I GREW UP ON JUNK FOOD BUT I SURPRISED EVERYBODY… I HAD A NATURALLY SENSITIVE CHEF'S PALATE & INSTINCT
I was a chef at 16, sort-of without realising it. Instinctively I always knew what to do…. flavour combinations, tastes that there was no reason or explanation why I should know what they were or how to balance them, I just did. It was a big surprise because I was brought up in the North East of England in the 80’s; in the Thatcher years when jobs were difficult to find and there were very few prospects. My friend started a catering course and really enjoyed it. Until then, I’d never even considered being a chef in my life. It was the furthest thing from my mind but my ears pricked up and I thought ‘That could be interesting’ so I joined and, literally within the first week, I fell in love with it. We had weekly tests and I instinctively knew the answers. I had no idea why because all my mother ever cooked at home was turkey burgers and potato waffles. So the next thing I knew, I was in this environment where they were talking about matching wine with food and, for some reason, I just had a natural instinct about it and I enjoyed it. There was nothing special in my childhood or education to develop my palate so sensitively to tastes and ingredients but it just was. It just went from there.
THOMAS KELLER INSPIRES ME
Thomas Keller is an amazing chef and has done so much for vegetarian cuisine. He owns The French Laundry and another restaurant in New York called Per Se. They blow my mind. In the past, I’d read lots and lots of cookery books but I’d given up on vegetarian ones because they were all so repetitive. Then, one day, I picked up a copy of his book: The French Laundry. I’d never heard of it at the time - it was a long time ago - but I immediately thought ‘Wow! I get what he’s talking about.’ Everything he said, the recipes, the prequels to each recipe… I was reading them and thinking ‘Yes, I agree… intensity of flavour, correct seasoning, being inventive, twisting a dish to revitalise it and make it into something else…’ I still pick it up and read it, even though I’ve read it many times. Every time I do, it’s almost as though someone has cleaned my glasses for me. It refreshes my mind… I wake up.
FORGET ‘I ATE A GREAT VEGETARIAN MEAL’, I WANT YOU TO THINK ‘I ATE A FANTASTIC MEAL’ FULL STOP.
I love breaking boundaries and perceptions about vegetarian food. I don’t want guests to come here and think ‘I ate a great vegetarian meal’, I want you to think ‘I had a fantastic meal’ Full Stop.
At Vanilla Black, we like to excite out guests, give them something different and see them enjoying it. It’s always very rewarding when you see guests who are meat eaters visit with their vegetarian friends and everyone has a great time. We have such a wide variety of guests, everyone from businessmen at lunchtime to Pamela Anderson, Gok Wan, Vivienne Westwood and Joanna Lumley - even rock bands like Blink 182. It shows how eclectic the appeal of vegetarian food is.
MY COOKING STYLE: VEGETARIAN ANARCHY… BIG EXCITING FLAVOURS DESIGNED TO TURN YOUR PERCEPTION OF VEGETARIAN FOOD UPSIDE DOWN
Vegetarian cuisine doesn’t have to be boring or bland. We create our dishes based on ‘the classics’ but use vegetarian ingredients and special cooking techniques to create sensual flavour explosions that would usually come from meat. Very delicious! I also consider how to make dishes more interesting without relying on spices, world food or ‘traditionally’ vegetarian dishes. For example, we currently have a dish on the menu with a minced red pepper and tomato gel. When you mince the gel, it has the texture of mince, even though it’s completely vegan. Then we put a little mustard cream cheese yolk on top and the whole dish is a play on steak tartare, which is very classical.
BORING VEGETARIAN RESTAURANTS LED ME TO OPEN VANILLA BLACK
My wife is vegetarian and she was always really underwhelmed by the same old vegetarian options in restaurants. They were so uninventive…. pasta bake, spiced aubergine bake… blah, blah, blah! … so we started thinking. I’m a vegetarian now but, at the time, I was still eating meat and fish so I decided that, for a short period I’d stop eating meat and fish and go completely vegetarian too, just to see cuisine from a different angle and get ideas… and I never went back. Then my wife said ‘Why don’t we open a vegetarian restaurant?’ I thought to myself ‘Mmm… it’s quite hard, expensive, lots of things…’ but we believed in the idea and that we could make it a success, and here we are today.
IF YOU ONLY EAT 1 DISH AT VANILLA BLACK, IT HAS TO BE…
I love ironic, humorous cooking that tastes delicious but makes you think. The Sepp Mushroom Custard with Crispy Rice, Roasted White Chocolate and Tarragon is a great example. I designed it to take the micky out of mushroom risotto. At the time, we were bored of every vegetarian restaurant offering mushroom risotto. It’s boring! So we said ‘Well we’ll offer it too but as a dessert.’ It’s been on the menu for quite sometime, simply because the guests really enjoy it.
MY ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD
It sounds crazy but it’s roasted savoy cabbage with vegetables. When you roast it, the cabbage takes on an entirely new flavour. Really, really delicious!
How to: Cut a large wedge of cabbage (approx. 1/3), steam it for 5mins, then drain it. Drizzle it with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, then roast it until it’s really, really brown and crispy (20-25mins at 180°C).
Yauatcha restaurant is brilliant. The atmosphere and décor is very warm, the staff are friendly and the dim sum is amazing. The menu is full of really innovative flavours and there are lots of vegan and vegetarian options too, making it a great place to go if you’re in a group. My favourite is the truffled peas.
Andrew Dargue is the Executive Chef and Owner of award-winning vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black.