To satisfy a growing market for vegetarian-friendly meals, chefs are taking a fresh, new approach to meat-free dishes worthy of the spotlight.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2008 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA’s leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Beef is the big player at upscale burger restaurant Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., yet its “Vegetarians Are People Too ’Shroom Burger,” the lone meatless option, is among the top three sellers on a menu of about a dozen sandwiches.
For Chef-owner Spike Mendelsohn, menuing something to satisfy non-meat-eaters was essential, but it needed to be more than an afterthought. “I wanted to still give that sense of fulfillment,” says Mendelsohn, whose hearty sandwich features roasted portobello mushroom caps that are stuffed with Muenster and Cheddar cheeses, coated in panko crumbs and flash-fried. “With this portobello burger, you get the same experience biting in as you would with one of our hamburgers.”
Taste is the biggest draw, Mendelsohn says, but the ’Shroom Burger’s success also stems from the fact that whether for dietary reasons, environmental concerns or just a desire to try something different, sometimes even the most dedicated meat eaters gravitate to dishes without beef, pork, chicken or seafood. It’s an observation that rings true across foodservice, and operators are warming up to the idea that meatless entrées can be more than marginal menu items.
Indeed, recent data also show meatless meals as a growing opportunity. Nearly one-quarter of Americans say that they sometimes go meatless at restaurants, reports R&I’s 2008 New American Diner Study. And although only a small percentage of Americans identify themselves as dedicated vegetarians—3.2%, or 7.3 million people, according to a 2008 Harris Interactive poll for Vegetarian Times—the same study finds that 10% of consumers say they largely follow vegetarian-inclined diets and 5% more are “definitely interested” in shifting to vegetarian-based diets in the future.
“A lot of people are eating vegetarian,” says Bill Fuller, corporate chef for Pittsburgh-based chain Mad Mex, where guests can get burritos stuffed with spicy chickpea chili in roasted tomatillo sauce. “They’re doing it because they believe it’s healthier; they’re doing it because of moral reasons. And people are spending money on vegetarian food, so you have to give it as much consideration as you do regular dishes.”
Fuller’s burritos illustrate another point in favor of vegetarian fare: Although not all vegetarian dishes cost out lower than regular menu items given the rising cost of cheese, flour and other components, a broad range of recipes can be crafted around budget-friendly ingredients such as grains and legumes, making meatless entrées even more appealing for operators and diners.
Create a Craving
The challenge of developing innovative recipes is one reason some chefs don’t put much effort into vegetarian choices, says Executive Chef Aaron Deal of upscale-American restaurant Tristan in Charleston, S.C. “There will be that one dog on the menu, and that’s the vegetarian option. To me, that’s a cop-out,” says Deal, who regularly menus a selection of meatless appetizers and entrées. “If someone who doesn’t eat meat comes to our restaurant, I want them to have the same kind of experience as the [meat-eating] person sitting beside them.”
Instead of plating a thrown-together mélange of cooked vegetables and grains and calling it a vegetarian entrée, Deal aims to create well-balanced, elegant presentations such as Soybean-Miso Cakes with Sake-Soy Emulsion. For this dish, Deal seasons white soybeans and short-grain brown rice with ginger, garlic, miso paste and shallots and then binds them with egg yolks into palm-sized cakes that are browned on both sides and finished in the oven. A sweet sauce of sake, soy sauce, rice-wine vinegar, sugar, cream and butter complements the savory cakes, which are served atop blanched broccolini and garnished with pickled daikon radish.
When he does spotlight vegetables, Deal pays special attention to products and preparation. Because vegetarian recipes don’t require costlier center-of-the-plate proteins such as beef or seafood, he spends more on premium and specialty produce, which he often cooks sous vide to maximize their flavor.
Jacob Zachow, executive chef at Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain, Mass., says most restaurants that try to create a vegetarian dish fail to tempt diners because the recipes don’t sound exciting.
“I wanted to create something that would stand out, that people would come back for over and over,” he says. Zachow’s Eggplant Puttanesca began as an attempt to craft eggplant “ravioli,” but he found that the individual pieces didn’t hold their shapes. Instead, eggplants are cut into short cylinders, hollowed out and stuffed with a purée of chickpeas, roasted red peppers, ricotta cheese, roasted garlic and lemon juice. The stuffed eggplant is baked for 30 to 40 minutes and served over spicy puttanesca sauce and arugula, garnished with grated Parmesan cheese.
Do the Twist
Reference to meat’s culinary traditions can be seen in Executive Chef Patrick Connolly’s mushroom-based play on barbecued pulled-pork sandwiches at white-tablecloth restaurant Bobo in New York City. Connolly poaches mushroom stems in olive oil, suffusing them with juicy, fatty flavor that mimics pork’s meatiness. Once tender, the mushrooms are simmered in house-made barbecue sauce that includes red-wine vinegar, tomato juice, maple syrup, tamarind paste, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar. The sauce is spiced with fennel, cumin, coriander and cardamom. Connolly piles the mixture atop kaiser rolls and adds melted cheese and crisped onions.
“It’s not that [so many people] are vegetarians, but people are more conscientious about what they put in their bodies and having a balance,” he says. “Everybody, including myself, on occasion just wants something simple.”
Not only is the sandwich recipe cost-efficient, utilizing mushroom trim and ingredients already on hand, but without cheese, it also works as a vegan meal, Connolly says.
Janine Doran, executive chef of Cafe Flora in Seattle, says that finding a focal point around which to build dishes is key to the upscale vegetarian restaurant’s approach. For example, local products inspired the Yakima Valley Polenta, a menu signature that features port-soaked plums, sautéed green beans and Walla Walla onions over crispy sage polenta with Cambozola blue cheese. Classic beef Wellington informs another staple that layers grilled portobello mushrooms, leeks and mushroom-pecan pâté in puff pastry with Madeira sauce.
“We like to combine many different things to give you not just a one-note dish, but something that leaves you surprised,” Doran says. “We create the focal point but also add little extras that bring the dish to a different level.”
Hoppin’ John Fritters exemplify this idea. Instead of cooking black-eyed peas with ham hocks or salt pork and tossing them with rice and vegetables, the peas—minus the pork—are combined with sautéed red onion, carrot, celery and garlic. The mixture is seasoned with sage, parsley, thyme, green onions and chipotle chiles, then dusted with cornstarch and fried into crisp cakes. Cayenne aïoli, roasted-red-pepper-and-corn relish, smoked mushrooms, collards and cheesy grits round out the dish.
Rising expectations and interest from consumers inspire kitchens of all kinds to get more creative with meatless recipes. “Back in the ’90s, vegetarians were pretty easy to satisfy with cheese enchiladas or pasta,” says Dwight Collins, executive chef at the University of California in Santa Cruz. “Now we’re doing a lot more curries, Southeast Asian flavor profiles, more Thai and Vietnamese dishes. [The students] are more sophisticated, so every year it’s more of a challenge to keep them interested.”
Delivering the protein students need is a priority. Gluten-based seitan and soy foods such as tofu and tempeh are go-to ingredients, but Collins also turns to nutrient-rich whole grains such as quinoa and farro. For zesty jambalaya, he sautés farro with onions, bell peppers, celery and garlic. Tomatoes, mushrooms, okra, zucchini, bay leaves and thyme are added next, and then the grains are cooked risotto-style with simmering vegetable broth until the liquid is absorbed and the farro is tender. Three kinds of pepper—black, white and cayenne—ramp up flavor.
At Reed College in Portland, Ore., Bon Appétit Management Co. Chef Bhrigu Hickman relies on lesser-used whole grains as well as legumes to build nutritionally sound meatless entrées. Mild-flavored millet has great binding capabilities and works well as a filler, he says, while nutty kasha (roasted buckwheat groats) has a toothsome quality similar to that of wild rice.
To make buckwheat enchiladas, Hickman sautés sliced yams and mixes them with seasoned kasha as a stuffing for rolled corn tortillas. For another entrée, he mixes legumes such as chickpeas and mung beans with flour and spices and deep-fries them to make falafel that pair well with flavor-boosting dipping sauces.
“Most Americans grow up learning very little about how to eat grains, beans and vegetables, so we’re doing what I call transitional cooking,” Hickman says. “It’s about getting people to come from more meat-based to more vegetarian-based eating by making things that are really flavorful.”
Who Prefers Meatless?
Which demographic groups are more likely to choose meat-free meals?
Whether they consider themselves vegetarians or not, 24% of consumers say they sometimes order meatless entrées at restaurants, according to R&I’s 2008 New American Diner Study. Which demographic groups are more likely to choose meat-free meals?
Women (30%) more than men (18%)
Gen Y (30%) and Gen X (26%) more than Boomers (22%) and Matures (21%)
Asians (31%) and Hispanics (26%) more than blacks (25%) and whites (23%)
Residents of the Northeast (29%) and West (26%) more than the South (24%) and Midwest (20%)
Stocking at least one kind of soy, wheat or vegetable protein makes it easier for kitchens to deliver nutritionally balanced vegetarian choices. Ann Gentry, founder and CEO of organic-vegetarian restaurant Real Food Daily in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, Calif., and Janine Doran, executive chef of vegetarian eatery Cafe Flora in Seattle, break down the available options and how to use them.
Tofu is made from liquid that is extracted from ground, cooked soybeans and pressed into blocks. Gentry recommends first steaming tofu to help make it easier to digest and then marinating it to add flavor. It can then be baked, broiled, grilled or sautéed.
Tempeh is made from fermented, cooked soybeans formed into cakes. Like tofu, it also benefits from steaming and marinating. Tempeh can be used interchangeably with tofu, Gentry says, but it works better than tofu for crumbling.
Seitan, often called “wheat meat,” is made from wheat gluten, and its chewy consistency makes it a popular substitution for meat in sandwiches and main courses. Doran, who uses seitan in recipes such as grilled fajitas, says the product doesn’t absorb as much flavor from marinades as tofu or tempeh, so it works best when cooked and served with sauces.
Textured vegetable protein (TVP) is a dried, granular product made of soy flour from which the soybean oil has been extracted. Once it is soaked and rehydrated, Doran says, TVP can be used just like ground meat.
Forward-thinking burger concepts are trying to boost consumers’ perceptions of nonbeef patties.
Veggie burgers have made their way into the menu mainstream—nearly one-third of foodservice operators offer them, according to R&I’s 2007 Menu Census—but they’re often little more than niche items when it comes to sales. Now forward-thinking burger concepts are trying to boost consumers’ perceptions of nonbeef patties.
“There are more [health]-conscious people looking for options than ever before,” says Jack Graves, chief cultural officer at Vancouver, Wash.-based chain Burgerville, where customers can choose between the Oregon Harvest Burger made with black rice, anasazi beans, mushrooms, vegetables and flax meal (shown) and the zestier Spicy Anasazi Bean Burger, which also includes garlic, cilantro, jalapeños and soy sauce.
Sales are still relatively small—3% to 5% of the menu mix—but the burgers are more popular than ever, says Graves, adding that the bolder flavor of the spicy veggie burger, added in May, seems to attract more diners.
Elevation Burger, an organic, fast-casual burger concept based in Falls Church, Va., has included two different veggie burgers since the concept launched three years ago.
“We found that two kinds of people eat veggie burgers,” says founder and CEO Hans Hess. “One is a true vegetarian who doesn’t want the product to remind them of meat at all. The other is somebody who occasionally wants a nonmeat product.”
For the first group, Elevation Burger offers a vegan patty of soy protein, mushrooms, oats and vegetables. Another option supplies extra flavor with roasted peppers, corn, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and cheese.
Why Meat Free?
Following are the top reasons behind consumers’ choices to go meatless:
Improved health is just as strong a motivator as animal welfare among Americans pursuing vegetarian diets, according to 2008 research from Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive. Following are the top reasons behind consumers’ choices to go meatless:
- Animal welfare: 54%
- Improve overall health: 53%
- Environmental concerns: 47%
- Natural approaches to wellness: 31%
- Weight loss: 25%
- Weight maintenance: 24%
Take Me Out…
At the 40-plus ballparks, stadiums and arenas that Delaware North Companies Sportservice serves nationwide, it’s tough for concession-level foodservice to expand meatless options much beyond easily prepared-and-eaten items such as vegetable sandwiches, wraps and burgers. But as vegetarian foods become menu mainstays, the Buffalo, N.Y.-based contractor is finding other ways to upgrade vegetarian-friendly foods and make them more accessible, says Jon Perrault, vice president of food and beverage.
To boost quality, meatless sandwiches such as tomato-mozzarella baguettes with balsamic reduction or grilled vegetable wraps with Italian dressing are presented in packaging that holds dipping sauces on the side, keeping products from becoming soggy. The containers also have space for a small side of fresh fruit.
Meanwhile, Delaware North also is testing a way to make it easier for customers to buy meatless meals. Later this year, the company will introduce grab-and-go stations offering wraps, sandwiches, fruit, beverages and other items at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston and HSBC Arena in Buffalo.
“It eliminates lines and makes it easier for guests to cruise around and see what’s in there, get their stuff and get back to their seats,” Perrault says.
Green Houses -No-Meat Concepts
No-meat concepts find a growing audience among vegetarians and meat-lovers alike.
While many chefs are satisfying consumers’ demands for nutritious, vegetarian items with one or two special dishes, a small but thriving group is taking the idea to the next level, dedicating full menus to meatless fare.
Although there is scarce data to pinpoint how many vegetarian and vegan restaurants there are in the United States, vegdining.com, an online restaurant guide estimated last year that it was somewhere between 1,000 and 1,200—almost double the number from seven years ago.
Perhaps more notable is the fact that the concept is spreading across all forms of foodservice. Having grown beyond its roots in small, California cafes and ethnic restaurants, all-vegetarian fare can be found in fine dining, in quick service and on college campuses across the country.
The fortunate side effect for operators is that these concepts tend to attract just as many, if not more, non-vegetarians to their tables. Whether drawn in by the fresh and healthful ingredients or (in many cases) a vegetarian restaurant’s eco-friendly focus, diners leave satisfied—and return—thanks to hearty portions and interesting variety. On these menus, vegetables, fruit, herbs, grains and more are the basis for everything from appetizers and entrées to drinks and desserts.
How four very different concepts are going meatless in their own unique ways.