Sweet Vegan Valentine
Last week my workplace hosted a Vegan Valentine's dinner. It was the first time I'd attempted to run a function like this- certainly not one this ambitious and not one that I was in charge of. Due to the fact that we are super understaffed (what's new!?) it ended up being a lot of extra hours and effort. But despite all my stress and several literal nightmares, it was a success and I'm actually super proud of how everything went. I put a lot of thought into explaining the why of a vegan dinner and it seemed like an appropriate piece for the blog. Especially because I've been neglecting my writing while I've stressed out about the dinner… AND I'm furious at myself for forgetting to spruik this blog while speaking to a roomful of vegans. Missed opportunity, right? Anyway. Here are some thoughts.
As I've worked in restaurants I keep seeing that chefs get lazy. Too often vegetarians are offered little more than another mushroom risotto. It's a struggle to find restaurants that offer more than one vegetarian option, and it gets so much worse when you're a vegan. Even harder when it comes to a special occasion! I mean, all credit to Au Lac, but sometimes you need a little more shmooze in your life.
Most of my family are vegetarian, but I found myself working in restaurants that my family couldn't eat at. And I wasn't proud of that. So I kept on volunteering to develop the 'token' vegetarian dish, and I pushed for more (offering to do the hard work on everyone's least favourite menu item is a quick way to put your mark on the menu by the way). Working with vegetables and finding creative ways to use them has been a passion of mine ever since.
So why vegan? Why not vegetarian? Or why not showcase vegetables, but still serve meat?
Well, there's a number of reasons. The first, of course, is that vegans need a bit of love, and what better day than Valentines?
The other reason is a bit selfish. It's a challenge for me. If you do anything often enough you develop shortcuts. I've got all sorts of tricks of the trade that I can pull out to balance a dish, or add an easy garnish; a knob of butter, a crumble of feta, an egg yolk. But with vegan food, I need to work a little harder; I have to look outside my usual bag of tricks.
It's like when a musician who always composes on the piano finds they keep writing the same song over and over; so they begin to use a guitar. Or the Oulipo Poets: a society of French writers who impose a set of rules to the structure of their work in order to be more creative. By writing poems using only a single vowel, or limiting the number of letters per word, they find more creative ways to express what they're trying to say.
By limiting the ingredients I use, and choosing to cook a vegan menu I’m setting boundaries for myself, and then seeing how far I can push them…
I wanted to make a rich, silky, fresh pasta for the menu so I had to come up with an alternative to eggs. Egg yolks are fatty, so I used olive oil. Egg whites are full of protein so I used aquafaba. The pesto couldn't have any cheese, but I still wanted it to be creamy so I used macadamias, which have a much higher fat content than other nuts. Macadamias sent me down a path of native ingredients which led me to use Warrigal Greens in the pesto, instead of the traditional basil. And on and on. Every time I developed a dish with vegan substitutions, I'd find myself inspired to do something a little differently, or in a more interesting way.
Chatting with other chefs, producers and foodies has also been such an important part of the process. Toby, the head chef at the Bolt Bar next door to my work, is a meat focussed chef; hardly surprising given the demands of his customers. But that means he approaches food from a totally different perspective to me. Smoke and char are two elements that are traditionally associated with really meaty dishes, but chatting to Toby helped me to develop ways to use them in our antipasto plate which gave it such a boost
And, of course, a dinner like that wouldn't work if it didn't have good produce. We could only pull it off because of the amazing community of local growers and boutique producers who provided us with incredible veg. I had access to heirloom tomatoes of countless varieties. I plated up native spinach, purple basil, purslane greens and edible flowers. Every single person got a tiny baby zucchini with a flower attached on their plate. I could dehydrate tomatoes, send them to the bakers and have them baked into baguettes. HOW FUCKING COOL IS THAT? I know the first name of everyone who grew vegetables for this dinner, and I could drive out to their place. The food miles are almost nothing. I got to pick a lot of the veg myself; I know exactly how fresh everything is. Most chefs can only dream of access to the incredible stuff I get to play with every day and it is honestly a privilege to serve this food.
All this is a long and roundabout way to say I am extremely lucky to get to play with great food, grown by amazing people and to work with some incredible humans who support me in a thousand different ways. I had a goddamn blast creating that menu, and I'm already working on the next one.