It's weird how hard you have to try to not eat a lot of meat. Your French toast comes with a side of bacon; chicken is dumped on your salad; protein is the first dinner item you consider when shopping and the only one when pairing wine. Raising, slaughtering and butchering animals might be a lot of work, but eating meat is supereasy these days. According to one academic's crunching of U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the average American over a lifetime consumes 21,000 animals many, I presume, kind of by accident.
Some chefs are trying to lower that number. Not by making their restaurants vegetarian but by reducing the role of protein to what it had been before it got so damn cheap. Houses and cars cost 14 times what they did 50 years ago, while the price of chicken hasn't even doubled, because factory farming has become so efficient. That helps explain why we eat 150 times as many chickens a year as we did 80 years ago. "I grew up on a farm in Austria. We had meat once a week. A Wiener schnitzel was a special-occasion thing," says Spago's Wolfgang Puck. Puck is not the only big-name chef alarmed by our current state of carnivorous gluttony. "I don't understand how it's cheaper to buy a whole steak at the Price Club than spinach," says José Andrés, the acclaimed Spanish chef who has restaurants in Los Angeles and Washington. "How did that happen?"
The reason Andrés, Puck and others are moving animal protein away from the center of the plate isn't just that doing so benefits our health and the environment (meat production creates a lot of greenhouse gases); it's also that a big hunk of meat can be boring to cook and boring to eat. "I've always been the kind of guy who, after four bites of a big steak, I'm tired of it," says Mario Batali, whose new cookbook, Molto Gusto, argues for the use of meat almost as a spice, cut into small pieces in pastas, pizzas, rice dishes and vegetables.
All 15 of Batali's restaurants serve extra vegetarian options on Meatless Monday, an offshoot of the partial-vegetarianism movement that is spreading across the country (see story on page 53); he's also getting ready to open a small vegetarian restaurant in New York City.
While Mediterranean (as well as Asian) cooking is inherently less meat-focused than American cuisine, Batali says he's had no trouble getting his customers to change their thinking. "When ramps come in, more than half of our customers order pasta with ramps. We've been able to train them to appreciate it," he says of the wild leek that in recent years has become an early-spring favorite among foodies. "If we can make customers appreciate the fleeting nature of vegetables, they may jump on vegetables more quickly."
In addition to talking up their nonmeat ingredients, some chefs are using small-plate dining, with more courses, to avoid filling one big plate with meat. "Our protein portions are smaller than those of restaurants like this 10 years ago," says Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield's in Los Angeles. "The hard part of that is when someone says, 'I'll have the halibut,' and it's not a 6-oz. portion of halibut it's a 4-oz. piece. That can be hard."
But it's starting to get easier. At Andrés' Los Angeles tapas restaurant, the Bazaar, two of his five best-selling items are spinach and asparagus. "I love meat, but it's boring," says Andrés, who is no vegetarian. This is a guy who likes to eat baby pigs and tiny lambs. "Our brain, our body craves fat. We cannot help it. That's why a kid will eat a hot dog quicker than a piece of broccoli."