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Is ‘Vegetable-Forward’ Dining Really the Way We Want to Eat?

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From vegan to vegetable-forward, how plant-based eating got a makeover.

Inside the 300-square-foot dining area of New York City's Superiority Burger, a dozen stomach-rumbling diners awaited their order numbers to be called. A slick whiteboard menu listed produce-based side dishes alongside various carnivorous-sounding options the "Sloppy Dave" and the eponymous "Superiority Burger." The bottom of the menu, however, revealed a "secret" that's, well, surprising for a restaurant with customer lines running down the street almost daily: "All menu items vegetarian, some accidentally vegan."

"We have people that come in that are 100 percent vegan and we love them, and then we have people that come in that aren't even vegetarian at all and maybe came for the first time as a gag," says Brooks Headley, the head chef and founder of Superiority Burger. "And then they keep coming back, because in the end, we're just doing our best to make really delicious, very accessible food that anyone can have."

"In the end, we’re just doing our best to make really delicious, very accessible food that anyone can have."

Since the ‘80s until mid-2000s, Americans across the nation have consciously followed the phrase "but meat tastes so good" to a point of religious dogma, gagging at a prejudicial idea of "vegan cuisine": off-tasting, processed protein imitations. And within the past decade, several still wouldn't entertain the idea of vegetable-forward dining, a dietary regiment born out of Michael Pollan's mantra "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" (from In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto). To the majority of Americans outside the food sphere, carrots and baked potatoes are incapable of carrying even a forkful's worth of flavor in comparison to juicy pork chops: A larger barrier for these meat-predilected consumers might be that such dietary habits could strip them of their societal normality. As such, for years, tentative customers at Rich Landau's Vedge in Philadelphia — one of America's Essential Restaurants — maintained skepticism towards the all-green menu options.

"They thought it was bean sprouts, wheat germ, pinecones, and strange cheese being served to you by a stoned hippie," said Landau about a majority of his omnivorous customers, dating back to his opening in 1994. "I thought that it was unfair that if you gave up meat, you're automatically a stoned hippie, you're an outcast or a reject from society. I basically wanted to make it cool again."

Recently though, a number of restaurant diners have begun to test the soil of vegetable-forward dining. Consciously or not, people are reversing their previous notions of eating more vegetables and are actually gravitating towards restaurants founded upon the plant-forward philosophies by chefs like Landau and his fellow culinary experimenters: vegetable-and-grains-focused plates don't just have to be relegated to the side dish, but can be enjoyed as satisfying entrees, too. But while this noticeable movement towards vegetable-centric dining may seem driven by media- and trend-friendly buzzwords like "vegan cuisine" and "vegetable-forward," the chefs behind ramp-and-carrot salads believe that with all the studies educating consumers on the environmental impact of eating meat, this plant-heavy movement is slowly ingraining itself as a part of our food culture at large.

Shifting Definitions

According to Liz Cherry, a professor of sociology at Manhattanville College specializing in vegan and vegetarian culture, meat has functioned for millennia as a symbol of wealth. Beyond how cavemen slaying a wooly mammoth could signify the success and potential survival of a tribe, Cherry explained that during the World War II era, meat was affiliated with the societal highs and lows due to the rationing of animal protein for soldiers.

"Not eating meat was a sign not just of being impoverished, but a reminder of the times that people didn't want to live anymore," said Cherry. "You always have this moment where people are being faced with times when they couldn't meat. So eating meat is this celebration that they never wanted to give up."

But beyond just its affiliation with wealth, the carnal, muscular slabs of animal protein embody power and masculinity. Nick Fiddes, in his book Meat: A Natural Symbol, notes that "12.8 percent of all women [in England] abstained from meat" in comparison to "7.1 percent of all men." Almost 20 years later, this patriarchal perception has pervaded. In a 2010 study from University of British Columbia, Vancouver, the results demonstrated that the perception of eating vegan products as "less masculine" also contributed to the mainstream's stigma of non-animal-based cuisine.

"No offense, but vegetables got a bad rap for so long due to this [vegan] ‘lifestyle’ cooking."

(Of course, this perception of vegan and vegetable-based dietary restriction is far from justified. Hardcore punks in the ‘80s embraced straight edge ideologies that disavowed the killing animals. More recently, a number of muscle-ripped celebrities are showcasing that they can hold onto their machismo while cutting back on the level of meat in their diets, including athletes such as Mr. Universe.)

Still, the association with abstaining from meat, be it a reduction or an altogether eradication from your diet, it seems that people still perceive not eating animal-products as a "lifestyle choice," meaning a sharp left from the norm. In a 2012 study by Gallup, an American research-based consulting company known for conducting polls, researchers found that only five percent of respondents considered themselves vegetarian, and two percent of survey respondents considered themselves vegan. (Surprisingly considering the growing hype for vegetarianism, Gallup's numbers showed no increase in the number of people who identified as vegetarian between 2012 and 1999, and 2012 was the first-ever time pollsters tracked vegans in the U.S.)

Aaron London of AL's Place in San Francisco recognized that even mentioning the word "vegan" next to a plate immediately put his vegetable-centric meals at a disadvantage to the customer's judgment-affected palate. "Vegan cooking speaks to me as a lifestyle or religious choice," says London, whose customers can order meat only as a side dish to the produce-saturated entrees. "Working with vegetables is its own separate thing, but an exciting thing. No offense, but vegetables got a bad wrap for so long due to this [vegan] 'lifestyle' cooking."

Reaping the Fruits of Leaf-to-Root Dining

Chefs dedicated to the plant-based culinary craft have lamented that over the past two decades, the public's perception of vegan dining has affected the way they taste their food. Many eaters hold the preconceived notion that eating a vegan meal meant their food would still have to imitate the carnal flavor of meat. When reviewing the burger at Superiority Burger, food critics and customers alike were tempted, at first blush, to compare the grain-and-legume patty to your standard beef burger. Headley, the founder of Superiority Burger, explained that — in addition to loading his menu with produce-based side dishes from the farmer's market — he had not intended for his all-plant-based burger to go hoof-to-hoof with its animal-based counterpart in terms of flavor and texture. "If you're vegetarian, you don't eat a cheeseburger," Headley said regarding his customers.

While Headley and other chefs like Chloe Coscarelli of By Chloe take a playful spin on meals aesthetically associated with butcheries, others are engaging diners with the more direct "vegetable-forward" movement. A number of vegetable-centric chefs stated that they entered this movement partially for the same environmental and ethical reasons held by vegan and flexitarian dietary practitioners. And nowadays, the number of customers at their restaurants is slowly growing.

"AL's Place opening 10 years ago would be in a different position than it did today — even about eight years ago — and back then it was a damn hard sell," said London of his Michelin-starred menu. "That first year, trying to get people to eat a fucking vegetable and trying to get them to understand price associated with [locally sourced] vegetables was crazy." (Now, it's less of a hard sell: In addition to its Michelin star, the restaurant also landed the #1 spot on Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurant list in 2015.)

London explained that this growing popularity in the vegetable-forward movement is analogous to the rise during the mid-2000s seen in nose-to-tail dining, a movement foodies and diners have fawned over for almost a decade now. What he believes many of his customers do not realize, and is something that he and Rich Landau of Vedge will not admit unless truly pressed, is that a large number of items on the menu are in fact vegan-friendly. Given the previously mentioned stigmas associated with labeling food items as "vegan," they are hoping to avoid allowing customers a reason to judge the menu items outside of the produce's natural abilities to showcase their flavor — as they would with any meat product.

"There's no 'V' [for "vegan" label] next to the food anymore," said Landau. "If you're at a trendsetting restaurant, the ones that are defining the American dining scene, there's no "V" because there's no apology or explanation. [The V] comes with so much baggage: the healthy choice, the hippie choice. They're not even denoting the V's now, because it's just a plate of carrots. It's just a plate of food."