Sunday, 3 June 2012

There are chefs, and there are vegetarians...

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables

Alain Passard

I've recently become an 'ambassador' for a website called It's a joy to get some reviews of vegetarian restaurants published at long last. These days, everybody is an expert on gourmet cuisine, and reality TV shows have made the depressed, bitter and put-upon man in the street think that it must be great fun to be a restaurant critic - you just march into the best restaurant in town, demand their finest offering, then spit it out, scowl, swear at the staff and flounce out having publically dented the reputation of the place on the slightest of provocations whilst giving yourself a secret rush of superiority and satisfaction. There are a lot of restaurant reviews written in the same spirit, most of which never make it into print. Rude restaurant reviews can be fun to read but it all gets a bit samey after a while. Worse are the vacuous gushy reviews that offer practically nothing to the reader in terms of either information or entertainment: ooh, it was all just super, this is what I ate, this is what my friend ate, this is what we wished we had had room for. And anybody who uses the word 'mouthwatering' in any context at all should be taken out and shot. There's no excuse for it. In my opinion. Anyway, what with the fact that, firstly, everybody and their dog is writing reviews and that, secondly, the standard of most of what is written is terrible, it's small wonder that it's hard to get a newspaper or magazine editor to read an unsolicited review, much less publish one. If you want to write about a vegetarian restaurant, forget it, you've just lost the interest of the vast majority of the readership (unless you want to be rude about vegetarians and their stupid rabbit food diet, in which case, there might be a small opening available...).

Anyway, I think my reviews are better than most but, like most of the things I write, they tend to be long, and that's because I end up thinking about other things. For example...

I ate at The Bay restaurant in Penzance recently. They've built up a good business serving high-end food and catering for weddings. Nice restaurant, classy ambiance, sea view. Obviously I'm in no position to comment about whether they deliver good non-vegetarian food but it looks good on the menu (if you go in for that sort of thing). What makes this place very unusual and special is that as you leaf through the menu, eventually you arrive at a page of starters, mains and puds that are all suitable for vegans. Even better, the chef has applied all his imagination and culinary skill to working out these dishes - he seems to have risen to the challenge of plant-based cooking quite spectacularly, making it possible for not just vegans but practically anybody to enjoy a really classy meal. This is such a sensible approach, and speaks volumes about a chef who, rather adopting a snooty attitude and refusing to cook with veg (an easy get-out), has seized the opportunity to showcase his abilities, thus attracting lots of new customers who are chuffed to bits - I know I was.

Reviewing the experience afterwards made me see more clearly than ever that vegetarians have two very different eating out experiences to choose from in the UK. By far the majority of exclusively vegetarian establishments are run by people who are vegetarians but not trained chefs. The alternative is to dine at establishments that offer meat and fish as well as veg, which are run not by vegetarians but by trained chefs. There are a handful of exceptions - Denis Cotter, who runs a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Cork, is not really a trained chef but has an undeniable gift and managed to get a life-changing apprenticeship at Cranks in London. Denis is a vegetarian who can cook really well. Alain Passard, a French chef and restaurateur who famously removed red meat from the menu of his three-Michelin-starred Paris restaurant, L'Arpege, in 2001, is a non-vegetarian who can cook vegetarian food really well. There's still a hole in the middle, where there ought to be some vegetarians who can win Michelin stars. Not much chance of that happening in Britain while we still insist that catering students have to cook meat and fish to gain any qualifications (the only meat-free route, I believe, is becoming a pastry chef). If I had a big pile of money, I'd try to set something up, along the lines of New York's Natural Gourmet School, and start training people to cook with vegetables in a completely new way, so that we can rise up, meet and welcome the wave of interest in plant-based eating that will surely be big news in the coming twenty years or so.

Which brings me quite neatly to Alain Passard's new book, 'The Art of Cooking With Vegetables'. Couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Before anybody shouts me down, this isn't an entirely vegetarian offering - it includes Parmesan, anchovies and some recommendations for French wines and cheeses that I can't be sure are 'suitable'. I hope nobody reads it and starts thinking that vegetarians eat fish - but to be fair, it's not really marketed as a vegetarian book. The idea seems to be to get people to rethink vegetable-based dishes and (forgive me) to stir things up a bit with some new flavour combinations and a painterly approach to colour on the plate. I can't go further without saying that, whilst the chef's illustrative collages are very nice, and obviously very dear to his heart ('My very first work, a Harlequin, remains forever engraved in my mind's eye')... well, I feel a bit like the little boy in the crowd who starts raving about the fact that the emperor is naked, but surely everybody, in their heart of hearts, must agree when I say that this book really needs some pictures of the food. In fact, given that so much of the impact of each dish is dependent upon how it is presented on the plate, it feels like an absolute disaster to offer these recipes without any guidance on how they might look. Add to this the tantalising introductions to each dish ('a dressing the colour of celadon - the alluring willow green of Chinese porcelain' ... 'Once again, colour leads the way in the creation of a recipe'... 'When the beetroot yields its fuchsia-coloured juice to the pumpkin it is - to the eye - something splendid'... 'in my mind's eye, I can see little pearls of juice being released, red from the strawberries and pink from the rhubarb'...) - this is beginning to feel like a cruel practical joke and frankly, even if I could see the pearls of juice in my mind's eye, it wouldn't feel entirely satisfactory. Why, why, why? Yes, put some collages in if you like, but for heaven's sake, this book is sabotaged without food photos!

Reluctantly moving on, I still think that everybody who is engaged in cooking vegetables in any circumstances ought to buy this book and cook everything in it, as if they were putting themselves through an intensive training course. You'll learn some substantial skills, and get a kick in the backside when it comes to being adventurous about combining flavours and colours. There are just 48 dishes here and if you stick to seasonal cooking you should be able to get them all served up in a year. Starting now. I could type the whole list of recipe titles but typing doesn't give me a big thrill so let's just savour a few tastes in our imagination (and possibly take a look at them in our mind's eye...): New potatoes with rocket and raspberry vinegar. Red arrocha with rhubarb, beetroot and bay. Haricots verts with white peach and white almonds. Tomatoes and mozzarella with vanilla and mint. Red beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries. Dizzy yet? 

My only other whines are (1) the usual: for some unfathomable reason I find myself living in North Manchester, and as a consequence, I find it hard to get Tiger bananas, black tomatoes, red sorrel. I guess that's not the chef's fault. (2) Because the book was originally written in French, we are very reliant on the translator, and he's worked valiantly to preserve the poetic turn of phrase of the chef but sometimes it does feel a bit overblown ('Once again, I am throwing into relief a hint of bitterness'... 'I imagined it in a sweet register of flavour') - well, OK, it sounds like the authentic voice of a passionate French chef, so I'm prepared to let it go. I'm more worried that some of the cooking techniques might have been lost in translation - the Red Beetroot with lavender and crushed blackberries seems to use unadulterated hot milk (albeit 'emulsified') as a sauce - can that be right? What do I know. A photo would have sorted me out... 

For the record, I predict a rush of untrained vegetarians and trained non-vegetarians pushing out some crazy flavour combinations for the veggie diner... be prepared...  


  1. Thanks my dear friends sharing this nice palace for eating healthy and testy food near me. Restaurants in Downey

  2. Breakfast Restaurant service is really cheap and best taste food available here. Breakfast Restaurants