One of the easiest ways to change the way we eat—and to know what we’re eating—is to embrace the vegetable.
By Amanda Faison
As Steven Satterfield, James Beard-winning chef of Good Food 100 Restaurants™ Miller Union (6 Links) in Atlanta says in the foreword of his book Root to Leaf, “We are out of touch with the earth’s rhythms and we do not allow ourselves to appreciate the anticipation of the natural cycles of the seasons.” Although simple, one solution comes from paying attention to the varieties of just-harvested, locally grown produce. That connection between diner and ingredient, ingredient and farmer anchors and guides us toward becoming more informed and conscious eaters.
All of this points to the veg-centric movement. Largely set into motion by Israeli-British chef Yotam Ottolenghi in London and Travis Lett of Good Food 100 Gjelina (5 Links) and Gjusta (5 Links) in Los Angeles, the advancement of vegetables as more than an afterthought it's a growing kitchen philosophy. “Chefs are exploring this menu opportunity, pulling vegetables into the center of the plate while making them craveable with high-impact finishes,” reports Gordon Food Service.
One such figure, Suzanne Cupps, the executive chef of Good Food 100 Untitled at the Whitney (5 Links), learned the craft of vegetable cookery under Michael Anthony at Good Food 100 Gramercy Tavern (6 Links) in New York City. When Untitled opened, Anthony and Cupps collaborated on a menu deep with vegetables. In the years since, the restaurant has become revered for its produce-focused menus. For more on Cupps’ philosophy and inspiration on bringing vegetables to the forefront of the menu, read our Q&A:
Good Food Media Network: How did Michael Anthony’s cooking inspire you?
Suzanne Cupps: I started working with Mike seven years ago at Gramercy. At that point, I didn’t understand what vegetables and produce were like in the northeast. I went to the Green Market occasionally but I didn’t have the skill set to highlight vegetables and make them as craveable as meat or fish instead of making them a back note. But learning how Mike cooked, I really embraced it…. When the opportunity for Untitled came up, we put together a menu that was exciting and hit on bold points. It was sustainable, local, and seasonal and tied in with our farmers.
GFMN: Over the years, have you seen a shift in your diners? Are they embracing the veg-centric movement?
SC: Ten years ago there was some vegetable-forward cuisine [mostly vegetarian- or vegan-based] but now it’s the way people want to eat. Whether at home or at a restaurant, it’s a lifestyle shift. You even see it when you look at smaller chains and fast-casual spots.
GFMN: Veg-centric is defined by vegetables as the center of the plate but in a way that defies traditional vegetarian and vegan labels. Tell us about this exciting space for a chef.
SC: It’s the new frontier. It’s about shifting the portions not from abstaining from meat. There didn’t used to be much thought put into vegetables. But now, we think about each one: What makes it taste delicious? How do I make it shine and taste the way it’s supposed to taste without coating it or overtaking it? We’re fortunate that we have a group of farmers who are excited to grow what we’re interested in. It’s a collaboration. We can be more creative with our dishes because of our produce.
GFMN: Do you have a favorite vegetable? How do you like to prepare it?
SC: Everyone would say it’s carrots. Growing up, I would only eat them raw; I hated boiled, steamed, or glazed carrots but I’ve come to love them roasted. There’s something magical when the sugar converts and caramelizes. Carrots are such a good canvas, they can act as a main ingredient in a dish because they take on other flavors.
GFMN: What advice would you offer chefs around the country who are considering adding more veg-centric dishes to their menu? For some it might be an easy shift (i.e. the diner is demanding it) but for others there may need to be education so as not to alienate anyone.
SC: I think it’s easy to add more vegetables to the menu, to even make some the star of a plate instead of a side dish. If I’m cooking a very familiar vegetable, something everyone has eaten, I try to pair it with a surprising flavor or use a slightly different technique. If it’s a vegetable a good number of diners haven’t seen before, I aim to cook it in a way that I feel is the most delicious and most approachable. I’m not trying to force our guests to eat vegetables, I want to make them fall in love with how we cook—fresh, seasonal produce, lightly manipulated, carefully prepared, and plated.