Earlier this week, Eleven Madison Park’s chef and owner Daniel Humm made an unexpected announcement: When the famed New York City restaurant reopens its doors next month, meat will be off the menu.
It might seem like the perfect time to get people on board with an all-vegan menu. Plant-based proteins are as popular as ever. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat (BYND), which sell alternatives to meat designed to look, taste and cook like the real thing, have expanded massively in grocery stores and struck major deals with big food companies and restaurant chains. Last month, the food site Epicurious said it would stop publishing beef recipes, noting that production of the meat emits harmful greenhouse gases.
But even in this climate, abandoning meat entirely is a big deal — and sticking with the menu could be an even more difficult proposition.
Operating a vegan or vegetarian restaurant is “incredibly, incredibly hard,” said Amanda Cohen, chef and owner of the celebrated New York City restaurant Dirt Candy, which serves vegan and vegetarian food and will now be competing more directly with Eleven Madison Park.
“It’s a lot more labor intensive,” she said. Consider the carrot: “I have to wash the carrot, I have to peel the carrot, I have to dice it, I have to roast it. There’s just so many more steps that go into it.” Meat, on the other hand, is straightforward, she said. “You put it in a pan and you put a delicious sauce on it. And there you go.”
And customers might not be willing to shell out as much for an elaborate vegan meal as they would for one that includes meat. Before the pandemic Dirt Candy, Cohen’s restaurant, served a $99 10-course tasting menu. “I was considered extremely, extremely expensive in the vegan/vegetarian world,” she said, noting that some called the meal “overpriced.”
Plus, she’s found that her clientele aren’t big drinkers. Alcohol sales are often where restaurants can pad the otherwise thin profit margins on which they operate. If people aren’t drinking with their meals, that could pose a financial problem.
Despite the challenges, Cohen has found success with Dirt Candy, which has made its mark as one of the top vegetarian restaurants in the country.
For Eleven Madison Park, which is already high-profile, the challenge will be keeping up its reputation. Humm declined to comment for this story through a spokesperson.
A $335 prix fixe
At Eleven Madison Park, the vegan tasting menu will cost $335, including tip, just as it did when meat was on the menu. It will include more courses — roughly 12 compared to eight to ten — than the non-vegan tasting menu that was available before the pandemic.
Marion Nestle, who has written extensively about food and food politics, said she was fascinated and “puzzled” by Eleven Madison Park’s drastic change. “I would never have guessed that there would be that kind of audience for it at that price point,” she said.
Humm said in an open letter that the decision to remove meat, fish, dairy and eggs from the restaurant’s famed tasting menu was driven in part by a desire to be more sustainable. But he also acknowledged in an open letter that it is a risky one.
“I’m not going to lie, at times I’m up in the middle of the night, thinking about the risk we’re taking abandoning dishes that once defined us,” Humm wrote in the letter, pointing to the restaurant’s lavender honey glazed duck and butter poached lobster as examples.
“It’s crucial to us that no matter the ingredients, the dish must live up to some of my favorites of the past,” he said, calling replacing the beloved dishes “a tremendous challenge.”
The restaurant is focusing on vegetables, fruit, legumes and grains in its dishes rather than meat alternatives, according to the Eleven Madison Park spokesperson. Cow’s milk will still be an option for customers during the meal’s coffee and tea service.
The vegetarian ingredients may be less costly than meat, but Humm told the Wall Street Journal that because so much work goes into preparing vegetables, his restaurant won’t see any savings from the switch.
Too shocking for customers?
An abrupt move away from meat has proven difficult in at least one high-end restaurant.
Two decades ago, French chef Alain Passard announced that his three-star Michelin Parisian restaurant, L’Arpège, would stop serving meat. But since then, he has walked back the decision. In a 2016 episode of Netflix’s “Chef Table: France,” Passard explained the about- face. Removing meat entirely had been too radical, he said, too shocking for his customers. He compromised by bringing back some poultry, fish and shellfish to the menu, while still focusing largely on vegetables. L’Arpège did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
That type of pivot might not be a huge deal for famous chefs, noted Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink for WGSN, a trends forecasting company.
“If it doesn’t work, and [Humm] changes it again, that’s kind of part of the cycle that these high-end restaurants do anyway,” she said.
But Cohen, from Dirt Candy, fears that a reversal from Eleven Madison Park might ultimately discourage others in the sector. If Eleven Madison Parks abandons its new vegan menu, others might think “‘well, what’s the point, if those great chefs can’t do it?’”