Unless you’ve been trapped in the walk-in for the past couple of years, you’ll know that vegetarian and vegan diet choices have rocketed. Rising by almost 700% in the past two years, vegetarianism is no longer considered a minority, equating to more than 3.5 million diners in the UK alone. The Guardian has also reported that around a third of Britons have now stopped or reduced eating meat, signalling a huge upheaval to the industry.
The restaurant world has been quick to respond, capitalising on the significant change that’s afoot. Plant based meals have shown significant growth, with hundreds of new brands moving in on the ready meal, snacks and wider FMCG market. From street food vendors, to Michelin-starred dining establishments, the focus is shifting from meat-centric meals, to those that champion veg.
One such establishment that was ahead of this curve is New York’s Blue Hill, driven by Chef Dan Barber. While the restaurant also serves meat, it typically plays a much gentler role, giving the limelight to the seasonal vegetables. From a smoked prosperosa aubergine barbecue, to a dish comprised of red, white, yellow and black corn, Barber nurtures the flavour from distinct produce varieties with the same deft approach usually reserved only for Wagyu beef, turbot, or game.
In the UK, we now have fast casual restaurant concepts centered around vegetarian concepts – something that would probably not have been viable several years ago. In Leeds and Manchester you can find Bundobust, a small chain focused around craft beer and the vegetarian food of India’s Gujarat region. Meanwhile, more established names like Leon have continued to expand their vegetarian offering and high street staple Pret A Manger now have dedicated vegetarian outposts throughout the capital.
Isaac McHale’s incredibly popular Shoreditch spot, The Clove Club has a £95 vegetarian tasting menu and currently sits at no 26 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The menu has previously had highlights such as salt baked white beetroot, and mushroom consommé with 100-year-old Madeira.
While meat-free alternatives like seitan, tempeh and to a lesser extent tofu are all seeing a rise in popularity, it can seem counterintuitive to some chefs to focus dishes around these ingredients. However, it does make sense to cater to the growth of plant based diet choice, particularly as it allows chefs to maximise fresh produce potential while achieving attractive GP on dishes. What’s more, it allows you to experiment with new cuisines and look for that meaty depth, savouriness and umami in new places.
We all know that our vegetarian and vegan menu items need to be expanded. In many cases the dishes can be so attractive that even hardened meat eaters are getting involved. It’s important to remember that veg focused menus don’t necessarily have to cannibalise your regular dishes – as Dan Barber’s Blue Hill can attest.
So as we enter a season renowned for heft, warmth and restoration, perhaps look down new avenues for those sturdy dishes for autumn. Whether it’s chanterelles, ceps and a wealth of wild mushrooms, or the celebration of hardy winter root veg, it’s time for vegetables to take centre stage.