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Is catering for vegetarians a hassle or an opportunity?

21 May 2010
Is catering for vegetarians a hassle or an opportunity?

National Vegetarian Week (24-29 May) is 10 this year. Is it a week to ignore, or do chefs do so at their peril? Some regard catering for vegetarians as a lot of unprofitable hassle; others see it as a catering opportunity. Olivia Greenway explains why the vegetarian option should now be firmly on the menu.

Vegetarian food purchases in supermarkets have doubled in the past 10 years, reaching £780m annually, according to Mintel. Of course, some of the meat-free demand is due to increased availability of vegetarian foodstuffs, but it does show that demand is there and increasing dramatically. It's safe to assume there's a knock-on effect in restaurants.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the number of vegetarian restaurants has also doubled in the same period. However, there still aren't enough to cover demand. In particular, fine dining is not something vegetarian restaurants have grasped, so in most cases an omnivorous restaurant is the only option.

Those who don't cater for vegetarians cite low take-up and associated wastage as reasons not to pursue the option seriously. Some chefs don't see vegetarian cooking as challenging enough or important enough and, quite frankly, some chefs just don't seem able to create stand-alone vegetarian dishes; they need the crutch of meat or fish. Are they missing a trick?

Michael Lear, general manager of Roussillon, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Chelsea, south-west London, says: "In the eight years I've been here I think the interest in the vegetarian option has increased three- or four-fold. We have three menus: à la carte and the two tasting menus, one of which is vegetarian. A significant number choose the vegetarian option. Most of the customers who choose the vegetarian menu are either regulars or have come on personal recommendation. They come here knowing we can supply them with what they want."

Raymond Blanc of Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, holder of two Michelin stars for 25 consecutive years, introduced organic vegetables to his cooking more than 20 years ago. His two-acre kitchen garden produces 90 types of vegetables and 70 varieties of herbs that Blanc and his team use in the kitchens. His passion for fresh vegetables is one of his trademarks, and Blanc was one of the first chefs to offer a "garden" menu. Director and general manager Philip Newman-Hall explains that he has seen a doubling of take-up of the garden menu in the past five years to just less than 20% of menu choices. "Catering for vegetarians offers us great opportunities," he says. "It fits in perfectly with our ethos and complements what we are trying to achieve. Customers are after a lighter, healthier diet, and the garden menu provides this."

BLOWN AWAY

Alan Murchison, award-winning executive chef and owner of 10 in 8 Fine Dining, stresses that vegetables are vitally important in the kitchen. "Vegetables are fabulous. I was in Ludlow recently and was blown away by a watermelon and tomato starter. It was just magical. Spring is the best time of the year for a chef - there are so many wonderful vegetables out there. You don't need meat and fish to be blown away; learn to love your vegetables."

Murchison has vegetarian menus in all his restaurants. He admits that vegetarian catering was just "skimmed over" when he was at college but he feels that chefs should give customers what they want. "Having spent five years with Raymond Blanc, it was drummed into me that the customer is like a guest and to be respected," he adds. "Accommodating dietary requests is part and parcel of a chef's life. Being a prima donna about it [vegetarian choices] is slightly passé now and, anyway, ignorant."

Linthwaite House hotel in Windermere, Cumbria, is a fine-dining establishment that is carving its niche as a destination restaurant and hotel that caters well for vegetarians. With a raft of awards under its belt, the most recent being the Lanier Best Vegetarian Hotel Award 2010, owner Mike Bevans points out that they have been offering a vegetarian menu for 20 years. Although the take-up in itself is small (5%), the vegetarian or meat-reducer will come with a partner or be part of a group, so is an important customer to attract. He's noticed an increased interest in healthy eating, meat reduction and, by default, the vegetarian option in the past few years.

Fresh from her latest stint of filming as North-west regional winner on BBC2's Great British Menu, Northcote Manor head chef Lisa Allen says she is as passionate about her vegetarian menus as the other options. "I feel that a customer should have the same dining satisfaction whatever their dietary needs," she says. "We have to look at the dish as a whole and do something exciting with it. It's quite a challenge. Fortunately, we have a good kitchen garden, so all our salad leaves and herbs come from there in the summer. We have six varieties of potato and fabulous rhubarb, to name just a few items. Nigel [Nigel Howarth, executive head chef and owner] is extending the garden, as we really like to use fresh produce."

Allen says that the uptake of the vegetarian gourmet menu is about 10% and rising. Many of the dishes from her Great British menu have been adapted for Northcote, including her wonderful strawberry creation. "I used agar agar instead of gelatine, so that's a great sweet for vegetarians as well. The bottom line is that your reputation and that of your establishment is at stake. You have to cater for all."

Since the number of vegetarians in the UK has remained fairly static over the past decade, it would be fair to assume that the extra take-up in demand has been from meat reducers. This fact is commonly missed by menu planners, who assume that the vegetarian choice will be chosen only by vegetarians. But many people who make the vegetarian choice do so just because they like the sound of the imaginative option on the menu: typically, a vegetarian will be looking at the vegetarian menu and one of the party will decide to join them in choosing it.

CHALLENGING

It's not all a walk in the park, however. Vegetarian customers can be demanding, and catering for them is challenging at times. But since the take-up of vegetarian options is around 30%, it's more difficult to ignore them.

If you do decide to go down the vegetarian route, Liz O'Neill of the Vegetarian Society explains there is more to it than just excluding meat and fish. "Traditional chef training treats dishes without meat as something of an afterthought, but those who think creatively and serve satisfying vegetarian meals full of taste and texture will be rewarded with repeat visits and a positive reputation amongst an influential group of diners," she says.

She points out that with just a little training, unconfident chefs can up their game and produce vegetarian dishes to be proud of. The Vegetarian Society offers several professional chef training options, from a one-day inspirational course to a four-day diploma course, split into two parts so it can be combined with full-time work.

Another bugbear vegetarians have is when vegetarian options are not identified on the menu. "Many vegetarians don't want to make a fuss by asking lots of questions; they just want the reassurance that dishes marked as suitable for vegetarians don't contain any gelatine, animal rennet, fish paste, cochineal or animal fat," O'Neill adds. "A marked menu with a simple explanation works wonders for the confidence of all your customers, not just the vegetarians."

If you are still not convinced, Murchison adds a final warning. "I have a very important customer who eats in at least one of my restaurants weekly, if not more frequently," he says. "He encourages others to come to us. His partner does not eat meat. Sometimes she eats fish, but on the whole she wants a vegetarian option. If we didn't cater for her, and cater well, we would lose his business."

VEGETARIAN CATERING DO'S AND DON'TS

Do:

â- Serve exciting, unusual dishes to showcase your creativity.
â- Make sure front of house know which items are vegetarian on the menu, including puddings and specials like soup of the day.
â- Don't rely on cheese as the protein in the dish - think of nuts, tofu and tempeh as well as more traditional pulses.
â- If you do use cheese, try to make sure it is made with vegetarian rennet.
â- Put V signs on your menus.
â- Have a non-dairy vegetarian option: some people don't eat eggs or cheese and some people just don't like them.
â- Consider a professional chef's course at the Vegetarian Society. Either an Inspiration Day or a four-day chef's diploma.

Don't:

â- Think the vegetarian option means cheese.
â- Think vegetarians will be happy with just pasta.
â- Think goats' cheese is exciting.
â- Cross-contaminate by using the same knives, chopping surfaces and pans for vegetarian items and meat/fish products.
â- Fry meat/fish products in the same oil as vegetarian items.
â- Cook meat/fish dishes in the same oven as vegetarian dishes, unless they are covered.

Source: The Vegetarian Society

STUMBLING BLOCKS - ITEMS THAT MAY NOT BE SUITABLE FOR VEGETARIANS

â- Worcestershire sauce
â- Caesar salad dressing
â- Gelatine
â- Some food colourings, such as cochineal
â- Lard, dripping, suet
â- Parmesan cheeses (either use a vegetarian alternative or leave it out - see panel)
â- Eggs are suitable for western vegetarians, but most veggies are not happy to eat battery eggs and people who are vegetarian for faith reasons often exclude them altogether. If in doubt, it's worth mentioning which dishes contain eggs.

‘PARMESAN-STYLE' CHEESE

The bÁªte noire of most vegetarians, Parmesan cheese, crops up in their dishes more than any other ingredient.

Bookham Fine Foods does an excellent hard cheese substitute that is vegetarian. Made in Italy, it's available online, lasts for five months unopened and can be frozen.

PAN-FRIED TOFU AND GNOCCHI WITH ENGLISH ASPARAGUS


Recipe devised by Richard Kearsley, head chef at the Linthwaite House hotel, Windermere

INGREDIENTS
(Serves four)

For the gnocchi

â- 290g mashed potato
â- 130g plain flour
â- 80g finely grated vegetarian Parmesan (see panel above)
â- ½ beaten egg
â- Salt and pepper

For the carrot purée

â- 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped small
â- 50g butter
â- 5g sugar
â- 5g salt

For the lemon dressing (enough for at least 16 portions - can be kept in fridge for other uses)

â- 250ml lemon oil
â- 250ml groundnut oil
â- 200ml white wine vinegar
â- 2tsp salt
â- 1tsp pepper
â- 1 clove of garlic and 1 sprig of tarragon per bottle

To assemble the dish
â- 12 spears English asparagus, trimmed and blanched in boiling salted water and refreshed
â- 12 pieces of baby carrots, blanched and refreshed
â- 80g per person of plain tofu, cut into 3 rounds
â- A mixture of baby pak choi leaf, celery cress and curly endive
â- 20g peeled broad beans
â- 40ml oil
â- 30g butter

METHOD
To make the gnocchi, mix all ingredients together, adding the beaten egg last. Check the level of seasoning by poaching off a little of the gnocchi. Lay two strips of clingfilm about 50cm wide on top of each other. Lightly oil the clingfilm.

Take some of the gnocchi mixture and roll on to the clingfilm until you have a cylinder the diameter of a 50p piece. Tie both ends. Repeat this process until you have used all the mixture. Chill and then cut into lozenges about 2cm thick.

Poach the gnocchi in a pan of water for 20 minutes, and allow to cool in a container of ice water.

For the carrot purée, place the carrots in a pan and just cover with water. Add the butter, salt and sugar. Cook the carrots until soft and the water has reduced by half. Place in a blender and blend until smooth, then check the seasoning.

To finish, pan-fry the gnocchi and tofu in a little oil, until golden-brown. Finish with a little butter. Heat up the asparagus, baby carrots and broad beans in a pan of water with a touch of butter and salt.

Gently heat the carrot purée and, using the back of a spoon, swipe on to the plate. Arrange the gnocchi at three points with the tofu lying at an angle on top.

Arrange the asparagus, carrots and broad beans around the plate at different angles, placing the salad leafs on top. Drizzle the lemon dressing around the plate.

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