This April, join us as we take a deep dive into the future of food. Here's where now meets next.
It's the middle of the afternoon at Avant Garden, an enchanting new restaurant in New York City's East Village where a wall of open windows brings the outside in. TLC, K-Ci & JoJo and other 90s stars play on the stereo system, as chef Alex Aparicio describes his vegan menu of dishes like avocado chunks dressed in ramp pesto topped with spears of white asparagus and strawberries, and a spicy carrot toast with harissa, apple and whipped tofu cream (see the recipe).
When asked about the fake meat that was served at vegan and vegetarian restaurants back when "Waterfalls" first hit the radio waves, he says, "It's never going to be the right fit here. I want to do something that no one's done before."
The New Vedge Tables
Aparicio isn't alone. A crew of chefs have recently picked up the reins from where the vegetable-forward craze left off. They are pushing the cuisine forward, taking meat and often all animal products, including dairy, out of their restaurant's pantries entirely, replacing them with a host of vegetables that have been cured, braised, smoked or roasted until they reveal hidden depths of flavors that even adventurous diners may have never come across.
"There's a new idea of veganism as cool," says Rich Landau of Vedge and V Street in Philadelphia, who has been cooking vegan food since he opened his restaurant Horizons in 1994. "My chef friends used to look at me with a raised eyebrow; now they're seeing the benefits of it."
"[Vegan and vegetarian restaurants] lacked style or fun—or sex appeal," John Fraser, who has served a vegetarian tasting menu on Mondays at NYC's Dovetail for five years, adds. So when he opened Nix, a completely vegetarian restaurant just south of Union Square, in late February, all of those things were taken into consideration: With a large skylight, pops of color and dishes like shiitake cacio e pepe with polenta and salsify, Nix fits comfortably into the mold of today's cool restaurants.
The Diet of a Chef
Much of this wave of vegetable-driven change is coming from the chefs' lives outside of the restaurant kitchen. Fraser; Joe Yardley, chef de cuisine of the just-opened Agern in New York City; and Landau all maintain a primarily vegan or vegetarian diet outside of work, and Aparicio says he eats meat just once a week or when his mother cooks for him.
Fraser, for one, started questioning his diet a couple of years ago: "Why have bacon on my breakfast sandwich? I know enough to know it comes from a factory farm pig, and it doesn't taste that great." For Yardley, who offers a vegetarian tasting menu at Agern, the move last year to become vegan came out of a desire to live more sustainably. Even the chefs for whom a vegetable-based diet is a lifelong commitment, the dogmatic nature of that choice seems to have quieted down in recent years, opening these dining rooms to a broader swath of diners. "There are people who will come to a vegetable restaurant but wouldn't be caught dead in a vegan restaurant," Landau argues.
The choice to bring that philosophy into their restaurants has also become a tool for these chefs to push themselves creatively. "A steak will always be a steak," Yardley says. "You can do so much more with vegetables, and you get different stages of that actual vegetable," he adds, pointing out the different parts and life phases of a ramp.
Landau says, "It's almost lazy to cover up vegetables with animal products. We have to really think how to make it taste good without them."
The result are dishes where vegetables are often cooked multiple ways over the course of several days, creating layers of complex flavors, from Agern's pine soufflé with skyr granita to ceviche-like cubes of salt-roasted sweet potato served with a pool of spicy jalapeño, lime and herb dressing at Avant Garden.
This cooking, however, isn't without its challenges. At the more hard-core spots, there's no butter to rely on or fried eggs to hide under. Dishes like an artichoke one that Aparicio is working on can take weeks to develop. And once ready to serve, they don't always translate to every diner. "People who get it love it. People who don't get it hate it. There's no in between," Aparicio says.
Still, many of these chefs talk of a day when the cuisine reaches a tipping point. "When the space fills up with great chefs and restaurants," Fraser says, diners going out with friends will consider their options for a dinner and—perhaps taking a cue from our childhoods—choose to eat their vegetables.