Why you should care

Restaurants’ new strategy puts veggies front and center. Just don’t call it “vegetarian.” 

For much of Lindsey Boyle’s life, her eating habits made her feel like an outsider. In one camp were the vegetarians. They were noble, high-minded and self-abnegating, and Boyle admired their ability to observe their beliefs in the most visceral way possible. She had even joined them for much of her 20s.

But in the other camp were chicken wings.

“I don’t eat them very often, maybe every few months,” says Boyle, a marketing strategist based in Vancouver. “But if you’re going to identify as a vegetarian, explaining this can be highly confusing for other people.” At dinner parties, Boyle’s husband delightedly explained her qualified vegetarianism while she cringed in guilt and embarrassment. “It was so awkward.”

Relief is in sight for Boyle and others who, like her, want to have their meat and eat it, too — just in very small quantities from time to time. Whether the diet is described as “plant forward,” “vegetable-centric” or “plant-based,” the basic idea is the same: Make vegetables the star of the plate and relegate meat to the status of side dish or even condiment — but do keep the meat. The concept, which had a kind of coming-out party at the Culinary Institute of America last year, is shaping strategy at food-service conglomerates and fancy restaurants alike.

At Nico, a Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco, chef Nicolas Delaroque hosted a monthly “vegetable-forward” dinner series last year, around $60 for three veggie-heavy courses that featured dishes like cauliflower, nasturim and a bit of sea urchin. Restaurants are taking a page from many Asian cuisines, letting veggies and grains take up the plate and using meat sparingly. In place of the usual, 12-ounce T-bone, some nutritionists are advocating two-ounce servings — placed atop a farro bowl or shredded in a stir-fry. Then there is the phenomenon of the “blended burger,” wherein mushrooms or a hearty grain like bulgur take the place of some, but not all, of the beef.

Restaurant menus still don’t reflect how many Americans want to eat — which is to say, they don’t want to have to choose between abstention and gluttony.

What’s at stake for the industry, no pun intended, is to get ahead of consumption, health and sustainability trends and stop playing defense. “Anytime a restaurant or food company has to respond quickly, it’s very disruptive,” says Greg Drescher, a vice president at the Culinary Institute who works on strategy and leadership. Trans fats are an example, he says: A decade ago, they were everywhere, but a torrent of regulation has nearly wiped them out of existence — and the food-service industry has scrambled to accommodate it.

Some U.S. food trends, though, are clear enough, and the industry should be able to see where things are headed, Drescher argues. Concerns about climate change and population growth have “chefs and consumers asking broader questions about the sustainability of our food supply, and what the future of our food systems should look like,” he says. Per-capita consumption of red meat and soda, meanwhile, has declined, and sales of antibiotic-free poultry are up. One need consider only proliferation of farmers markets over the past decade to see that the public is generally trying to eat more healthily, more organic and more local.

But they are not necessarily looking for an iceberg-lettuce salad.

Although Drescher says the “dark days of the so-called healthy ghetto” are mostly over, restaurant menus still don’t reflect how many Americans want to eat — which is to say, they don’t want to have to choose between abstention and gluttony. Creating better choices is “a big opportunity for our industry,” he says.

Of course, selling meat as a side dish or a condiment doesn’t always go down well with the restaurant-going public. Tapas and small plates be damned, some customers still balk at the prices of vegetable-based haute cuisine. Why get the ratatouille for $18.95 when you could get the steak for the same price?

Chefs protest that veggies, while usually cheaper than animal protein, require a lot more tending to — hours of washing, drying, chopping and dicing and shaving, and then a kind of cooking method that will gently coax out flavor — than, say, a slab of salmon. “People don’t understand that it takes as much to work on the produce as to buy a high-end [meat] product,” says Delaroque, the chef and owner at San Francisco’s Nico. While feedback about his plant-forward dinners was generally good, a few walk-ins were taken aback, he says, perhaps expecting they could get a steak.

As for Boyle, the lover of vegetarians and chicken wings alike, she has found a kind of haven in the philosophy of just-a-little-portion-of-meat-please. “It has absolutely defused the tension within myself,” she says. And even though she hasn’t heard many people outside the culinary scene use the term plant forward, Boyle has happily assumed the label for herself. “It’s been very freeing to think of myself as a plant-forward person.”

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