The Vegetable Renaissance
If you haven’t noticed that we are experiencing something akin to a vegetable renaissance in restaurants as of late, that’s alright. In fact, that’s kind of the point. Slow and steady, hiding in plain sight, vegetables have been pushing the meat off of our plates, and this year, we have watched them take centre stage at home and in restaurants. So gradual and natural has this shift been, you likely didn’t even notice it happening. The next time you go out to eat, make a point of studying the artful vegetables on offer — chances are, they have taken a starring role on your plate.
This isn’t news to Briana Kim, the chef and owner of the small, contemporary, vegetable- focused restaurant, Café My House, located on Wellington Street in Hintonburg. For the past seven years, Kim has dedicated herself to working exclusively with vegetables, but is quick to point out that the word vegan doesn’t appear anywhere on the menu, despite it being the nature of her cuisine. She may very well be ahead of the curve — one of the many chefs currently embracing vegetables as the focus of their dishes. While consumers might not be noticing the way our plates are changing, food publications and restaurant analysts sure are. Bon Appetit magazine and the James Beard Foundation, among others, have noted the surging popularity of vegetable-focused menus and vegetables as king.
Review any menu in Ottawa, including the one at Kim’s Café My House, and consider the way vegetables are changing the landscape of the plate. Chances are the portion of meat on your plate is becoming smaller and playing a supporting role — perhaps served as a side dish or maybe even a garnish. Consider the methods of preparation — those that have long been reserved for meat are now seeping into contemporary vegetable cuisine. Carrots and parsnips are deeply braised, leeks and corn carefully smoked, mushrooms assertively seared. Turnips and celeriac are brined before grilling, cauliflower charred by rotisserie, tomatoes served as carpaccio, and beets prepared gravlax-style. And continuing, a simple presentation of vegetables is now a noble and noteworthy main course, as showcased by Kim’s edible garden box — seasonal vegetables prepared seven ways (roasted, dehydrated, sous vide, poached, fried, pickled, fermented) or The Whalesbone’s fried cauliflower (literally, a whole head of cauliflower), with cauliflower purée, drunken raisins, toasted almonds and Grana Padano au gratin. Remember nose-totail? Get ready for root-to-stem cooking.
As you might imagine, this trend towards vegetable-focused menus makes Kim very happy. “When I started Café My House, I really felt that a lot of chefs considered vegan or vegetarian food as side dishes,” says Kim. “Sometimes I felt like other chefs were less interested in what we were doing, because it was vegetarian. It’s exciting to see the way that things are changing.”
Kim’s dishes are certainly leading the charge for creative vegetable cuisine in Ottawa — don’t expect run-of-the-mill, clunky vegan food here. Her dishes are painstakingly executed, thoughtfully composed, artfully plated. She plays with science and art interchangeably; at once you can be marvelling at fermented honey, dehydrated nuts, sous-vide potato or house-smoked salt, while revelling in her wild, bright colours and sophisticated plated composition. For the adventurous eater, Kim offers tasting menus in five-, nine- and 12-course options, complete with wine pairings.
With a highly technical, mad-scientist-style of execution, it is no surprise that Kim teamed up with Ottawa’s reigning gastronomy wizard chef Marc Lepine of Atelier in early 2016 for an edition of Union Local 613’s Supper Club. The monthly gathering features a rotating cast of chefs, occasionally working in pairs, who present a tasting menu showcasing exceptional bites and playful pairings. Kim and Lepine served an ambitious 24-course menu, including dishes like pickled radish and olive soil, beet jerky, foie gras cotton candy and fizzy grapes.
For Kim, working with Lepine was a natural fit. “He has been a great mentor, and a chef that I highly respect,” says Kim. “His food is all about art and science and I definitely relate to that. For instance, the night of the Supper Club, Marc made a watermelon and vodka sphere and I made a carrot yolk. They looked really similar. Our approach and philosophy on food are aligned.” Together, the chefs presented a playful, whimsical and slightly outof- this-world menu that just so happened to be mostly vegetarian. “I don’t think the guests even realized that there were only a few meat dishes on the menu.”
At Café My House, Kim welcomes this confusion, noting that customers will often forget they are dining at a vegan restaurant. She makes a point of not overtly indicating that dishes are vegan on her menu, just as she did at the Supper Club gathering, and largely avoids mimicking meat — an easy fall back for vegan and vegetarian fare. Kim revels in creating a space that offers whimsy, playfulness and a little bit of magic and that doesn’t leave you feeling like you only had vegetables for dinner.
“We want people to join us with open minds,” says Kim. “We want the experience to be consuming. We don’t feel the need to remind our guests constantly that they are eating vegan food. We are just trying to showcase what is possible with vegetables without being heavy-handed, while defying expectations.”
Kim might avoid labeling Café My House as a vegan restaurant, but she is endlessly enthusiastic about vegetable-heavy menus and the fact that an increasing number of top chefs are gravitating towards them. “Did you hear about Noma?” Kim asks. She is speaking of René Redzepi’s infamous Copenhagen restaurant that led the charge in ultra-regional, seasonal and foraged food. “They are closing their doors at the end of 2016, and when they reopen at their new location in 2017, their spring and summer menu will be exclusively vegetarian.” Many other well-known restaurants are following suit, or, as in Kim’s case, staying the course. In 2015, Bon Appetit magazine named San Francisco’s vegetable-focused Al’s Place — a 46-seat, market-driven restaurant that lists meat as a side on its menu — restaurant of the year.
Closer to home, Montreal’s Le Vin Papillion, owned by David McMillan and Fred Morin of Joe Beef notoriety, boasts a vegetable- heavy menu during hot growing seasons, with animal protein taking a back seat.
So why are vegetables dominating our plates? The shift didn’t happen overnight. Nearly a decade after Michael Pollan first published his iconic nutritional mantra in his book, In Defense of Food —“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” — it is clear that we are now listening. Over the past few years, we have observed the meteoric rise of farm-to-table-focused menus in restaurants, to the point that they have become expected of any chef worth their salt. For chefs and home cooks, sourcing sustainably and managing food waste and cost has never been more important. Health-focused diets are at the forefront of food trends and it’s no secret that eating less meat is better for us. Perhaps more than ever before, we are committed to knowing where our food comes from, who grows it, what it does to our environment, and what it does to our bodies. We are demanding that our food meet these criteria, but not at the cost of flavour. We still want big flavours and seasonal menus, diverse methods of preparation, creativity and whim. And vegetables are clearly delivering in a big way.
While quietly revelling in this vegetable mania, it’s clear that Kim’s acute focus is unwavering. She has big plans for Café My House this year — elaborate tasting menus, a developed wine program, more adventurous methods of preparation and additional chef collaborations. Having recently celebrated her seventh year in business, she speaks dreamily, but resolutely, about her dream kitchen, dining room and restaurant garden. Sure food trends come and go, but Kim has her roots firmly planted in her vision of a magical, playful and exciting restaurant — vegetable-focused, of course.
Café My House
1015 Wellington St. W., Ottawa, Ont.