Meat on the Side: Modern Menus Shift Focus to Vegetables

Anchoring a plate with a massive hunk of animal protein is so last century. But let’s face it: Vegetarianism isn’t for everyone. Increasingly, chefs like Jody Adams in Boston, Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia and Alain Ducasse in Paris are finding delicious ways to strike a balance between health and hedonism

MICHAEL SCELFO used to be the ultimate man’s cook. At the Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square, the 290-pound chef turned out all manner of charcuterie and innards, and enormous portions of everything else.

Before he opened his new restaurant, Alden & Harlow, also in Cambridge, Mass., in January, Mr. Scelfo put himself on a diet. He cut carbs and dairy, started eating a lot more vegetables and lost 95 pounds in a year. “It dramatically affected the way I cook,” he said. His menu still features a burger and a steak. But most of Mr. Scelfo’s dishes use meat as an accent, if at all. Among Alden & Harlow’s current offerings are smoked burrata crostini with fried kale, burnt honey and a thin slice of cured pork loin; crispy baby bok choy topped with a slow-cooked egg; and charred broccoli with squash hummus. “At the beginning, I’d have to send the broccoli out to people,” he said—free of charge. And they loved it. “When I see that feedback, my next question is: How do I up the ante?”

Chefs around the country, and the globe, are pushing meat from the center of the plate—and sometimes off it altogether. Trade, in Boston, serves polenta topped with fall squash, peppers, scallions and a scattering of pancetta, while at Zahav, in Philadelphia, roasted eggplant comes drizzled with lamb’s tongue vinaigrette. At New York’s Dovetail, a “vegetable-focused” menu features cured carrots with duck breast, cashews and black garlic. In September, Alain Ducasse, the godfather of French cuisine, announced that his flagship restaurant at the Plaza Athénée in Paris would remove most meat from the menu in favor of organic vegetables and seafood.

In short, an haute restaurant meal no longer has to deliver 8 ounces (or more) of meat plus a vegetable side. Increasingly, it is the opposite.

Several trends have converged in a perfect culinary storm. Awakened by the national obesity crisis, many Americans want to eat more healthfully—though perhaps not enough to leave the table hungry. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends eating red meat no more than twice a week. But chefs know that dividing the portions across many meals is a smarter strategy. Studies show that having even a little meat on the plate makes for more satisfied diners.

Meat’s also been slammed as an environmental villain. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock industry is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gases. (Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said that the industry is increasingly sustainable. A 2007 study by Washington State University showed that farmers and ranchers raise 13% more beef from 30% fewer cattle and produce substantially fewer carbon emissions than they did 30 years before.)

Price spikes, too, have encouraged chefs to find ways to cut back. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that wholesale beef prices are at record highs, up 27% year over year. Wholesale pork has jumped 13% and is expected to rise as much as another 16% this year. “You can’t just increase your prices by 100%. It doesn’t work,” said Michael Solomonov, chef-owner of Israeli restaurant Zahav and several other Philadelphia places (including a meat-centric barbecue joint). “It’s smart if you can get away from that. With a lot of vegetables, we can be very dynamic.”

Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and some Asian cuisines make it easy for chefs to cut back on meat. “This is how people traditionally ateeverywhere,” said Mr. Solomonov, referring to the way he uses meat to amp up mostly-vegetarian dishes such as dirty rice studded with bits of chicken liver, and trumpet mushrooms flavored with crispy lamb bacon.

The transition for restaurants is not always simple, though. To that end, the Culinary Institute of America introduced its Menus of Change initiative. The program aims to help chefs make menus more healthful and sustainable, which in almost all cases means serving less meat. At its annual conference in June, there were panels on topics such as “Fruits and Vegetables as Half the Plate: The Practical Business of Making This Happen.” Nearly a dozen chefs demonstrated recipes that used meat sparingly. Adam Busby, the CIA’s director of special culinary projects, showed off a soba noodle salad with just two ounces of Thai grilled shrimp per serving. “Chefs tend to be very good at offering what we might call ‘regular’ or ‘unleaded’ options—that is, full, impressive portions of animal proteins or vegetarian/vegan options,” he said. “[Until now] we have not done as much work for menu choices in between.”

Eating out, especially at an expensive restaurant, is a treat, and chefs don’t want to be seen to be lecturing. Ms. Adams, for example, says her Bostonian patrons would never forgive her if she took her Tuscan steak and roasted half duck off the menu at Rialto. “We’re not passing judgment,” she said. Her solution has been to add more, new dishes where vegetables have a starring role. “People appreciate having vegetables,” said Ms. Adams. “They need to be celebrated. Meat doesn’t have to be the main event.”

According to research firm Technomic, vegetable offerings on restaurant menus have jumped 11% over the last three years. Still, meat appears to be in no danger of disappearing from menus altogether anytime soon. Vivian Howard, who owns Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, N.C., and stars in the PBS series “A Chef’s Life,” said she has long been concerned with meat’s environmental impact. But the best seller on her menu continues to be a giant (albeit humanely raised) pork chop. “It’s a tough thing for us because consumers see value in meat that is not only at the center of the plate, but covers the plate,” she said. “Since I’m not Alain Ducasse, I find myself compromising and taking small steps.”

Source: Wall Street Journal