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Omnivore - Does it have to include meat to be creative?

The continuing second-class status of vegetarian cuisine.

Why can't you get a creative meatless entree in most Atlanta restaurants?

I'm not saying many restaurants don't offer vegetarian options, but the typical one usually appears to be an afterthought, something added to the menu to placate the whining hippies. Even very talented chefs often seem to think it's adequate to offer an entree-sized salad or a plate of veggies to satisfy diners who don't eat meat. And of course there's pasta. But, generally,  only one or two vegetarian entrees are offered.

You need only visit Dynamic Dish to understand that meatless cuisine can be as creative as any other. Meat is really not essential to an excellent meal — not nutritionally and not taste-wise.

Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer in the UK, recently took this subject up. He offers a couple of explanations:

The conventional wisdom in the catering industry is that there would be more vegetarian restaurants and vegetarian options if chefs and restaurateurs saw a financial incentive in it. After all, they are businesses, not social services. That said, there has long been the suspicion that European chefs, schooled in the animal protein-based French classical tradition, were using this as an excuse so they would not have to engage with something they didn't understand.

But Ezra Klein of the Washington Post disputes the economic explanation and thinks it has more to do with tradition. He quotes a D.C. chef:  "The issue here is this: For better or worse, we in the cooking biz use meat products to express our thoughts and skills and feelings about food."

Klein goes on to say this:

I might even say it more kindly: It's easy to offer vegetarian food at a Mexican place or a Spanish place or a pizza place or an Indian place because vegetarian food is a more organic part of those traditions. You're not creating a "vegetarian entree." You're serving a Margherita pizza, or chana paneer. But if you're working from a restaurant that's more in the French tradition, you really have to work to figure out a vegetarian plate that feels natural fitting into the protein-with-sides formula. No one wants to make "vegetarian food" any more than they want to make gluten-free food. But if there are dishes they like to eat and think it profitable to make that don't include meat, well, that's a different issue.

Both blog posts are good reads. Check them out.

(Photo of David Sweeney, chef-owner of Dynamic Dish, by Cliff Bostock)