As the name of his restaurant suggests, chef Scott Vivian of Toronto's Beast is known for preparing animal parts. But he broke away from his reputation for one evening this week when he gathered some Southern Ontario meat-centric chefs and challenged them to cook a special, vegetarian meal.
The event, at which guests dined on faux scallops (made of seared parsnips), green apple soup and smoked- ricotta-stuffed pasta, was partly an excuse to bring local culinary talent together, Mr. Vivian says, but also to demonstrate how even carnivorous chefs like himself "can also cook vegetables."
"When you take the crux out of a chef's repertoire, it causes them to be even more creative than they normally would be," he says, explaining that cooking without pork belly and duck fat forced him to innovate. "There's so many things you can do [with vegetables]besides boiling them, cutting them up and serving them."
While Mr. Vivian's veggie metamorphosis was temporary, it points to a subtle but significant culinary shift.
Fresh, high-quality produce is edging meats to the side, as a small but growing number of chefs are curbing the use of animal protein and bringing vegetables to the fore, thanks to a greater emphasis on locally farmed produce, on-site restaurant gardens and heirloom varieties.
"It used to be a joke years ago, we'd all sort of chide people ... to finish their vegetables, and now you're chiding them to finish their proteins," says Neil Ingram, a partner at Vancouver's Boneta restaurant.
Mr. Ingram says Boneta prides itself on sourcing its vegetables locally, sometimes from as close as three blocks away at urban farms in the Downtown Eastside - and that pride has translated into rewording the restaurant's menu "to really highlight the vegetables rather than the primary proteins." For example, he describes a dish as a mix of "locally sourced vegetables with braised cheek," rather than the other way around.
Mr. Ingram attributes the shift partly to U.S. food activist Michael Pollan's famous mantra: "Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
For health and environmental reasons, that concept "is something that I think everyone's taking to heart," he says, adding that it helps that the days of being served mushy broccoli are over. "Now, people take [vegetables] seriously in the preparation. You'll never get bad vegetables again."
At L.A.B. restaurant in Toronto, co-chef Chris Scott says meat-eaters are gravitating toward the restaurant's vegan and vegetarian dishes, which outnumber the meat options.
The meat-vegetable role reversal is even more pronounced in certain culinary circles in the U.S. The famously pork-loving chef Mario Batali made headlines this year when he began offering vegetarian dishes at his restaurants as part of the Meatless Monday campaign to encourage people to eat less meat.
Meanwhile, Toronto native Gail Simmons, a regular judge on Bravo TV's Top Chef series, named vegetables as the latest trend in an interview this month with food website Eater. "[W]'d like to think that the year of the vegetables is upon us," Ms. Simmons said.
In September, industry website Nation's Restaurant News also offered the same prediction that restaurants would start recasting meat and fish as "fringe players" and emphasizing vegetables.
John Fraser, whose Dovetail restaurant in New York earned a Michelin star this month, is among the chefs at the forefront of this veg-heavy trend. Independent of the meatless-Monday movement, Mr. Fraser says he introduced a "Monday-night veg menu" last year to inspire himself and his cooks to think creatively. The menu, which offers vegan, vegetarian or "vegetable-focused" dishes, has been such a success that he is considering opening a restaurant based on the concept.
Mr. Fraser says one of his favourite vegetable-focused dishes is mushroom gnocchi, finished with a drizzle of Bordelaise sauce made with a veal base. "That's the only meat that appears there. But because your palate is not overwrought with big massive pieces of fatty beef, it's very sensitive to the idea of a little bit of red-wine veal jus," he explains.
While he admits that his idea for a stand-alone, vegetable-heavy restaurant is a bit of a gamble, "my hope is that we get people to try a different kind of cuisine where we're saying vegetables can taste just as good as a piece of protein," he says. "It's possible that they're as delicious and they create this same sort of cognizant effect as that one bite of Wagyu beef that melts in your mouth and makes you close your eyes and kind of sit back in your chair."