As a meat-sot—the author of a book about hamburgers, a public hater of vegetables for years and the founder of Meatopia, a flesh-centric food festival—I was more skeptical than most about the rise of vegetable cooking in America. It seemed vain, sanctimonious and showy. It could never take the place of real food, or satisfy an unjaded appetite.
Then I ate Tim Rattray’s cauliflower risotto. And my doubts disappeared.
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Based in San Antonio, Rattray is probably the only modernist barbecue chef in the country. I stumbled across his restaurant, The Granary, and was knocked out by what he was doing with things like beef clod and lamb shoulder. Imagine my shock, then, when his best dish turned out to be an all-vegetarian item that carried the smoke and intensity and richness of good barbecue. He smokes cauliflower in the pit, then juices it for risotto stock; other bits go into a cauliflower cream, and the finished whole is folded with gelled “bursts” of IPA beer, shiitake powder and a fractal slice of dehydrated cauliflower. The risotto is soft and sweet, the IPA gels bitter and firm, and the mushroom powder brings an umami wallop.
This wasn’t something that was thrown on the menu as a sop to vegetarians. This wasn’t even really something anybody wanted—certainly not the customers at The Granary, who are, if anything, vexed and baffled by it. Rattray did it because he wanted to do great work. And it occurred to me that only blindness and spite have kept me from seeing what has become obvious to everyone else: Vegetables are the future of American cooking.
It had to happen; there’s only so much, really, you can do with fatty meats, other than salt them and wait for the hosannas to come. A few incorrigible primitivists aside, young chefs from Oslo to Oakland now start with the assumption that vegetables require their utmost respect and attention.
All this is, to say the least, a dramatic reversal for America’s leading chefs, many of whom seemed to be on the verge of an all-out war on salad just a few years ago. The over-the-top theatricality of the 1980s and the lo-fi, indie aesthetic of the ’90s shared a distaste (bordering on revulsion) for the Earth Mother natural cookery of the ’70s. Cooking was now cool, and what could be more uncool than banning such universal chef fetishes as pork fat and aged beef? Lard-loving chefs (Mario Batali, David Chang and many more) defined the ’00s. Soon afterward came the pig tattoos, the snout-to-tail fetish, the first inklings of the charcuterie explosion and the apparently unkillable bacon mania.
I was enraptured by this bad-boy attitude. Bacon fat acts like cocaine on the brain of a certain kind of eater; the addition of a pseudo-countercultural brio made the movement irresistible, especially to those of us who didn’t know any better. But while the meatniks flew their freak flags, a few pioneering chefs—like Eric Tucker at Millennium in San Francisco and, later, Jeremy Fox at Ubuntu in Napa—were carving out, by sheer force of genius, a place for vegetarian, or even vegan, cooking as innovative and delicious as anything then happening in gastronomy.
More examples abound. In the upper reaches of American cuisine, established masters like David Kinch at Manresa in the Bay Area, César Ramirez at Brooklyn Fare in New York and the Voltaggio brothers in Los Angeles and Maryland have concentrated so much care and energy on vegetables that, on many of their menus, meat is almost an afterthought. “Vegetables are the one thing you can do anything with,” Bryan Voltaggio told me. “They present limitless possibilities.”
The ascent of vegetable cookery can be traced back to the work of one singular figure: chef Michel Bras, whose eponymous restaurant in rural France almost constitutes a holy site to two generations of chefs. If vegetarian cooking were a religion—and it kind of is, a pantheistic one—Bras would be its pope. It’s been 30 years since his gargouillou, an epic dish of up to 60 different vegetables—both cultivated and wild, all local—established itself as the ultimate achievement of regional, seasonal cooking. Bras, an autodidact, created the dish out of a desire to manifest the fields of his native Aubrac; it told a story and provided an experience completely outside the vocabulary of traditional French cooking. The world’s chefs are only now catching up. “Michel Bras is the most influential chef in the world,” says Kinch without hesitation. It seems like a bold statement, until you start comparing images of Bras’s food to Instagram shots of dishes from McCrady’s and Noma and Brooklyn Fare and Arzak and L’Arpège, and basically most of the top restaurants in the entire world.
I had been, I have to confess, prejudiced against that kind of cooking. Meatlessness aside, I thought of it as “tweezer food,” effete and fussy. But I also noticed that when I ate it, I didn’t feel like I wanted to die afterward, and I could even leave the table under my own power. Like many of my fellow gourmands, I was getting older and fatter, and tweezer food started looking pretty good.
Not coincidentally, the country’s elite chefs followed suit. Just a few years ago, Australian chef Shaun Hergatt was creating tasting menus in plush dining rooms, using high-end proteins with thousands of frequent flier miles on them—Scottish langoustines, Tasmanian ocean trout, Colorado lamb. This summer, he is opening a vegetable-centric restaurant in New York City, where his signature dish is a tribute to the fava bean, complete with germinated seed, stalk, shoot, tendrils and flower. “I think that vegetables can give you the same euphoric, satisfying dining experience as meat,” Hergatt says. “The way I’m cooking now is far more natural, with less manipulation than what I was doing five or 10 years ago.”
There’s no doubt that the dining public is evolving this way, too; just try to get a reservation at Dirt Candy in New York City or Vedge in Philadelphia or Green Zebra in Chicago. These vegetable-focused (or in some cases, vegetarian or vegan) restaurants are so popular—and pervasive—that you can’t chalk it all up to fad-chasing, food ethics or a bacon backlash. These chefs are cooking for the whole public, even brutes like myself. But as much as I like meat, I like genius even better. The fact that I may live longer too is, so to speak, gravy.
Josh Ozersky is a columnist for Time and Esquire and the founder of the Meatopia food festival. He blogs at ozersky.tv.