Vanilla Black: farm-to-fork-to-farm

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Vanilla Black is a Michelin-recommended, award-winning vegetarian restaurant, in Took’s Court, London. Their food is, in their own words, forward-thinking and challenging.

Locavore spoke to chef/patron Andrew Dargue about the challenges of high-end cooking without meat, their innovative farm-to-fork-to-farm food-waste system, and pie ’n’ mash.

What is your earliest food memory?

Eating Spam casserole when I was around three years old. I was brought up on a tough council estate and times were hard.

When and how did you first get into the restaurant business?

I have worked in catering since I was sixteen, I’m now forty-eight. We opened Vanilla Black in December 2004.

Tell us a little bit about what you do at Vanilla Black.

We’re a vegetarian restaurant but with some differences. We don’t rely on meat substitutes, ‘world foods’, or heavy spicing. We break away from the norm. 

Creating vegetarian and vegan food is generally more challenging when you consider that,  by not using animal products, you have less ingredients to play with, and the process is made harder. When we started in 2004 we set some rules: no meat substitutes, no heavily spiced dishes, and no pasta dishes. We set these rules as we wanted to differentiate ourselves from other vegetarian restaurants. As a chef I see those default options as easy and lazy.

Innovation – Tabasco poached pineapple

From where do you draw inspiration?

My team and I take inspiration from many sources. Sometimes it may be from an ingredient we particularly like, an experience, or, as is mostly the case, from other dishes. For example one of the team has been discussing pie ’n’ mash for a long time  After a lot of testing we will soon have a new dish on the menu which is influenced around pie, mash, and jellied eels, but it will be a vegan version… and certainly won’t be as expected.

You say you started the restaurant, in part, because there was a paucity of vegetarian choices on menus when eating out. Is this still the case, or has there been some progress?

Prior to setting up the restaurant with my wife, Donna, I had started a small business providing vegetarian items to local restaurants and hotels. To get inspiration I started to eat in vegetarian restaurants. I wasn’t vegetarian at the time, although that came soon after. I had never visited a vegetarian restaurant and, to be honest, I was quite shocked at the offerings. Vegetable curry, burrito, veggie burgers – hardly inspiring. It was Donna who suggested that we open a vegetarian restaurant. Even though I had been a chef since the age of sixteen the idea of setting up a restaurant was daunting… so we did it.

We told the bank we needed a loan to build a conservatory but spent it on a restaurant site instead. You could say we lied to the bank.

Inside Vanilla Black

We wanted to create a restaurant which would inspire and be thought provoking, to create dishes you wouldn’t normally cook at home. We didn’t want the restaurant to be a fuel stop, we wanted customers to come along and eat a dish and still be thinking about it three days later. In recent years there has been a lot of changes in the vegetarian/vegan world, it’s starting to become accepted as mainstream, especially by the younger generation. There is certainly a lot more choice out there and it is a lot easier to eat out.

There is much discussion in the media currently about the environmental benefits of going veggie/vegan. Was this a factor in your decision to go vegetarian, and to open a vegetarian restaurant?

Ha, absolutely not. Obviously reducing or omitting meat from a diet can contribute to a more productive form of food production, but our reason was much different. In the year 2000, which is when I started the initial small business, I was still eating meat but realised that to focus my palate, to help with creating dishes, I would need to look at the food from a different angle than I was trained for. Donna and I discussed being vegetarian for a few months. We never went back. 

You’ve started composting your food waste to use for growing ingredients for your kitchen. How did this come about? 

We were taking part in a food festival, Taste of London, when we were introduced to a very nice chap called Igor. He works with a few high end restaurants in London and was interested in us due to our focus on vegetables, he’s also vegetarian himself.

Basically, we dispose of our food waste in a sealed wheelie bin which is taken by a recycling company to Igor’s farm. Initially this was going to be one collection a week, but this had to be revised and was quickly changed to three times a week. This was shocking to us, we didn’t realise how much was being discarded until this process started. It was a real eye-opener, all this waste from basically vegetable trimmings.

Igor then uses this waste to turn into compost, which then fertilises a 100m2 plot. We paid him to irrigate the plot and have it ready for the produce. He gave us a list of seeds and we now choose what we want to have grown for us. He sets to work, then we develop dishes around the chosen items. In the meantime, Igor brings produce from other parts of the farm for us to use as we wait for the next vegetable to be harvested. Obviously the products are amazing, so much more flavour, and stronger in their structure. It’s also quite challenging as we are constantly thinking ahead. The vegetables keep growing and we have to be ready for what comes next, without making them into a curry or a burrito.

Seared seaweed and pickled potatoes

The whole process is a cost to the business. Compared to buying in regular vegetables it is certainly more expensive, and we still have to rely on our regular suppliers as the plot cannot provide enough for our use. However we feel that we need to be a part of this for various reasons, such as the amazing produce and seeing the waste going to good use. This also sets us apart from other vegetarian restaurants, which has always been important.

Do you think this is a model that could, or should, be followed by other restaurants? 

To be honest I’m not sure that this could be adopted by everyone. Time and cost are major factors in running a restaurant, so… it’s not for everyone.

Finally, why do you do what you do?

We do what we do to prove a point. Many people claim to be doing something different with vegetables but it tends to be the usual dishes with a few subtle changes. To be honest we could probably be more profitable making bean burgers and pasta bake but that’s not the point.

For more on Vanilla Black: Website / Twitter / Instagram

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