As the trend to reduce meat consumption gains traction with more consumers, chefs are focusing on plant-based dishes and menus that cater to vegetarian preferences. In some rare cases, the chefs have taken it a step further, eliminating all animal products, including dairy as well as the obvious proteins, to offer service as a vegan-friendly restaurant.
While the menu might be well received, the term vegan rarely resonates across multiple demographics. Be wary of calling everything vegan, says Aaron Adams, chef/owner of Farm Spirit in Portland, Oregon, where he’s found that terms like plant-based or vegetable-forward are far more approachable. These are the adjectives he uses when describing his 14-seat, fine-dining, meatless and dairy-free restaurant.
Since opening in June 2015, Chef Adams has received numerous accolades, showing the public that you don’t always need meat, butter, or other dairy products to produce a great meal. For 12 years, Adams has eaten this way himself—a decision he made after seeing slaughterhouses first-hand and learning more about commercial animal and dairy production in the U.S.
In becoming a vegan chef, he has also found an incredible creative outlet in cooking with vegetables, and—contrary to popular thinking—he has actually saved on food costs. Using vegetables exclusively from area farmers markets and farmers, Chef Adams has been able to keep his food costs at an average of just 16.5 percent, while keeping the restaurant’s average check at around $75. The restaurant serves a multi-course prix fixe menu, $60 to $80 per person, and requires reservations and ticket purchases in advance of the seatings, enabling the restaurant to operate with a predictable flow of revenue. In another forward-thinking move, gratuities are not accepted.
Easing Into Veggie-Forward
“I have had some pretty terrible vegan meals, with fake meat, so we like to present the restaurant as more vegetable-forward, rather than freak people out by calling things vegan,” Adams says. “I’m not going to scare people or yell at people for eating meat. I just try to help our guests experience other ways to eat using completely local and seasonal produce.” In fact, he sources everything from less than 100 miles away except for some sugar and spices.
Unlike some vegan restaurants, Adams also eschews the use of cashew cream, a common vegan ingredient used to re-create cheese and cream, in favor of using local hazelnuts. He takes a less traditional approach toward menu development, trying instead to imagine the time in his region of the Pacific Northwest when people ate mostly indigenous plants and vegetables.
To introduce the umami taste that meat-eaters prefer, he uses fermentation to add what he describes as depth of flavor and funk to his vegetable dishes. For instance, Chef Adams takes hakori turnips, splits them, and covers them with brine to ferment for a couple of weeks before making a purée for use in different dishes.
He has also fermented beets using a salt solution and spices in the same vein as kvass, a fermented beet beverage enjoyed in Eastern Europe. The kvass is used as a rich vegetable stock when combined with mirepoix or as a filtered, consommé-like liquid poured gently in a large bowl with Swiss chard leaves compressed in hazelnut oil, house-made hazelnut milk yogurt, apples, and celery.
For another umami-rich, fermented ingredient, Adams makes a rejuvelac using sprouted quinoa or sunflower seeds. He pours filtered water over the seeds, allowing them to soak at room temperature for a few days, and then makes a puréed sauce out of that, layering it out on acetate sheets. He then dehydrates and crumbles the purée to re-create a crumbled Parmesan or other aged cheese, for use atop dumplings and other dishes.
For a pre-dinner snack, Chef Adams has made crunchy kohlrabi tacos, filling the slices with the stem that’s been cooked with walnuts and topped with a cultured papita cream and cilantro flowers. For the cream, he purées pumpkin seeds with a touch of filtered water, adding a little salt and the same live yogurt culture he uses for the hazelnut milk yogurt. He brings the purée to 110 degrees and holds it there for one to two days until cultured.
Adams even uses vegetables in sweeter dishes, in the form of carrot ice cream using house-made hazelnut milk and garnished with hazelnut cookie crumble for crunch, and a swath of black garlic to inspire the taste of a dark chocolate ganache.
While vegan may be a difficult term for the masses to swallow, Chef Adams is optimistic about the future: “As dining becomes more vegetable-focused throughout the country, I think you ‘re going to see more restaurants like mine gaining more prominence and chefs refining their repertoire of techniques,” Adams says. “I think we’re definitely the way of the future.”