One conversation with chef David Gunawan at his co-owned restaurant, Farmer’s Apprentice (1535 West 6th Avenue), will convert you to the wonders and necessity of cooking with more local vegetables. He’s one of several chefs in town who are making veggies the stars of their menus while still serving meat.
“Our restaurant focuses on veggie-centric cuisine. I don’t think it’s a choice, really. We have to face the reality of what it takes to produce meat,” Gunawan insists.
Besides this ethical and practical concern, Gunawan thinks vegetables are much more interesting, exciting, and challenging to work with than animal proteins such as pork or chicken.
“Meat tastes the same to some extent if you have a really quality product. Vegetables have so much more depth and are more flavourful.” While he points out that there are only so many species of meat that he can serve his customers, Gunawan raves about the diversity across and within fruit and vegetable species, with apples alone having a multitude of varieties.
He especially loves how a vegetable’s taste and texture will completely change depending on how it’s cooked, using raw versus caramelized onion as one example of this transformation. At the restaurant, he likes to play with multiple treatments of a single veggie, as in a dish that features roasted, coffee-infused baby carrots, shaved raw carrot, and drizzles of carrot and whey juice—along with ricotta, buckwheat, and broccoli sprouts.
Take a bite of the roasted carrots, and you might be surprised that they taste intensely like, well, carrots, with just a hint of coffee. That’s because Gunawan believes, counterintuitively, that creativity comes from first understanding the inherent flavours of well-sourced local veggies and then allowing them to speak.
“The first thing we do when we get a delivery is taste it. We want to serve the vegetables as natural as possible,” he explains. “With vegetables grown for flavour, you get a burst of flavour that you don’t expect,” he says.
A phone chat with Andrea Carlson, chef-owner at Burdock & Co. (2702 Main Street), reveals that she and Gunawan source from many of the same farms: Klippers Organic Acres, Hazelmere Organics, and North Arm Farm. “I think probably what’s most challenging, and what you have to be most conscious of, rather than with meat, is that vegetables have tremendous variance from one supplier to another,” she says. In other words, different growing conditions will change the characteristics, such as starch or sugar level, of a particular vegetable. This variability keeps Carlson happily on her toes.
When she cooks, Carlson often endeavours to bring the natural sweetness of vegetables to the forefront. A ragout that would traditionally use meat is instead a flavourful and rich mélange of caramelized celeriac, blanched potatoes, raw mustard greens, smoked hazelnuts, and goat-milk curd. True to the restaurant’s name, she’s a big fan of burdock, drawing out its sweet earthiness by braising it, including it in heritage-pork sausage, and even using it to make fermented drinks. Meanwhile, sunchokes are made into a terrine that’s pan-fried to caramelize it, then served with a salad of julienned raw sunchokes, slices of Gala apple, and nasturtium leaves.
While sourcing locally during the summer presents an abundance of options, winter at a veggie-centric restaurant requires some resourceful culinary invention. Carlson explains: “Especially when we’ve been working with the same vegetables, we’re saying, ‘What else can we do with beets?!’ ”The result for Carlson is beet vinaigrette and beet granita, and for Gunawan, roasted-beet sauce with yogurt sorbet.
Tony Marzo, chef and co-owner of the eatery and food shop Kessel & March (1701 Powell Street), is also getting imaginative with local veggies. With sunchokes, he experiments with different cooking techniques, finely dicing them and serving them raw as a salad, using them to make veggie chips, and turning them into a sunchoke purée soup. For brunch, he roasts pieces until they’re caramelized and serves them with two poached eggs, crispy polenta, mushroom sauce, and another local veggie star, sautéed kale.
“When I started to learn to cook, I cooked some vegetables in duck fat, using animal product in the vegetables,” Marzo explains by phone. However, his days of masking the taste of vegetables with animal fat are waning, with Marzo now using herbs and vegetable stock to add natural vegetable flavour.
Marzo says that part of the excitement of highlighting local veggies is making diners aware of new and creative ways of cooking them, like when he uses kohlrabi in a coleslaw instead of the usual cabbage.
All three chefs ultimately have a deep respect for and knowledge of the produce they’re using. Marzo’s mantra: “Treat it really well. I think that’s the fun of it.”