As more members and guests opt for meat-free lifestyles, club chefs are coming up with clever, well-crafted vegetable and grain-focused dishes.
Trying to make braised beef short ribs without beef is a basically an exercise in futility. But it’s possible, club chefs report, to create delicious meat-free dishes to satisfy the growing demand for vegetarian and vegan cuisine (see box on pg. 14 for the distinctions between the two).
Jared Arnold, Executive Chef of Hope Valley Country Club in Durham, N.C., enjoys the challenge of developing dishes focused on vegetables and grains. Because of his club’s focus on farm-to-table and sustainability, he has found that every dish on the menu doesn’t have to have an animal protein. And in many cases, the ones that don’t are often the most popular.
“I want members and guests to choose their meal because it sounds delicious, without ever realizing whether or not it’s vegetarian or vegan,” says Arnold. Until he created a series of items in those categories, he notes, vegetarian and vegan requests often backed up the line severely. “We had to change our approach, and that’s where the whole process started,” he says.
Today, the menus at Hope Valley, which has 576 members, are divided into two sections. One side is filled with twelve different and constantly rotating small plates, while the other features classic and traditional comfort-style dishes.
On the sharable side, Arnold always has at least two or three items that are completely vegetarian and/or vegan, with three or four more that can be made so, if needed.
Vegetarian vs. Vegan
To cook for vegetarian and vegan members, it’s critical for club chefs to understand the basic differences between the two.
A vegetarian is someone who does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of animal slaughter. The inclusion of dairy and eggs depends on the type of diet the individual subscribes to.
Veganism can be viewed as the strictest form of vegetarianism. A vegan diet not only excludes animal flesh, but also dairy, eggs and animal-derived ingredients. These include gelatin, honey, carmine, pepsin, shellac, albumin, whey, casein and some forms of vitamin D3.
“I think the biggest challenge of vegan and vegetarian food is that chefs think it limits them,” says Tait. “That’s anything but the case. It forces you to be more creative. You can’t just give vegetarians and vegans a grilled vegetable stack and expect them to be satisfied.”
Instead, Tait says, it’s critical for chefs to educate themselves, experiment, and talk with members to find out what they’re looking for.
“In the end,” he says, “it will make you a better chef.”
One of his most popular small plates is a poblano grit cake served with pineapple salsa and a black bean purée. He starts with home-style, stone-ground grits that he cooks for 45 minutes. He then adds poblanos and lime juice, before turning the grits into cakes that can be toasted off as needed.
Another favorite is his cauliflower rösti, served with beet ketchup and a carrot raisin salad. “The sweetness of the beets combined with the earthiness of the cauliflower and the tanginess of the slaw work together really well,” says Arnold.
In addition to the small plates, Arnold also runs a semi-weekly vegan feature. One of the most popular vegan entrées is a chestnut tagliatelle—a flat, ribbon-like pasta made in-house with chestnut flour, served with wild mushrooms that are sautéed in white wine. (He offers a sprinkle of pecorino-romano to non-vegans, if they are interested.)
“Unfortunately, many of the substitute products available for vegans don’t taste very good,” says Arnold, who has been with Hope Valley for nearly two years and does $1 million in annual F&B. “We try to make our own substitutes whenever possible.”
Two of his most successful substitutes are versions of vegan cheese. One is a cashew cheese that mimics ricotta, while the other is a mixture of a purchased vegan cheese mixed with farmer’s yeast. “The yeast mimics the enzymes and bacteria in traditional cheese, so we end up with a product that has the same tanginess and mouthfeel of dairy cheese, but is completely vegan,” Arnold says.
And while the latter doesn’t work well on salads or as a stand-alone ingredient, he notes, it bakes up well in dishes like Hope Valley’s vegan lasagna.
“For pasta dishes traditionally served with sausage or meatballs, we frequently substitute marinated tofu or seitan that we’ve seasoned similarly to Italian sausage,” says Arnold, who reports that vegetarian and vegan dishes now make up between 15% and 25% of the orders at Hope Valley on any given night. “The idea is to give members the satisfaction of a full meal, without feeling like they’ve missed anything.”
Austin Gresham, Executive Chef of Spring Lake (Mich.) Country Club, also runs an ever-changing weekly vegan special based on cuisines that focus less on meat at the center of the plate, such as Indian and Asian. Vegetable tamales, warm grain salad bowls with assorted marinated vegetables, agedashi tofu and curries are some of his members’ favorites.
“It’s important to not only have vegan and vegetarian dishes on the menu, but to anticipate the dietary needs of your membership,” says Gresham. “When you show them that you’re taking care of them, it builds a relationship based on trust and confidence.”
Much like Hope Valley’s Arnold, Söenke Brandt, Executive Chef of Woodmont Country Club in Rockville, Md., has also seen an increase in vegetarian and vegan requests over the past couple of years. In response, he has taken a handful of continuing-education classes at the Culinary Institute of American in Hyde Park, N.Y., that have been focused on vegetarian, vegan and nutrition education.
“I think the biggest takeaway for me was that many cuisines from around the world—like Mediterranean, for example—are extremely versatile and lend themselves well to vegetarian options,” Brandt says, echoing Spring Lake’s Gresham. “Curry, falafel, tabbouleh, strudel and noodle bowls can all be made vegetarian or vegan without feeling like something is missing. Plus, they all taste great.”
Turnovers are one of Brandt’s go-to vegetarian mains. He uses phyllo dough and stuffs it with any number of combinations, like spinach, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes.
“We do a lot of noodle, quinoa, and rice bowls that are packed with protein and are so satisfying many members—vegan, vegetarian or otherwise—don’t even realize there is no animal protein in the dish,” says Brandt, who has been with Woodmont since 1992 and does $4.7 million in annual F&B.
Grilled vegetables, paellas, risottos, and potato or cauliflower cakes are also popular vegetarian and vegan options at Woodmont, which has 1,500 members.
“Aromatics and herbs are important to the success of any dish, but especially so in vegetarian and vegan cuisine,” says Brandt. His biggest challenge with the category, he notes, comes when members assume that vegetarian dishes are automatically organic.
“Many think the two go hand-in-hand,” he says. “We have to be vigilant about explaining to members that just because a dish is vegetable-focused, it’s not necessarily organic. Instead, we change the conversation and focus on how we source locally and buy only high-quality ingredients.”
The More You Know
When a member requests a vegetarian or vegan dish at Kelly Greens Golf & Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla., Drew Tait, Executive Chef, never says no.
“As people pay more attention to the food they consume, it’s important as chefs to be able to flex our menus and our cooking styles to exceed our members’ expectations,” says Tait who came to club just seven months ago, after serving as Executive Chef of the Dunes Manor Hotel in Ocean City, Md.
Tait’s strategy is to offer light dishes that utilize simple preparations and enhance the natural flavors of high-quality ingredients.
“I like to use salts, olive oils and vinegars to develop flavor,” he says. “I steer clear of really heavy sauces and preparations that have overpowering flavors and don’t let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Two of the most successful vegetarian dishes at Kelly Greens are a coffee- and chili-rubbed tofu, as well as a squash ratatouille, made à la minute, topped with butter-braised leeks and roasted heirloom-tomatoes stuffed with mushrooms. The ratatouille is served with a grilled garlic crostini and a fried basil garnish.