FROM Burger King’s Impossible whoppers to Dunkin’ Beyond Meat sausage breakfast sandwiches, fast food may drive the conversation when it comes to a meatless future. But a quieter revolution is happening at the highest ends of the restaurant world: The number of courses that highlight beef, pork, lamb, and poultry are dwindling at places where a $200 tasting menu is a bargain.
The reasons vary from political to personal. New York’s recent foie gras ban, and a similar one upheld by the Supreme Court of California, are leading to the disappearance of the luxurious goose and duck liver — a fine dining fixture and lightning rod for animal welfare advocates — from cities with a high concentration of tasting menus. Also, chefs are eating more healthfully and thoughtfully and don’t want their customers to be crushed with heavy proteins at the end of a meal. (Seafood, perceived to be less environmentally damaging than cows and pigs, is still in play for most elite chefs.)
The American public’s inexorable move away from traditional meat and dairy is happening at all ends of the dining spectrum. In a 2018 survey by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, two-thirds of Americans report cutting back on meat. From April 2017 to July 2019, plant-based food sales grew approximately 31%, to $4.5 billion. They’re projected to increase to $6.5 billion by 2023. In 2018, 51% of chefs in the US said they’d added vegan items to their menus.
Consider this movement the “trickle-up” effect. At fine dining restaurants, where meats such as imported Japanese beef and game like antelope and boar were invariably the drum-rolled entree, diners might now find well-dressed mushrooms and roots. New values are changing what’s considered a luxury when it comes to dining.
ENTER THE MICHELIN STAR CHEFS
In November, Dominique Crenn announced that her three Bay Area restaurants would be meat-free, as would her upcoming café Boutique Crenn. The chef, who describes herself as “not a vegetarian, but a climate change activist,” isn’t a fake meat fan. Instead, at her three-star Atelier Crenn she offers such plates as sole with oyster bearnaise in tasting menus that start at $345 per person. The more laid-back Petit Crenn features the French sausage boudin, made not with pork but with squid ink to give the dish a dark, briny taste.
“People are shifting. The biggest dairy company [Dean Foods Co.] just filed for bankruptcy. Ten years ago, people wouldn’t have heard me. Now no one even asks for meat,” she says.
Seafood has also become the focus of William Bradley’s 10-course, $270 tasting menu at the Addison in San Diego. The chef saw an opportunity to make the menu reflect his own healthier, more environmentally thoughtful eating habits when his restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in June. He replaced an entree of côte de boeuf and braised short ribs with a caramelized cod dressed with miso, bonito butter, and a caviar garnish.
“Multicourse tasting menus can have 2,500 calories that you consume in three hours,” Bradley says. “I wanted to lighten that up.”
The chef’s seasonal menu currently includes a barbecued pigeon course — and the option of a wagyu beef — but neither is the dish his audience is most excited about. “People freak out more about the wild cod than they do about anything else,” he says.
CLASSICS GO VEGETARIAN
At Maude, in Beverly Hills, executive chef Chris Flint reimagines classics like Australian meat pies through a vegetarian lens with the offerings on his menu, which changes quarterly.
“This trend [toward vegetarianism] has developed among a broader audience due to increased awareness about the environmental impact of commodity proteins,” he says. Although he includes one or two meat courses, Flint leans into produce, crafting terrines from carrots and tossing pasta with a ragu made from fermented vegetables rather than beef.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten was a plant-based food advocate long before he opened the destination vegan spot ABCV in downtown New York in 2016. In mid-July he added a vegetarian menu at his eponymous restaurant, responding to demand from customers.
“Ten courses of protein, it’s a lot,” he says. Vongerichten makes elegant kebabs of oven-dried fruit and Brussels sprouts, and caramelizes mushrooms with honey and coconut butter. In January he’ll add juice pairings, such as celery with green peppercorn, that amplify the menu’s vegetable forwardness; kombucha will also be available. Since he introduced the meatless option, Vongerichten has seen demand for his vegetable tasting menu increase from 15% to about 35% at dinner; at lunch, 40%-45% of diners order the non-meat menu.
PORK PLACE EMBRACES VEG
Meat is also in retreat at places where it was foundational. At the Publican, a renowned gastropub in Chicago with pictures of pigs hung around the dining room, pork was the perennial star — but no longer.
“When we opened the Publican, it was all about pork, beer, and oysters. But over the course of the last decade, we cut back on meat,” says co-owner Paul Kahan. At brunch, the meat-free Greens and Grains has become a surprise bestseller.
“The trend for us seems to be that people still want to eat meat, but they want more vegetable options to balance out their meal,” adds Kim Leali, the group’s culinary operations director.
NO MEAT IS A MISS
Still, not all elite restaurants turned their back on meat. Laurent Gras, chef at the elite Saison in San Francisco, has cut back on land-based protein since taking over the kitchen in 2018, replacing quail with a Santa Barbara spot prawn. But he still serves a venison course on the $298 tasting menu; he has no plans to go meat-free like Crenn has.
“Not to have meat on a long menu is a miss. It’s a limitation of the whole experience,” he says. Gras’s audience backs that up. He says about 50% of his guests order the $60 wagyu supplement. — Bloomberg