It’s no coincidence that vegan restaurant owners and formerly vegetarian chefs end up creating more interesting meat-free dishes. Here's how these chefs and restaurant owners are using their own experiences to create memorable vegetarian and vegan food.
Treat cauliflower like it's fried chicken.
Jake Smyth, who put the cheeseburger on Sydney's map and co-owner of several Sydney venues (Mary’s, The Unicorn, and The Lansdowne), credits “my total and utter infatuation with Daniel Johns of Silverchair” as the reason for becoming a vegetarian in the 1990s. Like his idol, he was making a stand against animal cruelty by doing so, but ditching meat exposed him to an unfortunate side effect: sad combos of mesclun mix, egg and sun-dried tomato that were, often, the only thing he could order at restaurants.
“It was almost a relief when I became vegan, to be able to eliminate sun-dried frittata from my life,” recalls Smyth.
He’s since reintroduced meat to his diet, but Smyth’s past experiences have influenced how he approaches menus. Creating genuinely delicious meat-free food (instead of low-priority dishes “to keep the vegos quiet”) has “been super important to us from the start”, he says. “Vegetarian food ain’t just for vegetarians!”
At Mary’s CBD outlet, the kitchen treats cauliflower like its fried chicken – by marinating the vegetable in buttermilk brine, plunging it into spiced flour, deep-frying and adding hot sauce.
It even looks like fried chicken.
But it doesn't stop there. Mary's mushroom burger gets the flavour treatment too.
The mushrooms in Mary’s vegetarian burger are slow-cooked in a garlic-and-thyme oil for a big flavour hit – resulting in something “meat eaters shove in their mouths with equal relish” to the other dishes, says Smyth.
Channel Asian vegan temple cuisine
Chef Ben Sears was a vegetarian for four years (from 18 to 22): “I was a fine art student, with all the baggage that implies,” he says with a laugh. “I started eating meat again when I started working in high-end kitchens full-time.”
Nowadays, the direction of his Sydney restaurants makes it easier to come up with animal-free dishes, especially as Asian cuisine has been a powerful influence on Moon Park (which closed last year) and Paper Bird (which opened in July). “A strong tradition of vegan eating throughout East Asia … [means there's] a few thousand years of other people’s trial and error to base your dishes off.”
Along with partner and fellow head chef Eun Hee An, Sears has been inspired by dining at temple restaurants in South Korea, such as Baru Gongyang, where meat is omitted for religious reasons.
“They allow chilli as long as it's been fermented (i.e. gochujang), so there is some spiciness in the cuisine which most temple food would lack.” Fried shiitake mushrooms with gochujang and a broth of cordyceps mushroom, pine nut and grass enzyme were two of the knockout dishes he tried.
At Paper Bird, the kitchen’s creativity with spice and vegetables means the menu is in no danger of being boring or clichéd.
There is nothing run of the mill about their shiitake and scallion pancake.
Grilled cos hearts dressed with chilli butter and cured yolk and Chongqing popcorn are some of their other inspired meatless dishes. And a stand-alone vegetarian menu, like the one at Moon Park, will eventually debut at Paper Bird.
Experiment with unfamiliar vegetables
Like this skirret - a tiny, sweet parsnip - used by Analiese Gregory, head chef at Hobart’s Franklin restaurant.
Gregory didn’t really eat meat until aged 15. “My mother is a vegetarian, so would cook two separate meals at home, but I think she maybe resented cooking meat slightly, so as kids we never craved it. I hated pies and McDonald's burgers and loved iceberg lettuce – weirdest kid ever!”
Gregory’s vegetarian days meant she was sick of seeing “mushroom risotto, bad green salads and the old ratatouille terrine” as menu options, and she works hard to come up with memorable alternatives.
Create a toolkit of flavour-enhancing tricks
Gregory uses “different herb purées, black olive oil, home-made honey vinegar, pickled walnuts.” Currently at Hobart's Franklin, Gregory is shaving house-made ricotta salata over wood-roasted whole cabbages and broccoli.
Working for “the king of vegetables, Michel Bras” at his flagship restaurant, Bras, in southern France was a formative experience. His signature dish, the Gargouillou, is arguably the world’s most famous (and gorgeous-looking) salad. Gregory says it’s shaped from approximately 40 different vegetables and about 75 different leaves, herbs and flowers, and showcases around 10 different cooking methods. “It took six chefs a day to produce, but for me is still the best dish there and the first vegetarian dish that really blew my mind.”
Focus on what you can use instead of what you can't
Alejandro Cancino, the chef behind Urbane and The Euro in Brisbane, is a vegan when he's off duty. Professionally, he still tastes food for his venues, but outside of the workplace, his diet has excluded all animal products for the last five years. “I tried to find a reason to not go vegan, so my life didn’t need to change that much, but I … couldn’t just go back.”
Cancino admits that he’s sick of seeing flimsy salads as the only vegan alternative on a menu (“you probably need 10 kilos of lettuce to be satisfied”) and it means that he always bulks up and balances the dishes at his restaurants with nuts, cereals, grains, starches and beans.
Currently, the Argentine chef is surprised by the versatility of tempeh. “When I put it on the barbecue, it tastes to me of something very traditional from home, like intestines,” he says. “It tastes amazing.”
He also plays around with other fermented foods, spices, nut milks and vegetables with a high umami potential: “when you focus on vegan food, you realise there is so much”.
And when you focus on what you can use – instead of what you can’t – “it’s plenty”.