The era of bacon-infused vodka and pork-belly-topped everything has passed. The country’s most influential chefs are focusing on the humble vegetable crisper, working with farmers and foragers to bring nature’s bounty out of its supporting role and onto the center of the plate.
How did the country that invented the meat-and-three get so green? As it turns out, vegetable-centric eating is not exactly an overnight sensation.
Pioneers Frances Moore Lappé championed plant-focused diets more than forty years ago. In 1971, Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet shifted vegetarianism away from peace-loving mamas and papas and onto agricultural and environmental sustainability. It sold over 3 million copies and catapulted Lappé into the company of culinary luminaries like Julia Child and Thomas Jefferson.
That same year, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse. Though not vegetarian, the Berkeley, CA, restaurant created a farm-to-table model that brought plant-centric eating out of the commune and onto white tablecloths. “I was resisting the hippie food from the ‘60s,” Waters explained. ”I wanted something that felt sophisticated and civilized.”
French chef Michel Bras debuted gargouilliou, his signature dish of 50-60 homegrown vegetables that remains an influence on fine-dining chefs from San Francisco to Spain.
The following year, Deborah Madison opened upscale vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco, CA. Greens was “a big deal,” according to Ruth Reichl. “The only other vegetarian restaurants at the time were horrible macrobiotic places.” Madison later published Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, a best-selling compendium that, alongside Mollie Katzen’s perennially popular The Moosewood Cookbook, transformed vegetarianism from fringe movement to family supper.
Know what else helped? Burgers. In 1984, vegetarian chef Paul Wenner began national distribution of his sliced, homemade veggie logs under the label Gardenburger. The supermarket-ready patty has since spawned countless imitators, and was purchased by Kellogg in 2007.
In the meantime, top toques pushed the green envelope. When Thomas Keller opened The French Laundry in 1994, he introduced a then-unheard-of vegetable tasting menu. It was ordered by approximately 15% of diners. In 2001, l’Arpège, one of Paris’ most expensive tables, eliminated red meat and fish entirely. Chef Alain Passard’s €340 vegetable tasting menus continue to win critical acclaim.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
As early adopter Michael Pollan advised in his 2008 bestseller In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The best chefs in the world are into it. Offal aficionado Mario Batali embraced Meatless Mondays in 2010. That same year, Noma’s “vegetable butcher” Rene Redzepi unseated el Bulli for the top slot on San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurants list.
The final frontier is the quick-service counter. Regional chains like Sweetgreen and Veggie Grill, which serve plant-focused fare and promote their relationships with small farms, are gaining steam — and real estate — nationwide. Industry giant McDonald's is quietly dabbling in vegetarian options abroad, while Chipotle, the fourth fastest-growing chain in the country, successfully rolled out its first tofu item in 2013.