From Paris to New York, across Asia, Africa and beyond, vegetarian dining is no longer purely the preserve of hippies and hipsters. Award-winning chefs are creating plant-based dishes that are imaginative, tasty and subtly sophisticated, as well as being healthful and environmentally friendly

It’s late afternoon in a sleepy corner of Paris’ seventh arrondissement. Silver-haired chef Alain Passard strides into the office of his three-star Michelin restaurant, L’Arpège, and smiles warmly, then quickly turns his attention to three yellow quinces on a table. Plucked from a 100-year-old tree, they are a gift from a colleague, and Passard takes one, closes his eyes and inhales deeply. “The smell is so intoxicating, I could fall asleep next to it,” the Frenchman exclaims theatrically, cradling the fruit. “Not a single cologne can rival nature. A fish would never smell like this, nor would chicken. That for me is interesting. That’s a source of inspiration.”

Once, the idea of Passard, a celebrated rôtisseur (a chef specialising in the cooking of meat), swooning over a piece of fruit would have seemed ridiculous. “You went to L’Arpège for a côte de boeuf, a quasi de veau, but then – in a flash – there was a plate of carrots instead,” says the chef, who, in 2001, shocked the culinary world by wiping meat off his menu, erasing every dish that had earned him his stars. “Everyone warned me that it was a death sentence,” Passard says, admitting that his restaurant initially lost many customers. But he was determined. “It was about renewing myself,” the 61-year-old says. “Vegetarian cooking was a book that hadn’t been opened by many people, which made it special.” 

Passard has since become something of a poster boy for vegetarian cuisine in Europe, and 60 per cent of visitors to L’Arpège opt for his seasonal vegetable tasting menus, which feature dishes ranging from an intricate céleri-rave carpaccio adorned with walnut and pear, to multi-coloured vegetable ravioli in a delicate consommé, made with fresh produce from Passard’s own farms. His appearance on award-wining Netflix series Chef’s Table, along with a new wave of green-thumbed culinary geniuses, has raised the profile of plant-based cuisine. “I think the decision I took had direct consequences on many chefs and households,” he says, arguing that Michelin’s seal of approval is helping to convert sceptics.

Trends such as ‘meatless Monday’ have gathered momentum worldwide in recent years, and vegetarian dishes are more sophisticated, varied and imaginative than ever before. No longer relegated to health-food havens and hipster hangouts, vegetable-heavy menus have entered the temples of haute cuisine. “In the last five to six years, people have changed very fast to become more health-conscious,” says chef Pietro Leemann of Joia in Milan, the first vegetarian restaurant to gain a Michelin star in Europe. “It’s no longer possible to eat so much meat because people are becoming sick. They are also concerned about the planet. Most of my guests are not vegetarians. Many of them are gourmands with an open mind.” 

A long-time vegetarian himself, Leemann grew jaded with European nouvelle cuisine in the 1980s. “Every chef in Europe was cooking in the French style, and their creativity stayed more or less the same,” he says, describing such dishes as heavy and unbalanced, with too much protein, sugar and fat. Trips to China and Japan were turning points for the chef, who became fascinated with Asian cuisine and adopted meditation, tai chi and yoga. 

Today, Leemann incorporates Asian ingredients and cooking techniques in cuisine he calls his own, and which fuses Chinese, Japanese, European, French and Indian influences and flavours. His poetically-named dishes include A Door for Paradise (an almond and corn gazpacho, served with warm smoked vegetables, a young beetroot pesto and truffle sorbet) and The Alchemist (composed of fermented pumpkin, parsnip, burdock and shiitake, cooked in a wood-scented broth served with fresh wasabi and sauerkraut flavoured with juniper; the centrepiece of the dish is a hot stone, taken from a nearby river, which sits inside the soup to infuse it with a special flavour). 

In Asia itself, many chefs are increasingly creative with plant-based menus. Tony Lu is at the forefront of the push, and his one-Michelin-starred restaurant, Fu He Hui in Shanghai, for instance, is famous for haute Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Melding Chinese and Western ingredients and cooking methods, Lu embraces a light, healthy approach. Instead of trying to imitate meat (so often the case with Buddhist cuisine in China), he champions vegetables in dishes such as a plum speared with a strip of lotus root, or meaty porcini mushroom smoked in a jar, and served with a mushroom dip accompanied by a shot of fruit vinegar.

Further afield, chef Selassie Atadika, who previously worked in aid with the United Nations, has been garnering acclaim for her restaurant Midunu (which roughly translates as, “Come, Let’s Eat”) in Accra, capital of the African nation of Ghana. Atadika is among a growing number of chefs introducing plant-based dishes to menus due to environmental concerns.

Though born in Ghana, Atadika grew up in New York, and she was surprised, on returning to her homeland, to discover how the local diet had changed to rely on imported foods. To counter this situation, her menus champion exotic local vegetables and grains, including tiny mushrooms found on palm trees, cassava leaves and a type of squash seed that has a bold, nutty flavour. Atadika uses the latter to make a soup, roasting and hulling the seeds and adding a locally foraged, slow-roasted mushroom. 

Inspired by her travels in Africa, Atadika experiments with traditional cuisine from various countries. She is also interested in resurrecting forgotten foods, such as Bola Bola, a dish made from a high-protein leafy vegetable, and which was eaten during lean times in Ghana. “But how do you take something that is so healthy and make it exciting again?” Atadika asks. “How do you make bean leaves sexy?” Her solution is a steamed dumpling made with the greens combined with corn meal and seasoned with a potent chilli peanut oil.

"How do you take something that is so healthy and make it exciting again? How do you make bean leaves sexy?"—Selassie Atadika, Midunu

Concern for the future of Africa underpins Atadika’s enticing dishes. Her humanitarian work with the UN, and a degree in geography and environmental studies, have motivated the chef to look at big-picture issues, such as desertification and health: high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity have been connected to meat-heavy diets on her continent. She is optimistic about the future, however, because Africa is rich in produce. With nutritious native grains such as fonio and millet, she says, “we have a lot of the solutions right in front of us”.

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Above Chef Selassie Atadika at work at Midunu (Photo: Midunu)

In stark contrast to Atadika, maverick chef Amanda Cohen, of New York restaurant Dirt Candy, has another agenda. “We are about celebrating vegetables … not about health, politics or the environment,” says Cohen, who argues that vegetables can be an indulgence and should not be treated as second-class citizens on a menu. Once described as the Willy Wonka of plant-based food, Cohen is known for turning classic dishes on their heads and serving up fare like Broccoli Dogs, in which a hotdog sausage is replaced with grilled, smoked broccoli, and Eggplant Foster, a dessert in which the usual bananas are cast aside in favour of flambéed aubergine paired with basil crème anglaise and lemon ice cream.

While it’s hard to snag a table at Dirt Candy (Cohen has turned away the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio on busy nights), that was not always the case. “Before vegetarian chefs were pretty disregarded,” she says, “Nobody knew our name. It took years of putting myself out there for people to realise I was a trustworthy chef and this was a trustworthy type of cuisine, that we weren’t trying to put one over on you.”

Cohen opened her restaurant in 2008, in fact, and while it took several years for the culinary world to catch up, she believes there is still some way to go. “It really does feel like we are pioneers in this world,” she says. “It’s an adventure. That’s what it was like in the beginning, and it still feels like that now.”   

This story was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Ambrosia, the official magazine of the International Culinary Institute. 

Header image courtesy of Midunu

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