How Chefs and Restaurants can Improve Vegetarian Food
The state of vegetarian food today: A tragedy in two acts.
Read part one: Bad Vegetarian Food in Good Restaurants
It’s really disheartening as a food lover to go to a restaurant that has rave reviews and ‘really great food’ and discover that it is a really great restaurant for everyone who isn’t a vegetarian.
But instead of moaning about chefs’ lack of skills or lack of giving a shit for making tasty vegetarian food, I thought it would be more helpful to give some pointers.
Know your customer
It is estimated that 10-20 per cent of the world’s population is vegetarian. That’s 752-million to 1,504-million people and yet it seems that many restaurants have never heard of vegetarianism. Without fail, when I mention I’m a vegetarian I am asked: “Do you eat fish?” Seriously? Do you actually think fish are vegetables?
The word vegetarian is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a person who does not eat meat or fish and sometimes other animal products, especially for moral, religious, or health reasons.”
So, no, vegetarians don’t eat fish, unless it is this plant-based ‘fish’ and chips from Veginity in Dublin.
This vegan, plant-based ‘fish’ and chips is the only fish vegetarians eat. This delicious dish is from Veginity in Dublin.
Create something you would choose
Is it too much to ask for a dish that doesn’t come with a side order of pity? When I eat out, it’s nice to be able to order something that doesn’t make people feel bad for me. On the plus side, the usual grey/beige veggie fayre means that nobody is asking for a taste of mine, so more for me. On the downside, more for me.
A dry, bland, grey risotto served to me in the five-star hotel Castilla Termal Monastery of Valbuena, Spain.
Create some washing up
Why must all veggie dishes be one-pot-wonders? Risotto, pasta, stir fries, soup, etc. How come my meat-eating mate gets beef that was seared in a pan, then slow cooked in the oven, then served with four different sides; roasted carrots, fried onions, mashed potatoes and steamed kale. Have you used up all the pots and pans with their meal and that’s why mine must be done in the one?
Create some side dishes
It seems like a lot of chefs think that to make vegetables palatable they must taste like meat. Here’s the thing; they don’t. The fresh, mild and slightly earthy flavour of asparagus will not be improved upon by wrapping it in bacon. In fact, stop cooking everything in bacon. If I want bacon, I’ll order bacon, but when I order sprouts I want sprouts, not sprouts that taste like bacon. Mashing potatoes with bone marrow eliminates another dish from our already limited choices, as does cooking any vegetable in dripping. If you must subject veg to this cruel treatment at least keep some unmolested veg for, you know, the vegetarians. We love side dishes too.
This isn’t about removing meat dishes it is about adding some vegetarian-friendly ones, and you know, meat eaters can eat these dishes too.
Le Pain Quotidien in Kildare Village does great side dishes like this vegetable gratin with lentils.
Serve more vegetables
Mushrooms and goat’s cheese are not vegetables neither are potatoes.
The clue to what VEGETArians like to eat is in the name. Please don’t be afraid of cooking us vegetables (the spinach in spinach and ricotta tortellini does not count).
Vegetables need very little doing to them to make them sing. Sure, you barely have to cook them. A squeeze of lemon over asparagus, a knob of butter on corn on the cob, some olive oil on tomatoes etc.
What would be even better is if you could somehow combine more than one vegetable in a dish – pizza doesn’t count. Surely, you learned recipe creation in chef school? We know you can do it, we’ve seen you do it with meat. Look at how you combine chicken and bacon, cod and chorizo, pork and pork with pigs in blankets and you can select a variety of seafood to make a fabulous fish pie or chowder. Vegetables are just as easy to pair and combine. “What grows together, goes together”. I know that, and I didn’t spend a fortune on culinary school.
Stunning smoked potato gnocchi, wild garlic pesto, violet artichoke, Spring peas and toasted pine nuts from Fallon & Byrne in Dublin.
I’d also like a meal that makes me feel as satiated as my carnivorous companions, with the same variety of textures, colours, and macronutrients. Vegetarians need protein too and not just from cheese and whilst we are on the subject, enough with the cheese already.
New season broccoli and fingerling potato salad, red onion, hard-boiled egg, walnuts and honey and Dijon dressing from Fallon & Byrne in Dublin. Not a trace of cheese in sight.
Please prepare protein
But where do vegetarians get their protein? Not just from cheese, that’s for sure. Chefs seem to have no problem finding carbs for vegetarians but protein is a struggle. Beans, chickpeas, eggs, green leafy veg, any veg, quinoa, lentils, seeds, nuts, tofu and tempeh are great sources of vegetarian protein.
A plate of protein packed red quinoa salad with fresh mango, melon and honey vinaigrette from hotel Castilla Termal Monastery of Valbuena in Spain.
You don’t have to be vegetarian to cook vegetarian food
Just look at JP McMahon who loves to cook and eat meat yet he can also create a seven-course vegan tasting menu. If he can do seven vegan courses, then other places can do two decent vegetarian dishes, at least.
Need some inspiration on how to cook those vegetarian ingredients? Well, you could go back to chef school and pay attention this time or perhaps eat some vegetarian food yourself or read some vegetarian cookbooks. Denis Cotter the founder and executive chef of Paradiso in Cork has four celebrated and award-winning cookbooks dedicated to vegetarian cooking. Buy one. Learn from it and be inspired to cook food sans carne.
We're back! That was a grand break, hope it was for all of you too.
Consider the menu
Have a different veggie option on the lunch menu and the dinner menu. A mozzarella salad for starters followed by goat’s cheese tart for mains is not a balanced menu and I know you know how to create a good meal because I just had a look at the meaty menu and it is mouth-watering.
Yet it’s not the meat that appeals to me, it’s the effort and substantialness of the dishes. I need just as many calories to survive as carnivores do, possibly more as I burn loads with all the thinking about food that I do.
Too pretty too eat vegetarian food full of different textures and flavours in Finn Lough in Co. Fermanagh.
Know what is and isn’t vegetarian-friendly
Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian, therefore your pasta with pesto is probably not a vegetarian dish so don’t tell us it is unless it is made with vegetarian pesto.
Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano and Gorgonzola aren’t vegetarian either as these, like Parmesan, are made with the stomach lining of calves. So, don’t label a meal vegetarian if it is made with cheese with animal rennet.
Vegetarians don’t eat anchovies either so if your Bloody Mary is made with Worcestershire Sauce please just tell us so we’ll know not to order it.
Finally, if any desserts on the menu contain gelatine, like panna cotta or trifle with jelly, then just let us know so we can avoid them, but equally if you have found a way to make either of those desserts without gelatine, please shout it out loud so I can kiss you and order two portions, please and thank you.
A lovely vegetarian option ruined with non-vegetarian cheese.
Educate the staff
Inform those taking the orders about the dishes and ingredients so when we enquire if a dish is vegetarian they can reliably tell us if it is or not.
List the ingredients
What would be even better is if you could list the ingredients of the dishes so we can make sure for ourselves that we sticking to our vegetarian food choices.
Help us out
No, we aren’t going to die or have an allergic reaction to the pasta if we unknowingly consume cheese made with animal rennet but most of us are choosing not to eat animal products to be a bit more compassionate. We aren’t trying to be fussy or awkward we just want to be kinder and do our bit so please don’t begrudge us for that. We’d love you to make it easier and tastier for us.
Those who don’t eat animal products for religious reasons feel strongly about their beliefs and, well, out of all the religious rules, this one is about reducing suffering so don’t make us suffer instead.
There are also plenty of reducetarians who cut down on meat consumption for health and environmental reasons. Having a decent vegetarian option or two on the menu will make this positive diet change a lot easier for them to stick to and will hopefully encourage others to do the same. You aren’t going to lose customers by adding a good vegetarian dish to your menu, I would argue that you are going to gain more customers.
A hearty dish of wild mushroom filo pie with grilled asparagus and Spring truffle from Coppinger Row in Dublin.
Please more people
Think you just don’t have enough vegetarian customers to make it worth your while putting the effort into creating a decent veggie dish? Do you think the demand isn’t there? Well, did you know that six to 12 per cent of the population of Ireland is vegetarian? Did you know that Ireland is one of the top 10 countries with the highest rate of reported vegetarianism around the world? That’s up 572,760 hungry vegetarians living in Ireland looking for some decent food.
But also, it is not just vegetarians who eat vegetarian food. Many meat eaters love a good veggie meal. Like I said, by adding some decent vegetarian options to the menu you are going to have dishes that appeal to more people. You will not be excluding anybody.
Non-veggies would love this simple, yet elegant fried duck egg, sweet potato rösti wilted spinach and tomato cilantro sauce from the Coburg Restaurant in the Conrad Hotel in Dublin.
Spread the word
We love sharing great vegetarian-friendly restaurants. If we know about a place we do our best to seek it out especially if it means we no longer must endure another risotto seasoned with our salty tears.
But we need to know about your dish and you can help by telling us about it.
— Jp McMahon (@mistereatgalway) July 25, 2017
Don’t be shy, shout it from Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or contact bloggers to let us know that you have a great dish that we should taste. I’ll then add it to the next blog post which will cover where you can eat great vegetarian food in Ireland and around the world.
If your ever down Sligo way, we got some gorg Veggie options. I'm an ex-veggie, the pasta/stir-fry/risotto offerings drove me mad! 😔 pic.twitter.com/IfrWwaily8
— Nook. (@EatatNook) July 25, 2017
I’m telling you, having an inventive vegetarian starter – i.e. not a goat’s cheese and beetroot salad – and a main course that compliments that starter and a sumptuous dessert will get you more customers and those customers will be loyal and will be a cheap source of advertising for your establishment.
So come on, leave a comment below and tell us where we can stuff our faces with great vegetarian food.
You might also like my blog post on bad vegetarian food in good restaurants.
Have you tried my vegetarian quinoa salad with grilled halloumi recipe?
If you like this post make sure you check out the map of cafes in Ireland that give a reusable cup discount.
“Consider yourself vegucated”
If you like this blog post on how chefs and restaurants can improve vegetarian food, please share with others.