Veg-Centric: Year Three
While the normal M.O. in trend tracking involves identifying an opportunity, reporting on it and then moving on, we are again citing vegetable-centric cooking as having strong sales-building potential for operators across the country.
Veg-centric is a macro-trend that will continue to influence commercial menus well into the future, and our most recent research revealed another surge in momentum as chefs increasingly experiment with vegetables as center-of-the-plate ingredients, and dining consumers enthusiastically follow their lead.
There are two primary aspects to the evolution of this trend. First is the judicious inclusion of boldly flavored, umami-rich meat and seafood proteins in the dish, which could be a sprinkling of sausage crumbles, shavings of country ham or dollops of fish roe. These ingredients provide a huge new flavor arsenal for chefs to ply, but result in dishes that are not vegetarian. The upside is that veg-centric dishes appeal to the vast majority of diners who do not adhere to a meatless diet. It is now apparent that having vegetables and meat in a dish is no longer an either/or proposition, and dining consumers are proving that they will order more vegetable-based dishes in restaurants if they possess increased levels of craveability.
Second is the strategy of eliminating the category of “Side Dishes,” which is usually relegated to the bottom of the menu and treated as an afterthought. In its place is a carefully executed category of “Vegetables,” placed directly in the center of the menu or, in a few cases, at the top. These offerings are not side dishes, but rather composed plates with the same levels of flavor and complexity as the meat, poultry and seafood-based items on the menu. We saw this repeatedly in all three cities, including at the meat-centric Cannibal Beer and Butcher in Los Angeles, on the new menu at Chef Marco Canora’s East Village stalwart Hearth in New York, and the new steakhouse concept GT Prime in Chicago.
MENU READY: The Steady Rise of Veg-Centric
In our research, new restaurants featuring veg-centric dishes numbered in the dozens—far too many to call out here. Here is an overview of our latest findings:
Bagna cauda is the protein “add” of the moment: First brushed onto Wood-Grilled Radicchio eight years ago by veg-centric leader Chef Travis Lett at Gjelina in Los Angeles, the classic Italian dip comprised of olive oil, garlic and anchovy paste is now providing an umami blast to dishes on new menus across the country, including the Roasted Zucchini with Bagna Cauda, Calabrian Chile and Pecorina at Chicago’s Monteverde, Grilled Lettuces with Bagna Cauda Bread Crumbs at Manuela in Los Angeles, and Warm Beets with Bagna Cauda and Chervil at Momofuku Nishi in New York.
Protein “adds” expand: The list of boldly flavored proteins used in veg-centric dishes now includes lardo, crispy Iberico and country ham bits, bonito flakes, lap cheong (Chinese sausage), soppressata, crispy chicken skin, Spam, and a host of liquid proteins including XO sauce, dashi, beef jus lié and bone broths.
New vegetable stars emerge: Maitake mushrooms and sunchokes have broken out on new menus in a big way. Whole heads of maitake are being oven-roasted, wood-grilled and even deep-fried to a crispy crunch. Braised and stewed maitake are being served on toast, over creamy or crispy polenta, or topped with rich cheeses such as burrata and Brie. Sunchokes are everywhere, most often simply scrubbed, quartered and oven-roasted, and tossed with a vinaigrette, brown butter or cream sauce.