Cauliflower has been making its way to the center of the plate for nearly a decade, gaining star billing as a low-carb and gluten-free alternative for everything from pizza crust and pasta to beer-battered Buffalo wings.
The novelty has largely worn off as the trend moved from niche to mainstream status, but when it first started gaining traction around 2015, traditionalists raised eyebrows at the idea of replacing beloved comfort foods with a cruciferous vegetable known more for being overlooked on crudités platters. The notion of turning cauliflower into a substitute for familiar favorites seemed audacious and even laughable to some.
Paul Pszybylski, senior director of culinary development at California Pizza Kitchen, saw that dynamic unfold when the company became the first national restaurant brand to introduce a cauliflower pizza crust five years ago.
“When we first introduced cauliflower crust in the LA market, a local news channel covered the story,” he says. “The reporter’s initial reaction was rather skeptical, but the following day, we delivered 25 cauliflower crust pizzas to the news station so the team could experience it firsthand. After trying it, the reporter tweeted a retraction of his initial doubts and urged everyone to visit California Pizza Kitchen and try it for themselves.”
The momentum only picked up from there, and it isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Spicy Cauliflower Buffalo has become one of the chain’s most popular appetizers, and cauliflower crust accounts for about 15 percent of pizza sales at some of the chain’s top restaurants.
“Other crust options like chickpea, zucchini, and broccolini have a bit of a stronger taste, but cauliflower works well with everything,” Pszybylski says. “That is why the product has performed so well and why we continue to make it a top priority for our marketing team…. We believe it will continue to climb in overall sales mix as more guests have the opportunity to try it.”
Menu innovation at gourmet burger chain Black Tap is guided by corporate executive chef Stephen Parker, who aims to “throw a nod back to old-school New York City luncheonettes” while “making everything interesting” and “sticking with the times.” To that end, the NextGen Casual chain last year introduced a Crispy Cauliflower Burger as an alternative to both conventional burgers as well as highly processed meat analogs.
“Everyone’s doing these fake, processed, soy-based burgers,” Parker says. “I’m not really about that. I wanted to come up with something we made ourselves—a real plant-based item that came as a burger and didn’t have all of these fillers and engineered ingredients.”
The burger starts with a combination of cauliflower and corn that is tossed in Old Bay seasoning and seared on the griddle, then combined with powdered potato chips, serrano chiles, and potato starch. The mix is cut into six-ounce patties that are trudged in big-sized potato chips, fried, and served with corn salsa, pickled onions, cilantro, and avocado jalapeño crema.
Parker says cauliflower has several attributes that make it an ideal canvas for burgers and other creative uses. Along with the neutral flavor and health halo, it gets a good caramelization on the surface when it’s cooked raw, and it doesn’t become mush immediately when it’s fried.
“I’m always looking for texture and crunches, whether that’s a salad, a burger, or a chicken sandwich,” Parker says. “That’s one of the things cauliflower really brings to the table.”
Black Tap debuted the item at its stores in Switzerland last year before bringing it stateside. It’s sold in Las Vegas, Dallas, and Nashville, Tennessee, and will launch at the flagship store in New York later this year. So far, the company has sold more of the vegan burger in Nashville than anywhere else.
“That’s pretty interesting, because you’re in a town that’s known for hot chicken, smoked turkey, and dry rub wings,” Parker says. “We don’t look for these type of things to be blockbusters, but we’re happy enough that in a market like Nashville this cauliflower burger is really competing with a chicken option and with smaller burger options, and it’s not in the bottom of the barrel when you’re referring to velocity and sales mix.”
Connie Chung experimented with several vegetables when developing the menu at Milu, a casual Chinese restaurant that recently opened its second location in New York. The co-founder and chef tested an eggplant dish before landing on Sichuan Spiced Cauliflower for the restaurant’s vegetarian entree.
“The execution of the eggplant was dicey,” Chung says. “It’s a slightly less forgiving vegetable in a large scale sense. Not only was the cauliflower more forgiving, but I also think it’s more mass appealing. It lends itself to being heartier and meatier. It retains its texture as it cooks in a way that a lot of other vegetables don’t.”
While Sichuan Spiced Cauliflower sells well for a vegetarian item, Milu is seeing even greater demand for other dishes starring cruciferous vegetables, with both the Charred Broccoli and Watercress Cilantro Salad ranking among the restaurant’s most popular items.
A surprise standout is the meat-free wonton made with broccoli and cremini mushroom. Chung says a vegetarian option typically sells about a quarter of what a meat option sells, but at Milu, the vegetarian wonton sells at approximately three-quarters the rate of the pork wonton.
“That’s pretty impressive for the vegetarian version to be selling almost as much as the meat version,” she says. “It makes me think about when I was younger and I’d see a vegetarian option and say, ‘I’m not going to order that because I know it’s not going to be as good.’ Nowadays, it’s not a turnoff like that for people anymore. If anything, it’s a nice perk.”