By Maya Dollarhide
U.S. chefs from coast to coast are serving up healthy helpings of greens, brassicas, roots and tubers— along with many other earthy delights—not only as sides, but as center-of-plate dishes, too.
According to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot in 2016” chef survey, “veggie-centric” dishes will be a main attraction on many menus in 2016. Latin and Mexican restaurants are among those embracing the trend.
Chaia, a farm-to-taco joint in In Washington D.C., is one of them. While the establishment doesn’t serve meat, it counts carnivores as customers. According to co-founders and owners Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern, approximately 80 percent of their patrons are not vegetarians, but simply “folks interested in delicious food and in how vegetables are used to create it,” says Simon.
“I do think there is a general mindset out there that we don’t need to eat meat at every meal,” Simon continues. “People are also more aware of the meat indus- try’s impact on the environment, and are interested in where their food comes from, whether its meat or vegetable.”
A Plant-based Approach
Chaia’s first incarnation was as a taco seller in the D.C. farmer’s market community. After meeting with great success, Simon and Stern opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Georgetown last Fall.
Why Mexican? The co- owners (both former food bloggers and educators) share a love of Mexican food and flavors. They spent time traveling and cooking in Mexico, where they were inspired by what they experienced.
“We loved the culture and the flavors of Mexico and we wanted to serve something that was seasonal, fresh and leant itself to delicious flavors,” says Simon. “In Mexico you can find a lot of dishes with mushrooms, greens and squash, but when you bring Mexican food back to the states it is often translated into meat dishes. We enjoyed so many vegetarian dishes in Mexico and selling a street food with a focus on Latin flavors and made from fresh, local vegetables, made sense to us.”
After winning ThinkLocalFirst’s StartUp Kitchen competition, Stern and Simon joined a D.C.-based food incubator called Union Kitchen, which officially opened in 2013. Shortly after, the pair started selling vegetarian tacos at the White House Farmer’s Market.
Chaia has continued its partnership with local growers. The farmers and food purveyors they tap are dedicated to sustainable agriculture. At Chaia, everything from food waste to forks is compostable, which fulfills the owners’ desire to provide an environmentally friendly dining experience.
“We wanted to make sure our food and packaging waste was 100 percent compostable,” says Simon. “We understand that food waste is a big issue for the industry. We wanted to address it in our restaurant.”
Chaia’s simple menu brings the famous Michael Pollan quote, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” to mind. It includes seasonal, plant-based tacos (creamy kale and potato, butternut squash, rainbow carrots and pea shoot, mushroom, and spring greens), two or three side dishes and a couple of Mexican-inspired sweets. Handcrafted corn tortillas are made on site, and the tacos are topped with hyper-local micro greens.
“We don’t call ourselves a veggie taco shop,” says Simon. “We’re just serving up deli- cious tacos, and they happen not to have meat in them.”
A Growing Trend
If industry trend spotters are correct, you can expect to find more vegetables on the menu this year.
President Andrew Freeman of AF&Co. reports that vegetarian dishes as a main meal will continue to gain popularity in 2016. According to Freeman’s latest report, The Year of Multiple Personalities, the popularity of veg-centric dishes is due—at least in part— to customer demand.
“This trend started a few years ago, when Generation X started to worry about what they were putting in their kids’ mouths. Then, you’ve got the millennial community that is very interested in where their food comes from and how it is made. Now, it’s not just about being healthy, because just because something is vegetarian doesn’t mean it is necessarily healthy,” Freeman says.
A decade ago, restaurants offered the obligatory vegetarian plate, but little more where vegetables were concerned. But then, “...it started to get more interesting,” recalls Free- man. “Chefs began to use high-quality vegetables in a creative way. They began to ask themselves, ‘How can I take vegetables to the next level?’ Now, as this trend has progressed, you have chefs and diners being as serious about their vegetables as [they are about] meat, sh or poultry dishes.”
Latin cuisine is a perfect t for chefs interested in highlighting vegetables as main ingredients, Freeman adds. “Many wonderful traditional dishes can be done with vegetables instead of meat; plus you have the spice factor with Latin dishes,” he shares. “Chefs can really have fun with creating delicious avors with seasonal vegetables and fruits.”
This is exactly what is happening at NAO Latin Gastro Bar in San Antonio. Executive Chef Zach Garza serves Latin-inspired cuisine representing 14 countries, much of it made from locally sourced food and all served in a hip, upscale setting.
“I think Latin cuisine gets a bad rap because in America, you have so much Tex-Mex that is heavy on the meat and cheese. But if you really study the cuisine of indigenous people in south and central America and Mexico, a majority of those people live in rural areas and don’t have access to meat products on a regular basis,” Garza explains. “The diets are mostly legumes, grains and vegetables, punctuated by the occasional meat item.”
Garza says he has the most fun planning the vegetable-only dishes. “My goal is to serve a vegetarian meal that is hearty and will be super satisfying to a meat eater,” he says. “Not a meal that is only aimed at vegetarian diners.”
Last winter, Nao offered vegetarian main dishes such as Hayaca Vegetariana made with tomatoes, capers, raisins and corn cakes, and Carbonada de Calabaza, roasted pumpkin filled with wilted greens, root vegetables and creamy broth. “The menu changes seasonally; right now I’m working on spring menu items, and peas will be featured in one dish,” says Garza.
The Challenges of Veg-centric Menus
Restaurant owners and chefs who want to offer more veg-centric dishes, be warned: There are some challenges to overcome, culinary experts agree.
Garza and Simon, for example, say chefs shouldn’t underestimate the amount of time it can take to prep vegetables.
“If you are getting your vegetables from local farms, they aren’t typically pre-cutting the squash for you before they send it,” Simon cautions. “Imagine you are a restaurant and you just received 100 pounds of squash. Prepping it is going to be a super-intensive effort.”
Simon suggests working with local purveyors to find solutions—asking them about facilities that could prep the vegetables before the farm ships them, perhaps. It is something she did with the mushroom purveyor, who provides Chaia with 200 pounds of mushrooms!
“Now we get our mushrooms precut and it saves us a tremendous amount of time,” Simon reports.
Managing stock levels is another challenge, according to Garza. “You have to make sure you stay on top of stock rotation, too,” he says. “And since we want to feature local products as much as possible, another challenge is finding good partners who don’t need to go through a third party to deliver them.
“Our chefs have to also be creative in their vegetable recipes,” he continues. “For example, if we plan a tomato dish, but our farmer has a blight problem, we have to make sure we have a back-up plan. We have to be able to say, ‘Ok, can I sub another vegetable?’ if there is a fungus or we don’t get that particular vegetable delivered.”
Some chefs even grow their own vegetables and herbs.
At the Ojai, Calif-based organic café and market, Farmer and the Cook, owners Olivia Chase and Steven Sprinkle own a 16-acre farm, where they grow the café’s cilantro, chile peppers, onions, zucchini, Swiss chard, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, and the cabbage for their fermented Mexican sauerkraut.
“We harvest the chile peppers, dry them and then use them for our mole and enchilada sauces throughout the year,” shares Chase. “We are also lucky to live in a valley full of citrus and avocados, which we purchase from the ranchers we trust.”
The cafe’s creative Mexican cuisine is all vegetarian but appeals to meat eaters, too. Chase says there are many ways to substitute vegetables for meat or even fish. One recommendation: using hearts of palm as a substitute for crab in crab cakes. “Also, marinated mushrooms make a great ceviche with lots of lime juice and chiles—that is something I discovered while traveling in Cartagena,” Chase says.
As warm weather arrives, bringing with it a cornucopia of fresh spring and summer crops, chefs have a perfect opportunity to incorporate more vegetables into their menus. They also would be wise to take Freeman’s input on today’s veg- centric trend to heart:
“It’s gone beyond just ‘vegetarian food’—it is about making fantastic food that happens to be vegetarian.”
Maya Dollarhide is a New York-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to el Restaurante.