Where's The Beet?

How big-name chefs are shrinking their customers' carnivore quota

  • Tom Schierlitz for TIME

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    Andrés, however, wants to help American palates grow up. "Pure flavor to pure flavor, I'm sorry, but brussels sprouts, white asparagus, a clementine, a pineapple, a good peach, the flavor in the mouth, the smell — it's unbeatable," he says. "It's a rainbow of possibilities. It's more interesting than any meat." And restaurant patrons need to grasp the economics of making organic, sustainable agriculture the norm. "Diners are going to have to understand they are going to have to pay more for less and that meat is going to be a complement for everything else," he says.

    People may be willing to eat more vegetables, but asking them to pay a lot for a meatless entrée is still not a great business plan, even though the overhead and prep time are often the same as with meat. "Frank Bruni tried to tell me that my $15 vegetarian cauliflower was too expensive because it was just cauliflower," says Bill Telepan, referring to the former New York Times restaurant critic. Telepan is a near vegetarian who creates all the dishes at his eponymous New York City restaurant around the vegetable instead of the protein. He has done well with his harvest menus, in which he reverses standard menu storytelling and gives the vegetable top billing in the description, followed by the meat. But he offers these menus only once a month.

    Contrast that with the eternal steakhouse. "A steakhouse rarely goes out of business," says Puck. "Most don't even have a chef with a lot of talent." But Puck's steakhouses, Cut (in Los Angeles and Las Vegas), have gotten amazing reviews for their appetizers, some of which are meat-free, and that has helped him sell a lot of 8-oz. steaks instead of the more typical 14-oz. portion. "I want people to get the flavor and taste of the meat but not sit with half the cow in front of them," he says. When Puck eats at Cut with his wife, they split the 8-oz. steak. Likewise, Kerry Simon, who eats meat about once a week, is offering smaller meat portions — and vegetarian items — at his newly opened steak restaurants in Atlantic City, N.J., and Las Vegas. "I think there's a lot of mixed diners out there," he says.

    That's what John Fraser of New York City's Dovetail has been trying to figure out. In March he started changing his menu on Mondays to a $42 four-course prix fixe that lets diners choose whether to go vegetarian or vegetable-focused (for instance, long beans, jalapeño and sea-urchin butter). He's treating Mondays as a test to see if he can afford to open a veggie-centric restaurant, which reflects a style similar to how he eats. "In support of the carrots, a little bit of lamb — it makes it more meaningful and rich," he says.

    Getting people to trade their hamburger for carrots with a bit of lamb requires getting them to think more about the meat they're eating. "You can relate it to sex," Fraser says. "If you have it every day and it's crazy and beautiful, it isn't meaningful. But if you have it every once in a while, it becomes meaningful." Fraser, it's worth noting, is a far better chef than convincing-analogy maker.

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