Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Going beyond vegetarianism
Eleven Madison Park, one of America‘s most revered restaurants re-opens on June 10. This is not so surprising because much of New York city is due to re-open around then. What’s unusual is that it will re-open with an entirely plant-based menu. So no meat, no chicken, no butter, no milk, no cheese, no cream and no fish.(There may be tiny concessions with tea and coffee though.)
Eleven Madison Park (EMP) has been voted the world’s best restaurant and more significantly, has had three Michelin stars for a decade now. Its chef, Daniel Humm, is probably the most respected chef in America today and is famous for such dishes as his Duck in Lavender. That and many of his other signature dishes will now be off the menu.
I asked Humm what had led to this drastic change. He said that the journey he had embarked on during the Pandemic had changed him as a person and radically altered his view of life.
Humm transformed EMP into a soup kitchen during the Pandemic and spent months on the frontlines selflessly helping and feeding those in need.
When finally, it was time to go back to EMP, he found it could not be business as usual.
He had decided that restaurants needed to be more rooted in the community and more responsible in their approach. He believed that the meat industry was not sustainable. A plant-based menu was best for the planet.
He knew, he wrote on Instagram , that this was a risky thing to do: “At times, I am up in the middle of the night thinking about the risk we are taking, abandoning dishes that once defined us.” But, he added, “It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a real connection to the community.”
Opinions are divided within foodie circles over whether Humm can pull it off. No chef at his level has ever attempted anything like this before. The only real parallel is with Alain Passard, the French chef who first announced that he was taking meat off his menu. But Passard has kept using animal products, never gave up on fish and in recent times, meat has sometimes crept back on the menu. (San Francisco’s Dominique Crenn has also moved away from meat but has not attempted anything as radical as what Humm is planning.)
Passard is one of the world’s greatest chefs but his decision to focus on vegetables was not based on concerns about sustainability. It was more in the nature of a culinary choice and when I interviewed him a decade ago (when his decision still made news), he spoke about his love for vegetables (like many French chefs, he had a particular attachment to petit pois, young, fresh, peas) and how much better his plates looked now that he could make them colourful with a variety of vegetables.
Humm, like Passard, has long been fascinated by vegetables. He was already well-respected (EMP had held three stars for four years) when he created the dish that signalled the beginning of his own (now widely imitated) style of stripping away the fripperies of a dish and focusing on its essence. He took the classic French technique of poaching an ingredient in a pig’s bladder, but instead of the chicken that such influential chefs as Paul Bocuse had used, he poached a celery root and served it with black truffle. The dish derived its power from its essential simplicity and, slightly confusingly, also from the complex interplay of flavours.
That dish defined EMP’s (and Humm’s) style and he has used that approach ever since. When Humm came to India, three years ago, he travelled around the country and was fascinated by our vegetarian flavours. He went back to New York and put his take on a tomato dosa on the menu. He was also fascinated by rasmalai.
“It was one of the many dishes that we ended up speaking about for weeks and months when we got back” he wrote to me from New York.
“It inspired us to rethink our ice-cream for this dish, caramelizing the milk and creating a texture that is more akin to Kulfi than our traditional ice-cream.” That dish ended up on the EMP menu.
It would be nice to think that Humm’s way with vegetables led to this transformation in the EMP menu. And while there is no doubt that he sees possibilities in vegetarian ingredients that other chefs do not, I don’t think his decision was, like Passard’s , a simple culinary choice. It went much deeper than that.
Before the pandemic struck he had parted ways with his business partner Will Guidara and was in the process of dismantling the empire the two of them had created, selling his shares in the NoMad restaurants and hotels. When I met him in London at Davies and Brook ,the brilliant new restaurant he created at the Claridge’s Hotel, last year, he said that he was questioning his priorities. “I don’t care about making lots of money,” he said. And he seemed uncertain about haute cuisine itself: did it really have a place in today’s world?
Even so, going plant-based (Humm does not use the word ‘vegan’ much perhaps because he thinks it can sound a little preachy) is an astonishing statement of belief. Essentially Humm is risking 15 years of success at one of the world’s greatest restaurants because of a larger belief. I think he will pull it off, even if others are not sure. And I believe he will set a welcome trend.
For us in India, the decision of chefs like Humm to go vegan raises important questions. For some reason, the majority of Indian billionaires (and possibly, even millionaires) are vegetarians. This means that at nearly all of the world’s great restaurants, there are always Indian guests asking about vegetarian dishes.
Most Indian vegetarians are motivated by religious beliefs. Others have been brought up vegetarian so the idea of eating meat repels them even if they can overcome their religious objections.
This is a moral case for vegetarianism but it is essentially rooted in the idea that plants have no life. And that even if they do, it is a lesser form of life. Besides, even the production of vegetarian food (grain, vegetables etc.) involves killing millions of other living creatures through the use of pesticides and other parts of the farming process. Moreover, you are willing to use Flit or Hit at home then how self-righteous can you get about loss of life?
The case for veganism however, is not based on the same moral distinctions. It is based on a fact of life: the planet is in deep trouble. The more we rear animals for food, the more we add to the crisis. According to this argument, a guy who eats beef is not much better than a person who drinks milk, eats dahi or has food cooked in ghee or butter. All of those things involve rearing cows --- which is the real problem.
In America and in the rest of the West, it is veganism (the eschewing of all animal products) that is fast emerging as a dominant ideology. Old style vegetarianism is no longer as popular. At Alain Passard’s Paris restaurant, for instance, there is no problem with serving butter or cheese. This makes Passard popular with Indians. But a vegan would refuse to eat many of the dishes on his menu.
I am sceptical about veganism taking off in Passard’s Paris or anywhere else in France, for that matter. On the other hand, though we think of America as a meat-and-potatoes country, veganism has taken off so fast that even fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald’s now have to offer vegan options.
The surge towards veganism has led to a surge in plant-based meat-substitutes. Over two years ago I wrote about tasting such options as Impossible Meats, which makes vegan burger patties from vegan ingredients (peas, beetroot, etc.). At that time I was not sure how popular these would be in India. They appealed, I said, to people who liked meat but had given it up for ethical reasons.
Since then the quality of these products has dramatically improved and I am informed by Prateek Tekwani who imports these vegetarian ‘meats’ through his company Yumzo that demand has picked up and their popularity, even among traditional vegetarians, is on the rise.
So, who knows? Humm’s decision to go plant-based has shaken up the global restaurant world. Perhaps that change will slowly make it way to India as well.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, May 16, 2021
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