The smartest chefs are putting as much care into their vegetables as the meat

At the best restaurants, a scoop of limp greens doesn’t cut it anymore

 
Vegetables on a plate in the shape of a steak
(iStock; Photoillustration by Gerrit de Jonge)

During a recent lunch at the ultra-civilized Tableau Bar Bistro in Vancouver’s Loden Hotel, I ordered the spot prawn special. One of my favourite seasonal Canadian ingredients, the plump little creatures were as fresh and succulent as can be. And yet I was blown away by what came with them: tender fava beans, creamy and vivid; peas that popped like caviar; deeply flavourful asparagus; and carrots so delicate their green tops were still edible.

Gone are the days when chefs were content to send out the same limp selection of vegetables (zucchini, peppers and green beans, inevitably) with every protein. These days, smart chefs like Marc-André Choquette and his team put as much attention—maybe more—into elevating vegetables to starring roles. Some are even forgoing the meat side of the plate altogether. Who needs veal chops when you’ve got whole roasted cauliflower with vadouvan, capers and sage?

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For chefs like Choquette, classically trained to revere long-reduced sauces and well-marbled slabs of meat, the excitement to be found in celeriac can make it as inspiring as sirloin. “It used to be that every once in a while a farmer might stop by with a basket of vegetables,” says the chef. “Now we’ll call to find out when the basil’s coming out or if the raspberries are ready. Some of our regular customers even ask if we have certain ingredients from specific farmers.”

Putting vegetables at the fore in Toronto is Farmhouse Tavern’s Alexander Molitz. Last fall, for his popular Hey, Buttercup dish, Molitz roasted a lowly gourd to yielding tenderness in the restaurant’s smoker, nestled a poached egg in the centre and garnished it with more tender shaved vegetables. Even committed carnivores sang its praises.

For his part, Molitz sees the prominence of vegetables as a natural culinary progression. “In this time of beautiful, tasty and respectfully grown produce, it’s only logical to shift focus from the protein to the veg,” he says, adding that he still approaches herbaceous dishes from a meat-eating mentality. “I often describe how to cook a certain vegetable to my cooks in terms of meat doneness (rare, medium-rare). I’ve started to see how much more versatile vegetables are to cook, eat raw and prepare.”

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In his latest book, The Third Plate, chef Dan Barber of New York’s Blue Hill restaurant argues that diners must look at a new, more ethical way of eating that reflects the actual costs of our agricultural system. Barber envisions a time when the carrot on the plate will be the primary ingredient and the resource-rich meat turned into a sauce to highlight it, instead of the other way around.

While it may seem silly to think of feasting on $30 roasted parsnip steaks instead of T-bones, it might happen. This year, multi-Michelin-starred chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten plans to open a 4,000-square-foot vegetarian restaurant in New York’s Flatiron Building. With rent like that, a carrot’s gotta go a long way.

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