Chef Andrew Dargue doesn’t have the conventional “turning vegetarian story” involving an epiphany about baby lambs and the environment. And his cooking doesn’t fit with stereotypes, either.
“I didn’t go vegetarian to save the planet. It had nothing to do with animals,” he tells The Independent, adding that he does of course care about those things. But he became a vegetarian for more pragmatic reasons. He was working as a chef and lecturing at a catering school when he set up a business producing vegetarian meals for hotels and gastropubs. His wife Donna Conroy had already gone veggie, so he decided to quit fish and meat for a month to see food from a different angle. And he just never started again. That was over a decade ago.
Dague and Conroy then united their unusual, gourmet-food-focused approach to dining to found the restaurant Vanilla Black in York in 2004 and relocated to London four years later.
“Eating meat became alien to me,” says Dague. “I used to smoke and when I stopped, the idea of smoking seemed quite strange. Why would I take tobacco leaves and burn them and inhale fumes? The thought of eating the blood of another animal became alien to me and I never went back.”
People who ditch meat for good often claim that they feel healthier, stronger, lighter. Not Dague. “Did I feel different? Honestly no,” he laughs. “I know that obviously the whole process is doing some good somewhere. I don’t feel better or worse but I don’t feel weaker, either.”
At the restaurant, Dargue shuns stereotypes by creating dishes that are deconstructed, blipped with bright colours and formed into strange shapes. The kitchen is equipped with the foam makers and dehydration machines that you’d expect from a high-end restaurant.
The dishes at Vanilla Black can take weeks and months to develop and perfect. But items on the menu only have short runs, and are never resurrected in their entirety again.
“They feel old very quickly. It’s like when you look at a photo of yourself from ten years ago and you think ‘did I wear that?!’ At the time it was amazing but we move on constantly.”
Gourmet vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black – In pictures
But it took people a while to get used to Dargue’s take on cooking. It opened long before veganism and vegetarianism witnessed a 360 per cent spike in popularity in the UK, and people warned Dague and Conroy against opening a meat-free restaurant.
“We found that when we spoke to someone about vegetarian food they didn’t want to know. One of my old employers told me the idea was risky. He said we should put some meat dishes on the menu as well. I thought, then it would just be a meat restaurant with a few veg options. What would be the point?!”
So they avoid labelling themselves as a vegetarian and vegan restaurant because of the stereotypes this type of comfort food that draws up. Their website states with tongue-in-cheek…