Updated on Tuesday, 15ᵗʰ February, 2022
With restaurant menus moving on from meat-free Mondays, and vegan restaurants now considered anything but niche, chefs are diving headlong into the space of the hero vegetable dish.
It’s a seed that has become more than a trend. Sourcing uncommon produce, experimenting with equipment and developing ideas from scratch are helping the clever chef to take advantage of the meat-free movement.
Brent Savage, executive chef at The Bentley Group (Monopole, Cirrus, Yellow, Bentley Restaurant + Bar), has been ahead of the curve by offering hero dishes that just happen to have vegetables as their main component.
- Savage regularly challenges vegetable growers, and pays them, to come up with fresh produce that had previously been ploughed in, be it pumpkin or broad bean leaves and their tips
- He gives ingredients previously seen as pretty additions to a plate - such as baby veg and micro leaves - a bigger role, saying they deserve to be front and centre on a dish
- In addition to limiting food waste, and making the most of every piece of produce, Savage says pickling, chargrilling, smoking and baking can add a powerful punch to a vegetable that was perhaps thought of as one dimensional
With the range of versatile equipment available to kitchens, be it a sous vide machine, Josper charcoal oven or deep fryer, there is no reason why proteins should claim all the glory. Prime examples include intensifying flavour by cooking sous vide carrots, and charring greens - such as asparagus spears or green beans - on the charcoal grill. Enjoy super charcoal intensity with Josper-baked artichokes - tops removed and slathered in olive oil, salt and pepper.
Chargrilling green stems such as broccolini and serving with a gentleman’s relish made with smoked eggplant or capsicum charged Romesco sauce is another flavoursome approach.
While every Middle Eastern-influenced restaurant or bar worth its salt has hummus on the menu, forward-thinking chefs are making their own hummus without chickpeas and using vegetables instead. Try red lentils and roasted carrot, roasted butternut pumpkin or blitzed beetroot as an alternative and witness the delight in the punters’ eyes.
Pickling produce has been a clever way to add longer life to seasonal vegetables for centuries, so look to offer tang to a bar menu with jars of your own pickled beans, radish or carrots to dip into that carrot or beetroot hummus. Give cauliflower rice a try as arancini or use thick, crumbed deep-fried eggplant strips with tomatoey dips.
From vegetarians and vegans to flexitarians and climatarians, the expectations around dish creativity are growing among those who favour vegetable-based meals. For the chef who is dedicated to meeting the evolving needs of diners, it’s a time to shine.
Raise the bar, as reinvention is only limited by your imagination.