when it’s 12-below,” he said.
Sourcing produce has been job No. 1 since The Kitchen first opened 11 years ago. ”To us a carrot is as precious as a filet mignon. It is a reverence for what farmers produce,” he said.
That belief comes with a cost.
“When we buy organic heirloom tomatoes from a farmer only seven miles away it can cost $4 a pound. I can find other tomatoes for $1 a pound but they don’t taste like anything. It may seem more expensive but in the end it really isn’t,” Mendenhall said.
However, keeping it simple can be a challenge for foodservice operations. “There is not much to hide behind. You can’t just throw baby carrots on the menu and expect it to work. It also means you don’t serve asparagus in December – it’s a spring crop, and tomatoes and BLTs are off the menu until July or August,” Mendenhall said.
Who are you? Talking about the veggie generation
Whether you label them hipsters, Millennials or Generation Z, younger diners are the largest demographic driver behind the growth of plant-centric fare ahead of increasingly health-concerned Baby Boomers. Some have ethical and environmental motivations, others worry about food safety and knowing the source of their food.
“Millennials are very interested in vegan and vegetarian food. They were not raised as meat-and-potatoes kids,” said Corry Laurendine, sales manager for Los Angeles-based California Specialty Farms, a division of Cooseman’s specializing in ready-to-cook vegetables and exotic and specialty ingredients.
She has noted a rising demand for Asian ingredients from foodservice, but not necessarily just for Asian dishes. “The original ethnicity of the dish doesn’t tie the ingredient to the original cuisine. It’s just another ingredient chefs can use and adapt to various cuisine. Now you see matsutake mushroom, which was originally used in Japanese cuisine, on French and New American menus,” she said.
Vegetables have a built in cost advantage for foodservice operations. “You don’t have all that cost tied up in a piece of meat in the center of the plate so you can serve a much more interesting plate for the same food cost. I think the real problem is chefs who haven’t changed their mentality yet and still think of vegetables as side dishes,” Laurendine said.
Technomic, the Chicago-based food research firm, has confirmed in recent surveys that women and younger consumers lead the pro-veggie parade. Not surprisingly, when it comes to meat or seafood as a preferred dinner ingredient men significantly outnumber women. When it comes to being vegetarian, women (39 percent) greatly outnumber men (29 percent) and the same is true for vegan (20 percent women vs. 11 percent men). About 85 percent of those surveyed by Technomic said they were eating the same amount or more vegetarian meals than two years ago – again with a much higher percentage for women, Millennials and members of Gen Z.
The University of Massachusetts has been ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering produce-centered cuisine to students and staff and has been schooling students as well as other foodservice operations how to make plant-forward cuisine a success.
“A plant- based way of eating has gained popularity each year at UMass and it is happening everywhere in colleges and universities,” said Ken Toong, executive director of UMass Amherst Dining at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The nation’s largest university foodservice program spends more than $3 million annually on produce, he said.
“This year alone we have increased our plant-forward offerings by 30 percent with new recipes focused on the Mediterranean Diet,” Toong said.
Some might wonder whether those students secretly rebel against dinner choices that include smaller burgers (made from a beef-mushroom blend) and cucumber, avocado and mango sushi rolls with spicy mayo. According to Toong, student customer satisfaction survey scores are at “an all-time high.”
Idea behind restaurant was to ‘respond to the harvest’
Sarah Brito, executive director of the Boston-based Chefs Collaborative organization, attributes the rise in meatless dining to a confluence of factors including news about diet-related diseases, a generational taste for produce fostered by upgraded school lunch programs, and familiarity with vegetable-centric fare at Chipotle, Panera and at Asian restaurants.
Evidence of the change in approach is most apparent in the fine dining arena, Brito said. “So often in the past really good vegetable dishes were relegated to the side dishes section that nobody pays any attention to. Now, at Charlie Bird in New York, there is a whole section called Vegetables that’s given the same status on the menu as Pasta and Meats,” Brito said.
The up and coming generation of chefs is focusing as much attention on vegetables and fruits as earlier kitchen did on meat, poultry, fish and seafood. “There is a movement toward eating less – but much better – meat with an emphasis on sustainability,” she said.
The Chefs Collaborative’s March 2015 podcast (“Can Veggies Take the Center of the Plate?”) discussed how a veggie-centric eatery can turn a profit, fight food waste, and dependably source sustainable produce with chef Steven Satterfield.
Satterfield is executive chef and co-owner of Atlanta’s Miller Union, a farmstead-inspired restaurant nominated for a slew of James Beard Foundation awards.
“We aim to remake the traditional dishes I ate when I was growing up in Georgia but everything doesn’t have to be heavy and deep fried. The whole idea of the restaurant was to respond to the harvest,” Satterfield said.
Satterfield meets weekly with his staff to look at which produce items are in season and build a menu around them, whether they were grown nearby or brought in by produce distributors. The meat or fish are matched to the produce.
“The area around Atlanta is very fertile farmland and there are a huge number of farmers’ markets in the city itself. There’s a really cool service here that picks up unsold produce from the markets and brings it to restaurants the next day,” he said.
He said that the produce he uses at the restaurant is a little more expensive. “It should be. It was raised right with lots of labor and no cheating with pesticides. You want to use every little bit of it, get the highest yield, because it’s expensive,” Satterfield said.
With labor-intensive vegetables, waste can make tastes
Vegetable-focused fare is also hard work requiring lots of trained labor. “We start with whole vegetables so there’s a lot of washing, peeling and chopping. We have dishes that use different parts of the same vegetable cooked different ways, like a roasted root with its sautéed stems and greens,” he said.
“Beyond making stock, we’re trying to use the whole vegetable and turn odds and ends into flavor,” Satterfield said. In practice that means a steak served with leeks will have a sauce made from the tougher leek parts.
Satterfield’s recent cookbook “Root to Leaf, A Southern Chef Cooks through the Seasons” (Harper, 2015) offers detailed information about individual produce items followed by a few select recipes. “It’s like a field guide that gives you different ways to do the same item, like beets: They can be sliced on a mandolin and then quick-pickled in hot brine so they’re still crisp. You can make a red velvet cake with beets that has a chevre goat cheese frosting,” he said.
Diners arrive at his restaurant well-educated about a wider range of vegetables and fruits and a willingness to try new ones, he said. That familiarity means that Satterfield can comfortably add a changing array of produce items into the Miller Union menu ranging from persimmon and celery root to kumquats and sour oranges.
“We do cook in season and we source locally but I love artichokes and they don’t grow in Georgia and we serve them anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
A lot has changed in the 20 years since chef Mark Reinfeld started teaching vegan cooking classes. “It was definitely more fringe back then but there was still a lot of interest. Now you have a former president who is vegan. Even gas stations in Portland have a ‘Proudly serving vegan options’ sign up on the wall,” he said.
Reinfeld’s cookbooks include “The Complete Idiots Guide to Eating Raw” and his Miami-based Vegan Fusion firm offers restaurant consulting services and vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and raw food classes. A recent professional workshop he taught for Bon Appetit foodservice management included chefs from Wolfgang Puck restaurants, John Hopkins University and the Newseum in DC. “They all reported a massive increase in interest in creative plant-based options from their customers,” he said, adding that even trained chefs get stumped when it comes to center of the plate vegetarian entrees.
Reinfeld’s vegan restaurant trends include the use of jackfruit which can have an almost meaty texture. “It’s being used to make meatless pulled pork or sloppy Joes. I’ve also seen beets, turnips and other roots cut very thin as ‘noodles’ for raw ravioli with cashew ‘cheese’ filling and creamy sauces. The hottest new thing is called aquafaba, the liquid around cooked and canned chickpeas. You can whip up a vegan meringue out of it that works really well,” he said.
Reinfeld has also sighted sautéed (but still crispy) lotus root slices on a veggie burger and slivered hearts of palm subbing for crab meat in pan-fried, Old Bay-seasoned crabcakes.
The coming year: fresh food, sandwich upgrades, vegan ice cream
The meatless movement isn’t limited to fine dining or small vegan café chains and is a long term dining trend restaurateurs and foodservice operators can’t afford to ignore.
“The fast food folks know they have to change or they’ll miss the boat. Even McDonald’s has kale on the menu now,” said chef Kyle Mendenhall of The Kitchen which is expanding its farm-to-fork mission. The Kitchen at Shelby Farms Park opens this year in 2016 near Memphis.
Kara Nielsen, culinary director of the Sterling-Rice Group, said that significant challenges lie ahead for produce companies and foodservice operators as they bring meatless cuisine to the masses.
“I think it’s a real opportunity area to come up with convenient ingredients to use in meatless sandwiches. Roasted peeled red bell peppers have become commonly available. We should have more choices of roasted, ready-to-use peppers for use in restaurants and college cafeterias,” she said.
Some vegan chefs are trying to put the meat back into the meatless sandwich including Minneapolis-based Herbivorous Butcher. The company crafts plant-based meats including Jalapeno Cheddar Brats, Korean Ribs, Andouille Sausage and pepperoni plus non-dairy cheeses.
The year ahead promises to be an eventful ones. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2016 as The International Year of the Pulse. (Pulses include dried beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas.) Plus, Ben and Jerry’s will introduce its first vegan, dairy-free ice cream made from almond milk.
In 2016 Mark Reinfeld will team up with a friend who runs an organic farm to open a fresh food market in Miami in 2016. “The idea is that plants are the way we need to eat to preserve the planet. It’s the wave of the future,” he said.
John Lehndorff is a Colorado-based journalist and former dining critic for the Rocky Mountain News. His recent Produce Business cover story detailed how college foodservice operations are using fresh produce in new ways. He hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM.
Miller Union Restaurant, Atlanta: millerunion.com
The Kitchen Chicago: thekitchen.com/the-kitchen-chicago
Chefs Collaborative podcast: Can veggies take the center of the plate?: chefscollaborative.org/programs/chef-power-hours/
Sterling Rice Group (food trends): srg.com/news
California Specialty Farms: californiaspecialtyfarms.com
Chef Mark Reinfeld: veganfusion.com
UMass Dining: umassdining.com