• Chefs use boundless creativity in dealing with strict limits on ingredients.
Los Angeles Times
August 20, 2003
LOS ANGELES -- Top chefs always have their eyes open. They know a trend when they see one. They know when to hop on the bandwagon while there's still room. And the latest one trundling through town carries the awareness that chefs have to find a way to appeal to the impressively large tribe of vegans.
Vegans! These people -- a meat-eating, dairy-slurping eater might think -- are the antithesis of the food lovers who fill the tables at top dining spots. They hardly eat anything. Well, yes and no. In fact, that's the challenge.
The trick is to take the ingredients vegans do eat and bring to them the same intensity, innovation and affection for the beautiful dish that prevails in more conventional approaches, and in the process change dutiful eating into joyful dining.
Over the last few months, a handful of Los Angeles chefs have expanded their vegan repertoires in earnest. They have maintained their creativity and style, even as they've eliminated many of the basic materials that define them: butter and cream, fish and meat, even eggs and cheese.
It's all proof that serious vegan cooking isn't some passing fad, such as raw food and its gimmicky imitations. (Pizza with a "living buckwheat crust"? Get real.)
Chef Neal Fraser has featured a vegan appetizer, entree and dessert every night since his restaurant Grace opened about five months ago. He has served a pumpkin soup with a soy-tofu foam and now offers a corn soup with squash blossoms. The main dish is a basmati-stuffed pepper with diced vegetables, dried fruits and pecans. For dessert: a rich chocolate ganache tart made with maple syrup and presented with sour cherry compote and roasted Spanish almonds.
"It's shortsighted to think that everyone eats meat and fish," Fraser said. Tellingly, the vegan rice-stuffed pepper outsells the chicken, said Richard Drapkin, managing partner.
While it doesn't seem like such a leap for a chef like Fraser, cooking in an ambitious modern style, it's something of a surprise to find an extensive vegan menu at a formal French restaurant.
But that's exactly what Jean Francois Meteigner is doing at La Cachette in the Century City district. It started last year, with an episode of "Dinner for Five," an Independent Film Channel series with actor Jon Favreau and four guests.
An episode was being shot at the restaurant. "Two days before, they tell me one guy is vegan," Meteigner said. "That is when I started seriously panicking. I didn't know what vegan food was, frankly. Then, I did a lot of research on the computer. I found that we had a lot of stuff that worked."
That guest, actor Ed Begley Jr., became a regular at La Cachette, and Meteigner started cooking monthly vegan dinners. Now Begley has spread the word to fellow vegans, such as actor James Cromwell, and Meteigner has expanded his repertoire with $50 vegan tasting menus on Friday nights.
As Meteigner presented a beautifully composed terrine of beets, avocado and heirloom tomatoes, he couldn't contain a bit of pride.
Chefs also now have to consider nutrition as much as they do taste and presentation, said John Rucci, an executive food and beverage manager at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Chef Bill Bracken of the hotel's Belvedere restaurant has adapted many recipes to appeal to vegans.
At Hamasaku, a Japanese restaurant on L.A.'s West side, owner Toshi Kihara has his chefs turn tomatoes and a sushi rice risotto into objects of art. Beneath the pickled eggplant and snow-pea garnish is a tasty and satisfying dish. For three years, he's offered a vegan menu, mainly because he's noticed diners from the entertainment industry are increasingly avoiding meat and dairy products.
Until recently, vegan cuisine was perhaps accurately perceived as an austere way of eating that was more heavily infused with philosophy than with flavor. In the nearly 60 years since the British Vegan Society coined the term "vegan" for nondairy vegetarians, the concept has become more mainstream.
The success of vegan cuisine has spread awareness of the diet's vast potential, not just its limitations.
In November, Tucker's new cookbook, "The Artful Vegan" (Ten Speed Press), shows home cooks how to put a gourmet spin on vegan cuisine with the restaurant's recipes. A new everyday cookbook, "Vegan Planet," by Robin Robertson (Harvard Common Press), puts 400 vegan recipes in paperback.
Los Angeles Times photo by Bryan Chan
A year ago, "I didn't know what vegan food was," says Jean Francois Meteigner of La Cachette in Santa Monica, Calif., making his roasted beet napoleon. Now, his restaurant has vegan dishes on the menu.
Roasted Beets Napoleon with Cumin, Heirloom Tomatoes and Avocado
Yield: about 3/4 cup
Whole-grain mustard dressing:
1 1/2 tablespoons French whole-grain mustard
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, extra strong
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons raspberry vinegar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/3 cup grape seed or canola oil
1 tablespoon water
In a bowl, combine the mustards, one-fourth teaspoon salt, one-eighth teaspoon pepper and the vinegars.
In a measuring cup with a lip, combine the grape seed oil and the water. Whisk the mustard-vinegar mixture until smooth, and then, while adding the oil-water mixture in a thin stream, continue to whisk. Continue whisking and pouring slowly until all the oil has been emulsified into the dressing. Use the dressing as needed. Keep it in a squeeze bottle, or small water bottle fitted with a squirt top, in your refrigerator.
Yield: 4 servings
3 large beets, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch thick rounds
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped red onion
1 large heirloom tomato, seeded and diced
1/2 medium avocado, peeled, pitted and diced small
Whole grain mustard dressing
Salt to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Place sliced beets in one layer in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish. Pour the vegetable stock and the oil evenly on top. Cover the pan and roast until the beets are tender, about 40 to 45 minutes. Remove the beets from the pan and let them cool for 20 minutes. Reserve the pan juices.
Mix the red onion, diced tomato and avocado together with 1 tablespoon of the whole-grain mustard dressing. Add the cumin and salt, then stir.
Place one slice of beet on each plate and add one-half tablespoon of the tomato-avocado mixture, then another beet, then mixture, then beet, creating layers. Spoon one-half tablespoon of the reserved beet juice over each stack. Drizzle additional dressing over the top and around each napoleon.
Each serving: 400 calories; 3 g pro.; 18 g carbo.; 5 g fiber; 37 g fat; 4 g sat. fat; 0 chol.; 653 mg sodium.
Note: This recipe is adapted from one by chef Jean Francois Meteigner at La Cachette in Los Angeles.
-- Los Angeles Times