Years ago I tried to persuade the chef at my restaurant to produce a vegetarian menu. He resisted until I pointed out that all he had to do was place the veggie extras we already served with meat dishes (filo parcels of wild mushrooms, courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and pinenuts, roasted cauliflower with chopped egg, garlic and parsley) centre stage. ‘All you’ll be doing is leaving out the most expensive ingredients. Think what it will do to your percentage,’ I said. That did it.
At Jamie’s Fifteen recently, top chefs assembled by the Sustainable Restaurant Association discussed how to get the trade to serve more veg and less meat. My advice was to focus on profitability — and the response to that suggestion made me realise I was behind the culinary zeitgeist. (As a side note, I have always taken claims of ‘heritage’ veg with a pinch of salt, and pointed out that ‘local supplier’ can mean a wholesaler down the road who gets his stuff from halfway round the world. I should have noticed I was in the minority, having listened to chefs on BBC Two’s Great British Menu espousing ‘buying local’ for the 11 years I was a judge.) The chefs round Jamie’s table, and indeed top chefs round the world, are a lot more idealistic than I’d given them credit for.
Raymond Blanc (Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons) has emphasised sustainability for 40 years, and his kitchen has inspired at least a dozen Michelin-star chefs with the same interest in doing the right thing. Rick Stein has followed marine conservation advice on sourcing fish for decades. Skye Gyngell has been a heroine of the movement since her reign at the Petersham Nurseries. Now, in an effort to draw attention to the issue of waste and the fact that 40 per cent of fruit and veg never makes it to the shops because we’re so picky we won’t buy it unless it looks like plastic, her restaurant Spring at Somerset House offers pre–theatre diners a ‘Scratch’ menu of kitchen leftovers (think pasta trimmings, beetroot tops, ends of cheese) and donations from producers of stuff they cannot sell, like misshapen carrots or lopsided apples. Unbelievably delicious.
Jamie himself has been banging the drum for years. I once saw him bounce on to a stage to hysterical yelling from 2,000 children, signal for quiet, then say: ‘Hands up who loves veg.’ A small group in the corner tentatively raised their hands. ‘Hands up who hates veg.’ Thousands of hands shot up. He told the crowd they’d be dead long before the little group in the corner.
Jamie pushes both his posh and his popular restaurants to go greener. His Italian chain serves two fresh veg with everything on the kids’ menu, and most dishes come with a ‘Shake Me Salad’ which children dress themselves. At our dinner, Robbin Holmgren, head chef at Fifteen, knocked out a main course of Jersey royals, cauliflower, morels, nettles, lovage, Grelot onion, green garlic, fresh peas, mint, kohlrabi, Granny Smith apple, radish, horseradish, whey dressing and a tiny bit of slow-cooked lamb neck. I’d never have said that so many flavours would work, but the combination was amazingly good. The menu also ticked all the boring-but-important boxes: fresh, local, seasonal, fair-trade etc.
But how is the customer to know what is truly ethical, and what is just marketing? My advice is to focus on what matters: less meat for our health (too much fat and protein clogs up the arteries) and for the planet (cattle, farting away, are big contributors to greenhouse gas; beef barons are chopping down the rainforest; it takes 20 times more land to feed people on beef than it would on veg).
I like restaurants where half the dishes are vegetarian, or at least with minimal meat: a bit of bacon in the stir-fry, a couple of chicken livers in the salade tiède, a chopped anchovy on the pizza. And where they are imaginative about veg, but not precious. Some chefs now treat it with such reverence you are lucky if you get a single baby turnip and a radish on the plate.
At home I’m proud of my reputation as the left-overs queen. Lunch is generally salad, made with a mix of anything raw and yesterday’s cooked veg, all chopped fine, à la Ottolenghi, and spiced up with peppery mustard mini-leaves or mixed seeds. Plus, if I’ve got it, a few spoons of chopped hard-boiled egg, a bit of leftover chicken, ham or fish, or some crumbled blue cheese. I dress the mix, usually with olive oil and vinegar, then make sure the pretty bits go on top. It has to look as well as taste good. Pomegranate seeds are pretty and give that satisfactory burst as you bite them.
The rise of kale, butternut and beetroot in the food pop charts has been good, but there are other interesting veg to be had, like salsify or scorzonera, daikon radish, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac, romanesco (that cute broccoli designed like a Thai temple dancer’s hat) and of course avocado, which has gone viral. (It’s good hot too. Steam or fry briefly.)
If you have something starchy (potato, legumes, grains, pulses), or fatty (avocado, nuts) or sweet (butternut, beetroot, corn on the cob) in the dish, you’ll hardly miss the meat. And if you fry or grill gem lettuce, cauli-flower, asparagus, endive, you’ll deepen their flavour.
Of course I am not above a rib-eye steak. But it has to be the best: the breed, the farmer, the slaughterhouse and the shop. Which means it’s expensive. If meat’s an occasional treat, in my book, that’s OK.