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RYAN Clift remembers first trying to take meat off the menu at his farm-themed restaurant Open Farm Community when it opened last July.
"People complained," sighs the chef-owner of progressive restaurant Tippling Club. "They would say, 'ugh, no meat?'. We can't even go fully pescatarian either."
While he doesn't think there's a "big enough market for a purely vegetarian restaurant in Singapore, especially at the fine dining level", Clift and chefs like him have been consistently championing the notion that vegetables can be just as satisfying a main course as the most delectably prepared wagyu steak or Iberico pork fillet.
They have since paved a renaissance for greens, as healthier lifestyles and a growing environmental consciousness attest to a growing interest in meatless mains.
But it's still pretty slow moving, feels Ivan Brehm, head chef of Bacchanalia. "Most of the requests for vegetarian meals are health or morality based, but it's not till people start seeing true pleasure in veggies that the industry as a whole will shift," he explains. "No one wants to spend money eating at a top restaurant because it's healthy or good for the planet; people want to crave the experience."
Tippling Club and Saint Pierre were the first fine dining restaurants in Singapore to dabble in haute vegetarian cuisine in 2008 and 2009 respectively. It was a nod to what was happening in Europe, where Alain Passard first shocked diners by removing meat from his menu after mad cow disease threatened the French livestock industry. After initial resistance from diners, his vegetable menu became a hit. It set the stage for more chefs in the Western Hemisphere - especially environmentally conscious ones, to turn the spotlight on vegetables. Notable names include Pascal Barbot, Raymond Blanc, Simon Rogan and of course Rene Redzepi.
In Singapore, apart from Chinese or Indian vegetarian food, vegetables in fine dining were always expected to play second fiddle to meat. And if a customer happened to be vegetarian, they would have few options beyond salad. But there's no excuse for high-end eateries to whip up a makeshift salad for such diners, says chef Clift. "Diners shouldn't pay fine dining prices for something you took five minutes to make."
For him, putting the spotlight on vegetables almost eight years ago was more of a passion project back then. declares chef Clift. Now, up to a third of his customers request it. It's the same at Saint Pierre, where chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant's vegetarian "Nature" menu accounts for 30 per cent of sales at his newly reopened flagship at One Fullerton. The menu finds favour with professionals over 35, vegetarian Indian expatriates, or even regulars looking for variety.
In the past three years, meatless cuisine has been gaining traction. Julien Royer of Jaan launched his "Jardin Gourmand" menu in 2013 (which he still offers at his new venture, Odette). In 2014, all-vegetarian restaurant Joie opened at Orchard Central.
This year, 14-year-old Si Chuan Dou Hua Restaurant offered a month-long vegetarian menu, selling some 500 sets within the month. It has since added meatless items to the permanent menu, with plans to promote vegetarian tasting menus twice yearly.
Upscale restaurant chefs are also putting vegetables in a new light. Chef Clift builds his dishes around greens with "just small little bits of protein." It's the same with chef Stroobant: "Even if the vegetables are not the highlight, we will start with them first, then add proteins to complement."
It's a reflection of changing tastes, adds chef Stroobant: "Our diners face high stress levels at work, and they keep healthy by eating well and exercising, but they also want food which can impress their guests."
Vegetarian dishes can be more exciting than their meaty counterparts, what with the array of produce available these days, says Jaan's current head chef, Kirk Westaway. He gets inspiration from his suppliers' extensive catalogues of listed produce: "It used to be two to three A4 sheets worth of options, now it's a book of 50 pages," he enthuses, while raving about the 20 different kinds of cauliflower at his disposal.
However, orders for Jaan's meatless menus remain erratic, averaging four orders daily. "People still think they need a chunk of steak and thick potatoes to fill them up, but they should be adventurous and try the vegetarian menu just once," he says. "You'll feel the difference - you're not heavy and weighted down, and you experience what vegetables should taste like when they are top-notch and speak for themselves."
While Jaan sticks to its guns with an all-vegetable menu, others like French restaurant Olivia Cassivelaun Fancourt (OCF) has done away with them. Two years back, OCF offered a vegetable-centric spread at S$148++, but has since integrated the dishes into their regular menus.
"The market back then wasn't ready to pay for a full vegetarian menu at those prices," says executive chef Jonathan Koh. Even so, he loves the novelty of working with vegetables: "It's an art and much more arduous than cooking a piece of good steak." That's why vegetarian dishes remain part of his repertoire, including La Tomate (tomatoes done seven ways).
Still recent developments look promising: all-vegetarian restaurant Joie which opened around two years ago at Orchard Central is still going strong, serving fusion fare which draws from Chinese and Japanese cuisines, with touches of the avant garde. Dishes feature premium Chinese ingredients like the Monkey Head mushroom.
Joie's founder Huang Yen Kun admits that the first few months were challenging, but it went from being just 30 per cent full to 70 per cent after half a year. The restaurant has since broken even on its S$1 million investment. It's integral to keep prices low, he explains, so even though his dishes are conceptually on par with fine dining establishments, six to seven course menus are priced at just S$38.80 and S$68.80.
Likewise, Si Chuan Dou Hua keeps their price-points low; their recent collaboration with Taipei's Yangming Spring Green Kitchen offered meatless menus at S$68 and S$88.
Apart from pricing, Chinese vegetarian fine-dining faces its own unique challenges, says Linda Loke, its director of restaurants. "There's a stigma that it's based on unhealthy mock meats, that flavours are intensely herbal, and Chinese diners also tend towards premium meats and seafood when they eat out."
The risks paid off, however; the menu was a hit, and popular dishes are now part of the regular menu. "Traditional Chinese cuisine has a lot to offer the world in terms of cooking techniques, not to mention the range of herbs and spices," says Ms Loke. "We want to show that Chinese vegetarian food can be exciting and well-presented."
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