In 1959, the journalist John Howard Griffin had his skin darkened by a dermatologist and spent six weeks traveling the segregated South to expose racial injustice. He wrote a bestseller and changed the world. Fifty-odd years later, I looked into the kindly eyes of a waiter at Minneapolis’s most elegant white-tablecloth restaurant and tried to answer his well-meaning question: “How long have you been a vegetarian?”
I stammered something about not being a vegetarian, really, just wanting to eat more vegetables. He told me he had been a vegetarian for 20 years, and it was one of the most meaningful and satisfying decisions of his life. He beamed at me, gently. Part of me died.
I had set out to simply eat more vegetables. Instead, was I inadvertently mocking the ethically hard-won, everyday-difficult, heartfelt life choices of good people? Black Like Me and the various exposés that have come after it, such as To Be Fat Like Me and Ex-Gay Like Me (about infiltrating a ministry devoted to converting homosexuals), all succeed because of their serious moral core. Was Leave-Off-the-Scallops-Like-Me a tin-eared, dilettantish mockery?
It didn’t start out with that intent. Like most Americans, I have come around to seeing our cuisine as flawed: Diabetes and obesity threaten half our bodies and all of our economy. The solution seems clear—we need to eat less sugar and more vegetables. But how? I mean really, how do you eat more vegetables, when steak and pork belly are just so darn good? Whenever people have written to me in the past asking how to eat more vegetables, I generally advised to look outside Western cuisine: Eat Thai, Ethiopian, or Indian and you’ll never miss the pork belly. But Western cuisine typically follows a three-part structure of meat, starch, and veg—and when you go down to just starch and veg, the average American starts yearning for charred critters.
But abandoning Western cuisine is no solution, and I’ve long known that three of Minneapolis’s biggest young talents have taken a special interest in vegetables. At La Belle Vie, chef de cuisine Mike DeCamp recently revamped the standard tasting menu, bumping it from a maximum eight to 13 courses, specifically to get some extra vegetable courses on the menu. Landon Schoenefeld at HauteDish is renowned for his Midwestern new comfort foods, with extra gravy, but he devotes every Sunday to an exploration of vegetables. And Adam Vickerman, at Cafe Levain, now offers a three-course prix fixe vegetarian menu three days a week, as well as a parallel meat- or fish-containing menu. What do these ambitious talents have to say about eating more vegetables? I pretended my way through some delightful meals to find out.
La Belle Vie
Minneapolis’s premiere white-tablecloth restaurant may be known for its particular way with pan-roasted poussin and king crab with haricots verts, but the chef for day-to-day operations, Mike DeCamp, actually prefers cooking vegetables than the star proteins most people beeline for. “Steak is steak—don’t get me wrong, I love going to Manny’s as much as anyone, but a steak you can sear, crust, that’s about it. A turnip, that you can really cook. Give me a turnip, I can make it into a sauce, I can sous-vide it, braise it, make chips, dehydrate it, gel it, make it into a marshmallow, use the greens, make edible paper out of the greens—literally, I can list a hundred things to do with a turnip. And there are dozens of types of turnips.”
In fact, when I tried the vegetarian tasting menu at La Belle Vie, there was one course in which I had turnips, and my husband had grilled ribeye with ratatouille, black olive, and basil. The turnip dish was a feat of cooking: tender young turnips cooked gently and served on a bed of puréed king oyster mushrooms made silky and mashed potato–like, while off to one side were fluffy clouds of coconut milk foam, and interleaved between the turnips were single crisp-crunchy leaves from Brussels sprouts and whole roasted king mushroom caps. The flavors played off each other in a unique, wintry, earthy, pure way: As fine sashimi is to fish, this was to vegetables.
And yet I was still a little jealous of my husband’s steak. Can an American ever eat a meal of turnips without feeling like she’s in culinary jail? The next course answered that in the affirmative. My gnocchi with roast golden needle mushrooms was in every way the equal of my husband’s pan-roasted poussin. He had a very fine piece of fowl, but I had something I’d never had before, a crispy fried lace of tiny mushrooms that tasted like some kind of earth bacon; the herbed gnocchi were of course exquisite, light and rich, and the stem lettuce on the plate, cooked for hours sous-vide, in oil and herbs, added another sort of earth dimension. I visited La Belle Vie in the final days before it switched to its longer tasting-meal format, and I can’t think it’s anything but a positive development for leading American cuisine in the right direction. More vegetables necessarily means a little less meat, overall, and a little less starch. Even seeing turnips treated with the fanfare of steak changed me a bit. Out of the root cellar and onto the main stage.
Adam Vickerman offers three-course vegetarian menus on Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, typically for $20. They’re a bargain and a delight. I tried a roast-tomato soup one night that was as good as a pile of Buffalo chicken wings. With its deep tomato flavor, enhanced with puréed peppers and roasted onions, flecked with minute slices of pickled pepper, swirled with chili oil, and served with a rich spoonful of ricotta mounded in the middle, you could, in the way of chicken wings, make every bite different, spicy, creamy, tangy, and so deeply flavored.
A kohlrabi soup was, incredibly, even better, made into a Vermont cheddar fondue and served over a dried fruit compote made with figs, apricots, and cherries. Every dip of the spoon yielded a little treasure; it utterly erased the grim eat-your-veggies specter the name kohlrabi soup conjures and made the exercise something actually gleeful.
The sweet corn polenta topped with just-seared spinach, oyster and shiitake mushrooms, a pair of bright yellow fried eggs, and a scattering of truffled pecorino cheese was incredibly lush, plush, and indulgent—the culinary equivalent of swirling yourself inside a big cashmere throw. Improbably, it was actually better than the less mushroomy and emphatic scallop-topped version that my dinner date had. “We fed the whole dining room on one 10-pound kohlrabi,” Vickerman told me when I called him up to quiz him about the dinner. “I love cooking vegetables. I grew up in a big meat-and-potatoes family, not really eating vegetables, so vegetables are still a new and exciting experience for me. They provide an amazing blank canvas in a way that proteins never can—you can’t purée pork. I think a lot about the future, about being healthy, so a lot of my own meals are vegetable-focused.”
Chef Landon Schoenefeld made his name with his charcuterie, short ribs, fried sweetbreads, and other rich-and-richer dishes that unite Midwestern comfort foods with European nose-to-tail splendor. Except on Sunday nights, when he always serves an all-vegetable menu. “It started when I was reading some thread about myself on the Internet; some guy was saying I was such a jerk and could only cook meat. So I think it actually all grew out of spite. But now we have a big following on Sundays, and I like what it does for the cooks—you have to rely on traditional technique and discipline and be very responsive to what’s fresh and available. It’s good training.”
On a Sunday when I visited, the $30 four-course menu included an exuberant salad of endive, blanched haricots verts that curled all over the plate like party ribbons, peeled and quickly marinated bright cherry tomatoes of many colors, small lemon and grapefruit sections, capers, olives, finely chopped chives, and minced egg, all of which came together like a sort of perky fireworks of zest and zestier.
I was profoundly skeptical of the vegetarian poutine—but it was spectacular. Big planks of french fries were crowned with a perfectly poached egg and served with drizzles of creamy “cheese-wiz” and Tuscan sofrito, really a tangy pickled chopped salad that supercharged every bite, perfectly balancing the rich and creamy flavors.
There was also an astonishing dish of corn five ways (including baby pickled and a lush pudding) with lobster and bear-tooth mushrooms. Schoenefeld may always be known for his meat-based comforts, but the vegetable menu actually made me wish that it were served every night.
I think Schoenefeld’s dishes like bacon-and-blueberry terrine are unequaled, rich and smoky and big, but you actually can taste them more acutely when balanced against vegetables. That may sound like faint praise for vegetables from a slumming—and possibly even insulting—carnivore, but I can honestly tell you that I’d leap at the chance to order that endive salad each and every time I got terrine at HauteDish, forevermore. And if every American could be persuaded to counterbalance every meat with a slightly larger portion of crunchy vegetables, the amount of health and happiness might actually increase, which may not be quite at the level of an improvement in social justice—but might be something very good nonetheless.
Where to Find Them
La Belle Vie:
510 Groveland Ave., Mpls., 612-874-6440, labellevie.us
4762 Chicago Ave. S., Mpls., 612-823-7111, cafelevain.com
119 Washington Ave. N., Mpls., 612-338-8484, haute-dish.com