Most professional cooks will tell you that part of their reason for doing what they do stems from an “a ha” moment; a particular dish, ingredient, or drink that set their mind abuzz with enthusiasm, wonder, and undeniable electricity. If this sounds like too much mumbo-jumbo, go ahead and ask a professional cook. Maybe it was that first fresh oyster, shucked close to the ocean, full of that fantastic briny liquor that is hard to describe except to state, “It tastes like the sea.” Quite possibly it was salivating over your introduction to grilled meats on an open fire, or the heat and deep flavor from fresh chili’s that were charred on a bed of coals, or even more basic, the snap of a fall apple picked fresh from an over-burdened tree. In nearly every case, a pro cook has his or her specific food moment.
I have experienced quite a few epiphanies myself: yes, it was that briny oyster, of course every fall those first picked apples are incredible, and I always have been a carnivore at heart; so grilled, roasted and braised meats excite me time and again. Tearing off a hunk of crusty baguette that just came off the oven peel is only surpassed by slathering some cultured butter on it while the bread is still warm. If you are from New England, some aged Bijou or Capoule cheese from Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery is life changing.
Last night, I had another food epiphany. I have always loved vegetables, and try to eat a vegetable based meal at least two nights per week. The thought of living a vegetarian life never seemed like an option for me – I just like meat far too much, and to be honest, as a chef I never paid enough attention to building a repertoire of vegetable based recipes and techniques. I respect vegetarian and vegan choice, but like many in the kitchen, would be somewhat frustrated when guests would ask for more choice or alternatives relating to a non-meat/dairy diet. Part of the reason is that cooks are compelled to put out great food and when they (we) are uncomfortable with cooking in a manner that is not part of their mental inventory, frustration can come across as a lack of respect.
In Philadelphia there is a restaurant of great acclaim, as stated on their website, “Some say this may be the best vegan restaurant in the country; this may be the best restaurant, period.” I would be hard pressed to judge the best restaurant in the U.S., with so many exceptional ones available (they are all on my bucket list), but I can flat out say that this restaurant opened my eyes to what a vegetable based menu can be: dynamic, interesting, exceptionally flavorful, unique, and refreshing. The restaurant is called, “Vedge”. My simple assessment was WOW! Every course, every presentation, every flavor was enlightening. Caramelization of a beautiful steak is something to behold, but THIS restaurant made every part of every vegetable dish stand out like the lead in a Broadway show.
Think about it, when was the last time a cook was able to find a new type of meat to work with? Certainly a new cut, or maybe Wagyu beef instead of USDA Choice, but working with something totally different, with a season, with vibrant color and a healthy nutritional profile; this can only come from immersion in the preparation of plant based items. The variety of vegetables and fruits available seems almost limitless, and if a restaurant finds the right farmers/vendors, it can build a signature menu featuring what is mature, fresh, and unique at different times of the year. The menu becomes fluid, and responsive to the terroir and provides something different and exceptional for diners every time they chose a restaurant and a fresh opportunity for cooks each time they tie on an apron and sharpen their knives.
I haven’t been this excited about a restaurant in quite some time. Vedge may be unique, but the trend is starting to spread when Chef’s Passat, Boulud, and Ducasse began featuring vegetable menus. What a breath of fresh air! Think about the possibilities spawned by the farm to plate movement, a commitment to sustainable agriculture and the wonderful, healthy, and safe foods produced as a result?
I may not choose to become a vegetarian, but I am excited to begin expanding my knowledge and repertoire of vegetable based cooking. I am also slightly embarrassed for all the restaurants that relegate their vegetarian options to a simple pasta dish or omelet. I implore every cook I know to click on the website link for “Vedge”, order their cookbook, and start to investigate. If you are ever in Philly, make a dinner reservation; the experience will be well worth it.
A special thanks to my daughter Erika and her husband Matt for turning me on to a truly great restaurant.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC