Treating produce like meat

Veg-centric plates demand more aggressive cooking techniques.
cauliflower steak

Braising, searing, barbecuing, charring…Sounds like the kitchen is prepping a hunk of beef or piece of chicken. But as consumers and restaurants become increasingly interested in veg-centric dishes, chefs are coaxing more flavor out of produce with techniques typically applied to meat.

There are several business reasons for this, not least the ability to attract vegetarian, vegan and health-conscious diners with more distinctive preparations. Veggie-based recipes generally carry lower food costs, yet signature treatments support premium menu pricing. Fruits and vegetables also are easy to cross-utilize, minimizing waste. And certain treatments add value to ingredients such as overripe fruit, bruised vegetables or often-ignored “ugly produce,” extending their shelf life.

Raising produce’s profile

The menu at True Food Kitchen, the health-minded restaurant chain from Fox Restaurant Concepts, is getting even more plant-focused. “We have to, when every little neighborhood restaurant is doing the same thing,” says Clint Woods, VP of culinary.

At the new Austin location, which serves as a test unit, Woods has reorganized the menu into fewer categories, but with a greater focus on fresh fruits and vegetables. “This has boosted category sales signficantly,” he says.

A new “Vegetables” section leads off the menu. Placing it first sends guests a message of freshness right off the bat, says Woods. It also gets them thinking about the items there—which include roasted heirloom carrots or charred Romanesco with almonds, olives and grapefruit—as multipurpose options: sides, starters, shareables or vegetarian-friendly alternatives.

“We focus on finding new ways to get more flavor out of each vegetable,” Woods adds. Depending on the item, that might include marinating, grilling or serving something with a vinaigrette or sauce.

With some dishes, prepping the vegetables can take more time or skill than meat-based meals. “You have to factor in the training for this,” says Woods. For example, cooks at True Food Kitchen turn artichokes, cook them in a classic French wine-based braise and shave them on a mandoline for the bruschetta with grilled asparagus, artichokes, green peas, watermelon radish, sesame and goat cheese. But the artichokes and peas also appear on the restaurant’s pizza, maximizing all that prep work.

A fresh cut of steak

Cauliflower “steak” may be nothing new in upscale restaurants, but Louis Basile, owner of 14-unit Wildflower Bread Company based in Scottsdale, Ariz., was eager to try out the trending vegetable prep in his fast-casual cafes.

Wildflower menus its Seared Cauliflower Steak as an entree salad, served atop tricolor quinoa with cranberries, toasted walnuts, red onions and organic baby kale dressed in a cranberry-caper puree—a riff on a traditional Sicilian cauliflower recipe.

The item starts with two center-cut slabs from a large 9-count cauliflower head, roasted in the oven to near-doneness, then seared on the flat top to order—both existing cooking platforms at Wildflower units. “Speed of service is so important for a fast-casual restaurant,” notes Basile. “So one of our challenges was to develop a way to execute the dish quickly.” Prepping and parc00king the cauliflower ahead of time shaves minutes off orders. 

Although cauliflower was brought in for this dish, the leftover florets from the ends are used in two other salads, as well as last season’s caramelized cauliflower linguine.

Basile intended for the cauliflower steak salad to be a vegetarian dish, but found that it appeals to any diner looking for something a little different, he says. “There is definitely a sophisticated consumer who wants to try something new, not just vegetarians.” To get the general public to embrace the dish, Wildflower offers samples, and the very appearance of the items tends to illicit curiosity from guests, Basile says.

Food costs are low, and at $8.29, the cauliflower steak boasts high margins. More importantly, “This is the kind of ‘food-forward’ signature menu item that helps set us apart from the growing competition,” says the ex-Au Bon Pain manager, who was early to the healthy fast-casual party when he started Wildflower 20 years ago.

Infusing wood flavor

At live-fire casual-dining restaurant Lo Spiedo (“The Spit”) in Philadelphia, most of the food is cooked over burning wood—and vegetables are no exception.

Large avocados are split and charred flesh-side down on the grill, then served still warm in the skin for the customer to spread on housemade focaccia for a shareable snack. For a barbecue carrots side dish, vegetables are marinated in barbecue sauce and grilled for smoke flavor, then finished in the woodburning oven to caramelize.

“You don’t have to put 100 ingredients on the plate to make a big impression,” says co-chef Brad Spence. “Customers love seeing vegetables on the menu, because this is food that’s healthy and they can feel good about ordering. These days, if you don’t have a vegetable section on the menu, you’re missing out on a big source of add-on sales.” 

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