for www.smh.com.au on Aug. 20, 2011
An increasing number of accomplished chefs around the world are serving exciting meat-free menus.
When a customer wrote a letter of complaint to Tony Bilson in 2008 criticising his city fine diner for not having enough vegetarian options, the veteran chef sent back a gift voucher to Govinda's, the iconic Darlinghurst vegetarian eatery. Three years later, the chef's disdain has turned to vegetable acclaim. Bilson's restaurant now offers no fewer than two vegetarian degustation menus.
Indeed, the vegetable has risen across the globe from a beige member of the chorus line to the ranks of a full-fledged restaurant star. The American celebrity chef, Mario Batali, introduced Meatless Mondays across his restaurant empire and has hired a ''vegetable butcher''; there's a growing band of English pubs ditching a trade in sausages and mash to go fully vegetarian; and many of our top chefs now serve ''veg deg'', vegetable degustation menus.
Bilson says his vegetable epiphany was driven by Diego Munoz, who took the reins as chef de cuisine at Bilson's restaurant earlier this year.
''Diego uses new technology to create textures,'' Bilson explains. ''He'll combine the natural texture of, say, a parsnip type of vegetable then present it in four different ways: kibbled, shaved, creamed and aerated. Diego has introduced me to textured [vegetable dishes]. He's had the artistic vision to be able to do it … it isn't just fashion.''
The Sydney chef, Justin North, was one of the first to jump on the veg deg trend and serves about four of the meals a day at his Becasse restaurant, which relocated to Westfield Sydney earlier this year.
''It isn't only vegetarians who order it,'' North says. ''A lot of women have it at lunch if they want something lighter. Or someone who mightn't eat something like fish might go for it because it's easier.''
The chef was turned on to the idea of serious vegetable-based dishes a decade ago when working at the now closed Banc restaurant at Martin Place. ''Liam Tomlin was the first chef I worked with who didn't just serve dishes where they'd take the protein out of an existing dish on the menu and serve it,'' he says. ''Rather than take the attitude that vegetarians are a pain in the arse, he'd make vegetables the star.''
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