farm subscription, but on a bigger scale, where you’re investing
in the produce in advance.”
Eric Fenster, co-owner of Gather Restaurant in Berkeley,
Calif., says neither he nor his business partner Ari Derfel
are vegetarian or vegan, but they did have a deep affinity for
vegetable cookery, and saw a gap in what was being offered
by other restaurants.
“Literally every place we’d go that offered a fine-dining
experience would underplay the veg dishes. They were 85%-
90% meat and fish proteins, with a couple of veg options. There
was no one out there balancing the cuisine,” says Fenster.
And because the Berkeley area has reliable access to spectacular
fresh produce, including an array of heirloom beans and
vegetables, Fenster says it was the perfect location to introduce
a restaurant that strives for a 50/50 balance between vegetable
entrees and those offering more traditional meat and fish proteins.
Fenster ended up hiring Sean Baker, known for pushing the
idea of vegetarian dishes with items such as carrot-top pesto
or a vegan charcuterie (which is one of the most-ordered
items on the menu). And, echoing Satterfield, Fenster says
Gather’s relationship with the farmers who supply the
restaurant’s kitchen is critically important.
“One of the secrets for Sean is actually being in conversation
with the farmers. Linda [Butler] from Lindencroft Farm [Ben
Lomond, Calif.] is on the phone with him three times a week
about what’s coming out of the ground. That partnership is
crucial, and Sean plans the menus with the farmers in mind.
That’s really the next level of cooking this way. It’s very farm-focused,” says Fenster.
Chef Jonathon Sawyer of The Greenhouse Tavern in Cleveland
says being able to offer more than just the standard side of pasta
as a veg-friendly afterthought was a priority. “Believe it or not,
about 30% of our diners are vegan or vegetarian. We offer over
10 different options on the menu at all times, and for us, it’s
really essential these dishes are just as thoughtful as every other
dish on the menu.”
Although The Greenhouse Tavern draws the vegetarian crowd,
the produce push is completely chef-driven, and the menu changes
weekly. Even in the midst of a Cleveland winter, when fresh local
produce can be more difficult to source, Sawyer says the farmers
he works with are able to supply ingredients year-round.
“We’ll put the microscope on one dish, as opposed to
making sure we source enough squash for the next six
months. We don’t care if we run out. If we do, we’ll move
on to curly kale or Brussels sprouts,” he says.
Sawyer also pushes the elegance envelope with dishes such
as kabocha squash en croute with clotted cream, brown
butter and puff pastry that tempt even non-vegetarian
guests. “When it comes out to the table, everyone in the
dining room strains to see what it is,” says Sawyer.
“It’s keeping it exciting like that that’s the most important
thing. It’s not about replacing proteins like chicken with
tofu. For us, it’s about making the vegetables taste as good
as they possibly can, and to prepare them in a way the
guest hasn’t had before.”
But chefs who think they’re saving money by offering a
dish designed around heirloom carrots in place of a slab of
prime beef may have to recalculate their thinking. Reusing
warns there’s more to consider than just the bushel price,
and offers tips.
“Vegetable-focused appetizers and side dishes push more
sales than a vegetarian entree,” she says. “Guests are more
willing to experiment on a $9 dish, and are willing to try
a few. They sell really well. That said, you might go in
thinking the profit margin would be higher, but there’s
much more labor involved. We’ve taken the approach of
charging about the same price for veg-focused dishes as we
do for those with a specific protein.”
Of course, when chefs put out satisfying vegetable dishes,
it’s a draw for all guests—vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian or
carnivore. Eaters who didn’t think vegetables tasted good
are starting to take notice, and part of that growing trend
can be attributed to a focus on locally sourced vegetables,
grown for flavor rather than for transportation needs.
“When the flavor is there, and you don’t have a big steak
to hunker down on, you don’t miss it when there’s so much
other good food on the table, and people understand that,”
says Satterfield. “They know we need to eat more fruits
CALIFORNIA-BASED WRITER CLARE LESCHIN-HOAR'S WORK HAS APPEARED IN THE
WALL STREET JOURNAL, S C I A M . C O M , SAN DIEGO MAGAZINE, S L A S H F O O D A N D M A N Y
MORE. VISIT W W W.LESCHIN-HOAR.COM.