A few years ago I read an article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker called “Two Cooks,” about a restaurant in Paris whose menu was comprised almost exclusively of vegetables. There is an image from the article that has long stayed in my mind, that of a single red perfectly cooked beet, served whole and without adornment on a bed of coarse salt.
Alain Passard, the chef behind the giant beet, was well known for his work with veal and lamb when he bought L’Arpège in 1986, but as he states in the article, he had grown tired of “his daily relationship with the corpse of an animal.” And so he shifted focus, moving far away from the nose-to-tail craze that in 2005 was just starting to take hold in North America–Gopnik’s article may have come about in response to the American release of The Whole Beast, the urtext of hoof-to-snoot eating by Fergus Henderson, the second of the article’s two titular cooks–and investigating the manifold ways that vegetables could take pride of a place in a “cuisine vegetale” that had absolutely nothing to do with what we have come to know as vegetarian cooking.
When I was a hacky-sack playing Birkenstock-wearing university student in Vancouver in the late 80s, a shameful period of my life that I have only just now come to terms with, I toyed with vegetarianism, a task made easier by the proximity of the Naam Restaurant to my Kitsilano hovel. And it was there, with a seemingly bottomless pot of herbal tea and the thick smell of patchouli in my nose–we thought we were so authentic and unique, but ours was a uniformity that to this day makes me laugh (and cringe)–that I indulged in heaping salads of shredded beets, carrots and sprouts, and stuffed myself on roasted potatoes with turmeric and miso gravy, a nostalgic treat that my husband and I have often tried to replicate but have never quite managed to master. This was classic west-coast hippie vegetarian food at its best (or worst): scrambled tofu for breakfast and seed burgers for lunch. And always, piled on top or on the side of every plate, that ubiquitous mound of shredded vegetables; the Naam’s trademark touch.
In the summer of 89, after enduring one (or thirty) too many meals of boiled vegetables with melted cheese–the cook in our provincial park residency had received her training on the oil rigs and could not even fathom a meal without meat–I ate a barbecued steak and never looked back. But to this day when dining out, regardless of the restaurant and the delectability of its fleshy offerings, the primary thing on my mind, and the thing which ultimately decides my choice of dish, is the accompanying vegetable. Even on our recent journey to the dirty south, which saw us eating most of our meals in fried chicken and barbecue joints (more on that later), it was the collard greens that I sought out first, and only then, when they were ordered and consumed, would I turn to the meats. And so a restaurant like L’Arpège, which celebrates the vegetable without excluding meat, poultry and fish from the menu–because as a not-vegetarian restaurant, it does not have to–is pretty much the restaurant of my gastronomical dreams.
That it is also one of the top restaurants in the world, placing 16 on the much-ballyhooed and criticized but still somehow relevant San Pellegrino Top 50 list, also means that it is unlikely I will ever be able to eat there. Luckily for me, there are a few other restaurants making similar choices, one of which is called Dante’s Kitchen. Located in Uptown New Orleans, this was my favorite of all the places that we ate on our two week adventure. Here, vegetables are not relegated to the side of the plate, but are offered in abundance as small plates that can accompany other small plates of meat, poultry, fish and grain–this being a New Orleans’ restaurant, there has to be some kind of grits on offer. There was also something called the Local Farm Vegetable Plate, which looked like your standard meat and two veg set-up but was instead a heaping pile of fresh and roasted vegetables nestled next to a goat cheese and caramelized onion croquette. Though I was tempted by all on the menu, the need to be frugal forced my choices down to two: Soy Braised Collard Greens with hot pepper mash and sweet rice wine, and a Cypriot salad of watermelon, parsley, grilled halloumi cheese, kalamata olive.
For me, not eating wheat is part of a greater plan to eat more vegetables; significantly more. This is not about embracing the Paleo Diet, which, if you take away the prehistoric hunter/gatherer philosophizing looks quite a bit like the Atkin’s Diet in its suggestion that easy weight loss can be achieved by cutting carbs and upping protein, this is about trying to break bad starch-related habits and ascribe to Michael Pollan’s oft-quoted (by me) dictum in the New York Times Magazine: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The only way to do this without over-eating is to eat fewer non-plant foods.
At home, this means a quick trip to the market and a dinner of, say, roasted carrots with ground almonds and cumin, sauteed greens with fresh garlic, and beet and radish slaw with mint. When dining out in Montreal, however, cuisine vegetale takes a back seat to animal fat in its many forms. And while I love my pork belly and duck confit as much as the next carnivore, I wish that more people would seize upon the riches of Quebec’s spring and summer bounty–as Michelle Marek and Natasha Pickowicz did recently with their one-night only celebration: Le Grand Aïoli–and develop a menu that sates the appetites of the carnivore, but does not minimize the delights of the field.