Meat-free marvels – Alyn Williams at the Westbury

25 November 2011
Meat-free marvels – Alyn Williams at the Westbury

Later this month Alyn Williams opens his restaurant, Alyn Williams at the Westbury, in London, where he's hoping that his vegetarian tasting menu will cause something of a stir. Fiona Sims finds out why and discovers that more and more chefs are finally seeing the financial benefits - and customer demand - for serving gourmet vegetables

Alyn Williams is waxing lyrical about swede. Not the most glamorous of vegetables, sure, but the root turns him on. "I love it best boiled and mashed with lots of butter and black pepper," he enthuses.

Swede makes an appearance on his vegetarian tasting menu at his new restaurant venture, Alyn Williams at the Westbury, London - a roasted disc placed centre stage alongside walnut gnocchi and a watercress purée. Yes, he has a vegetarian tasting menu - along with a growing number of chefs who are elevating vegetables into the spotlight.

Many of London's top restaurants now offer a vegetable-based tasting menu, such as the Ledbury and Hibiscus, Pied à Terre and the Greenhouse. The majority are offered alongside their regular menu (like Williams); others you need to ask for, or request in advance. Note that many declare the menus are "vegetable", rather than "vegetarian". And no, it's not the latest wheeze to make more money out of customers (though it undoubtedly helps their margins) - the dishes are significantly more labour intensive. Rather it's a response to customer demand.

There is a growing number of people who have cut back on their consumption of fish and meat. The evidence of a vegetable renaissance is everywhere, from high-profile campaigns such as Meat Free Mondays, led by former Beatle Paul McCartney and his new cookbook, which a line-up of chefs have contributed to (Kyle Cathie, £19.99), to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaigning television series River Cottage Veg currently airing on Channel 4, and accompanying (best-selling) cookbook.

River Cottage head chef Gill Meller admits that they have upped their vegetable dishes this year to coincide with the television programme. "But vegetables have always been important to us - we're just making more noise about them now," he says.

The restaurant offers a four-course set menu at £85 a head and two of the courses are vegetables. "You have to balance the menu well. The vegetable dishes have to be interesting - layered, varied, offering different textures and flavours," Meller advises. And around 40% of the dishes on the menu at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster are now vegetarian. "It does spur on creativity in the kitchen, yes. There's no meat or fish to hide behind, but that can only be good for chefs in general," he believes.

The Vegetarian Society calls them meat reducers and gleefully reports that while figures for true vegetarians remain static, at around 3% of the country, this is the real growth area. Explains press officer Su Taylor: "These are people who haven't given up meat completely, but are making a conscious effort to eat less of it."

Some of those meat reducers are concerned about the health implications of eating too much meat; others are worrying about the environmental implications, and their access to good-quality meat, preferring to eat less, but better - happy to shell out more for the good stuff.

Like Williams, Simon Rogan offers a vegetable menu alongside his regular tasting menu at his London restaurant Roganic. The price is only slightly less, at £80 for 10 courses, or £55 for six. He used to offer a vegetable menu at his flagship restaurant, L'Enclume, in Cumbria, but the locals didn't go for it (indeed, selling a vegetable menu outside London appears to be more of a struggle), preferring his regular tasting menu, which incorporates a number of vegetable dishes - at least five out of the 12 savoury courses, with most of the veg plucked from Rogan's own farm. "But anyway we've decreased the protein as the years have gone on. It's rather like the cheap cut of meat movement - now we're all moving on to vegetables," he observes.

Yottam Ottolenghi contributed to this new era of vegetables five years ago in his Guardian column The New Vegetarian. The newspaper approached the chef because his eponymous restaurant in Islington, and now his new flagship in the West End, Nopi, became famous for its dishes focusing on vegetables and grains, and for its innovative salads.

Vegetable dishes at Nopi, for example, include roasted cauliflower, ricotta, golden raisins and capers, and chargrilled broccolini with skordalia and chilli oil, and spiced pink fir apples with masala leeks and bitter gourd. They sit in their own section, as weighty as the fish and meat offering.

As Ottolenghi writes in the introduction to his best-selling vegetarian cookbook Plenty (which has just won OFM's Best Cookbook award), "I like meat and I like fish, but I can easily cook without them. My grandmother's vinegar-marinated courgettes, or the ripe figs with ewe's cheese we used to down before dinner, are as substantial and as basic as any cut of meat," he writes.

Even if restaurants don't offer a dedicated vegetable menu, an increasing number of restaurants are paying more attention to vegetables in the composition of the dish - the protein now playing a bit part to the main event - veg.

Cue Alexis Gauthier. The chef-proprietor of Gauthier Soho has been bigging up vegetables for years now - prompted by a damascene moment while working at Le Louis XV Alain Ducasse, Monaco. "We cooked this dish of celeriac and bitter pear with black truffles and aged balsamic vinegar - it was mind-blowing," he declares.

The website declares boldly that it is ‘vegecentric', coining a new phrase for the industry. "It's basically a way of telling people how obsessed we are with vegetables," says Gauthier, whose personal diet is made up of 90% vegetables. "I don't think my body will allow me to eat any more fish and meat than that."

Salisfy is his current craze. " You can really play with it and transform it in a way that you can't with protein. It really shows what you can do as a chef. Cooking with vegetables provides a window of creativity for us. It's where we try the hardest. Vegetables are a lot more challenging for a chef. It requires a lot more thought," Gauthier warns.

His approach isn't new, exactly. Top Paris chef Alain Passard took a similar line 10 years ago at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Arpège, when he banished most meats from the menu. "I've gone as far as I can go with cooking meat," he declared back then, evangelically.

Passard introduced a vegetarian tasting menu and demoted fish and meat to bit parts on the à la carte, erasing 12 signature dishes in the process. Of course, he was initially dismissed as a turnip-hugging nut by the meat-loving French critics - though not by the Michelin Guide, interestingly, which let him keep his third star.

"Working with vegetables creates encouragement to replant the earth and work with a new language, a new vocabulary," Passard now preaches, plundering his biodynamic kitchen garden near Le Mans for the bulk of his produce. In fact, embracing vegetables in haute cuisine has become virtually a global phenomenon.

For Charlie Trotter, the vegetable has always been king. The famous Chicago chef has offered a vegetarian menu ($135) at his smart brownstone restaurant for 22 years. "It just seemed like the natural thing to do back then. I don't consider it so much of a healthy alternative as I do a way to celebrate the extraordinary flavours and textures of the vegetables themselves. The health part sort of comes as a by-product," he explains.

Trotter also calls it a vegetable menu. "Chef Trotter's approach to vegetable cuisine is not that of a staunch vegetarian, but rather of a chef passionate about vegetables," warns the website. In fact, he argues that cooking with vegetables is far more interesting than cooking with meat or fish. "There's simply a wider range of texture and flavour possibilities," he reasons. Dishes include squash blossom beignet with zucchini, black truffle and carmellini beans, and caramelised cauliflower and beet "lasagne" with saffron.

At Sketch, in London, they sell on average six vegetarian menus every service in their fine-dining restaurant, the Lecture Room and Library. The vegetarian menu has been offered since Sketch opened in 2002 and is presented alongside the regular tasting menu priced at £75 for six courses, including dishes such as cabbage filled with cabbage cream, chestnut soup with green curry (all on one plate).

But just because a restaurant doesn't offer a daily vegetable menu, doesn't mean they aren't trying, too. The Square's Phil Howard believes vegetarians (and meat reducers) should be ignored at your peril. "A quarter of a century ago vegetarians were a rare species. Now it's a big deal," says Howard, who estimates that up to a couple of tables each service have some kind of dietary requirement, and those requesting vegetarian menus are on the increase (but they need to let the Square know in advance).

"But you have to be practical and cost effective. There's no point in drafting a vegetarian menu that doesn't dovetail with the main menu. Look at the à la carte; see what you can work with from that. And if not, then get it in. It's easy to see it as a headache but it's not. Though a headache is a vegetarian who doesn't like mushrooms," he adds, with a grin.

Back at the Westbury, Williams sets down a dish of smoked egg, celeriac remoulade and brioche black truffle soldiers, finished with a smear of crème fraîche and raw discs of Jonagold apple (see page 49). "I started really getting into vegetables working with Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley - the work behind it didn't compare to the rest of the menu and we realised there was a demand for it. Not just the nut cutlet style, but high-end vegetable haute cuisine," he explains.

Also, his wife is a vegetarian, and he saw what she was being offered when they went out to eat. "Invariably asparagus, followed by risotto," he recalls. So four years ago he and Wareing set about focusing more on vegetables. "We really looked at what we needed to create an innovative dish - rather than just looking at what we had in the fridge," he says.

It came easily, though - it turns out Williams has always had a thing for veg. "My dad was a fantastic gardener and we were almost self-sufficient growing up," he remembers.

"I could easily live without meat - though fish would be harder," admits Williams, who says that the autumn is his favourite time for vegetables. "The smell of the air, the colours - there's such a glut of food, from roots to brassicas. I salivate just thinking about them."

Smoked egg, celeriac, Jonagold apple, truffle soldiers
Beetroot, fennel, pollen, horseradish
Sweet onion agnolotti, laverbread, sorrel
Watercress, swede, gnocchi, walnuts
Apple, yogurt, vanilla, verbena
Walnut whip, marshmallow, walnut ice-cream

Price: £55 per head

On 29 November, the Westbury hotel will unveil its new restaurant, Alyn Williams at the Westbury. The restaurant is on the site of the former Artisan restaurant and is spearheaded by Williams, who has spent the past six years working for Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley and prior to that at Pétrus (he spent four years as Wareing's head chef). Prior to that, Williams's career includes periods at the Groucho Club, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay (at Royal Hospital Road), Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's and the original Pétrus in St James's Street.

Williams, who has just finished as runner-up in the Craft Guild of Chefs' National Chef of the Year 2011, has been joined front of house by Giancarlo Princigalli (also ex-Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley) and head sommelier Alex Gilbert (formerly of Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Le Pont de la Tour).

The 45-seat dining room, with a private wine room for eight, plus an adjacent private dining room for up to 18, was designed by Alex Kravetz Design.

Typical dishes on the menu include grouse with red pepper, goats' milk curds, watermelon and mint; langoustine with morcilla, crab apple, hedge sorrel and chestnut; and Herdwick lamb with fennel, lamb bacon and Parmesan.

If you are really struggling to come up with the ideas, then consider a specialised cookery course. The Vegetarian Society's Cordon Vert School offers one-day to one-week courses for professional chefs.

Principal tutor Alex Connell has seen a huge increase in interest. "The majority of chefs are classically trained and their ideas are heavily weighted in favour of meat and fish. But after a course here their eyes have been opened. There is a whole world out there beyond the goats' cheese tart," he says.

Mike Haddow is one of Connell's recent converts. Last month the executive chef of Shire Hotels put himself and six of his head chefs through one of Connell's courses. "One of our weaknesses is that we've not done enough to tap into the vegetarian sector. It's a smokescreen to say that there's not a huge demand for it - it's a growing market," he says.

"The course was a challenge, but it was fantastic, and I'm not used to saying that - we are all big meat eaters with the usual lentil and sandal suspicions. But this is the start of a revolution for us - we recognised that there are a lot of meat and fish eaters who want to go veggie every now and again. We've gone back to the kitchen excited," he declares.

Shire currently has eight hotels spread around the country and it recently acquired eight Thwaites Inns of Character, which will eventually increase to 24 properties. The next stage for Haddow is to sign up these chefs for the Cordon Vert course. "The key here is not just to ignite the interest of our head chefs, but to trickle that excitement down through the line."

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