Vegetarian Dinner at South Beach Wine & Food Festival Reflects Broader Trend

Feb 21, 2013

Tomato, basil and burrata salad at 1500 Degrees restaurant in Miami Beach
Credit Carolina Del Rivero

Nobu's Vegetarian Dinner is the first explicitly vegetarian event at South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Tonight's feast is tied to acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa's 2012 release, "Nobu's Vegetarian Cookbook."

Acclaimed chef Nobu Matsuhisa's latest release, "Nobu's Vegetarian Cookbook"
Credit Random House

The $200-per-seat dinner was one of the first festival events to sell out, according to South Beach Wine & Food Festival organizers. Tonight, as diners indulge in foods like black truffle soba risotto, they likely won't be thinking of what meat was "supposed" to be on the plate. This reflects what seems to be a broader national movement toward plant-based food as gourmet cuisine in its own right and not just as a bland replacement diet.

On an episode of "America's Test Kitchen Radio" last fall, host Christopher Kimball interviewed Yotam Ottolenghi, chef and author of the vegetarian cookbook, "Plenty." Kimball described one perception of vegetarian cooking:

"On one hand, you might say it's vegetarian cooking but in America that usually means, or at least used to mean, classic American dishes with all of the meat taken out."

In contrast, Ottolenghi's book is full of lush photographs of dishes like green bean salad with coriander, mustard seeds and tarragon, gorgeous recipes influenced by Ottolenghi's Mediterranean cooking roots. Just as Nobu's Vegetarian Dinner does not include the word "meatless," the focus in "Plenty" is on the abundance on the plate, not on the meat that's lacking.

There's been the slightest drop in American meat consumption, after an all-time high last decade. And while Americans still eat more meat than almost any country in the world, there seems to be a shift in the zeitgeist toward eating more vegetables, even if we're not eating that much less meat.

A recent spate of cookbooks also appeals to Americans interested in eating more vegetables, and not just those on a vegetarian diet.

Asian peanut salad from a Love and Vegetables vegan dinner event in Miami
Credit Diego Luis/Love and Vegetables

Although it's called "Meatless: More than 200 of the Very Best Vegetarian Recipes," Martha Stewart's newest cookbook is aimed at vegetarians, meat eaters and "flexitarians" who might have incorporated "Meatless Mondays" into their diets. Despite the "meatless" in the title, the cookbook avoids reinventing  meat recipes and focuses on vegetable-forward dishes like smashed chickpea, basil and radish dip with pita chips or raw kale salad with pomegranate and toasted walnuts.

"People evolve," Stewart told Linda Gassenheimer on WLRN's "Topical Currents", "and I've been eating a little less and less meat in my diet for several years now...I like a lighter diet. It's just something I look forward to. I eat a lot of grains and a lot of vegetables...I don't eat a lot of cheese either. I wish I could but I don't."

Chef, author and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's new book "VB6: Vegan Before 6:00" publishes later this spring.
Credit Random House

Cookbooks are also aimed at Americans who face or want to prevent health issues. Chef and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman's forthcoming book, "VB6," centers on his lifestyle of eating vegan food before 6 p.m. In the evenings, he includes dairy and meat if he desires, but in moderation.

Bittman was overweight and in poor health when he started this eating habit, choosing it over diets with forbidden foods or that counted calories. He was also interested in eating a more plant-based diet for environmental reasons.

Bittman reported in an NPR essay that he lost 30 pounds and improved his health while eating "VB6". The book aims to suggest a "flexitarian" lifestyle for those who love all foods but want to incorporate more fruits, vegetables and whole grains into their diets.

Miami is generally a body-conscious--if not necessarily health-conscious place--so some diners here also gravitate to a leaner diet to maintain a good physique. However, many Miami residents also hail from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where at least the most common "soul food" dishes are pretty carb- and meat-heavy. As a Guatemalan cousin of mine once said, "It's not a meal if there's not meat on the plate."

The popular Homestead tomatoes dish at Eating House also includes frozen coconut milk, peanuts, ginger, edible flowers, shoots and petals.
Credit Mario Daviles

Despite this, there seems to be an interest in eating (and drinking) more vegetables locally, with the increase in bulk vegetable-buying clubs, juicing spots, farm-to-table dinners and vegan events like Love & Vegetables, a monthly dinner series. Again, even if people aren't necessarily cutting out meat, they seem to be gravitating towards eating more plants.

South Florida chefs are observing an increased attention to vegetables, too. Giorgio Rapicavoli is a chef at Eating House in Coral Gables:

"Vegetables are the new wild game--from fermentation to aging. Vegetables are the focus of many modern chefs, especially Rene Redzepi, the chef of the number one restaurant in the world, Noma. Not only is he known as the vegetable butcher, but his dedication to wild food and foraging has changed the way of thinking for many chefs."

A delivery of vegetables from Swank Farms in Palm Beach County arrives at 1500 Degrees restaurant.
Credit 1500 Degrees

1500 Degrees at the Eden Roc on Miami Beach is a steakhouse, but public relations representative Larry Carrino notes that the "Local Farmer's Delight" vegetable-and-grains plate is one of their biggest nightly sellers.

Chef Paula DaSilva crafts her menus around seasonal local produce and she notes:

"I think diners are starting to realize that vegetarian dishes can be full of flavor and satisfying. The days of boiled, bland vegetables are over. Chefs are more creative than ever and have taken on the challenge of creating innovative vegetarian dishes.

Also, I believe that society is becoming increasingly health conscious and their dining choices surely reflect it. There is something exciting about knowing that the vegetables on your dinner plate have been picked that day, packaged, and delivered to your local restaurant.

And the immediacy of getting your hands on fresh product, as a chef, keeps me and my chefs on our toes to come up with something new on a daily basis, making sure our diners never get bored."