In his influential In Defense of Food, Pollan told his readers to eat a mostly plant-based diet, and it seems they’ve been listening. But if this is a vegetable-centric moment, it’s not the first. Almost a decade ago, triple-Michelin-starred French chef Alain Passard stunned le tout Paris by stripping his menu of meat in favor of vegetables, and later opening an organic farm to supply it. (“That was sort of revolutionary,” says David Chang, who traces the current vegetable mania back to Passard and his compatriot Michel Bras, whose signature vegetable extravaganza “gargouillou” has been copied almost as much as his molten chocolate cake.) And here in New York, vegetarians have always had their health-food havens, like Angelica Kitchen, and legions of ethnic restaurants (dosa huts, falafel joints) that specialize in meatless cuisine. Locavore chefs like Peter Hoffman and Bill Telepan have long given farm-fresh produce its due, and City Bakery’s Ilene Rosen has pushed the boundaries of vegetable-central cooking in her inimitable salad bar. But the emergence of the vegivore has elevated vegetables’ status, putting them on par with sustainably raised, assiduously sourced meat. Even as vegans and vegetarians tentatively cross the line into meat-eating, lured by artisanal bacons and locally raised grass-fed rib eyes, the vegivore has pursued the humble carrot and the odoriferous cauliflower into the rarefied realms of Per Se, where the Tasting of Vegetables costs the same $275 as the regular prix fixe. (Despite the emphasis on plant matter, no one’s going to argue that the vegivore lifestyle comes cheap. Even at more modest spots, vegetable-focused dishes can approach or equal their meatier counterparts in price; also, top-of-the-line Greenmarket mesclun fetches $48 a pound.)
Is vegivorism the newest version of culinary enlightenment or just another fad? Fraser concedes that the success of Dovetail’s Monday menu could be seen as “an equal and opposite reaction” to recent carnivorous excesses, but he’s got faith in the movement’s staying power. “The Japanese have been doing it for centuries,” says Chang, who’s a huge fan of the Kyoto-style Shojin-temple cuisine served at Kajitsu in the East Village. Then again, this is New York. Things change. “In two or three years,” says Chang, only partly facetiously, “it’s going to be back to, I don’t know, turkey or chicken.” Until then, see how some of New York’s best vegetable-centric chefs, newly converted or not, are changing the proportion of the plate.