Interview with an Innovator

Vanilla Black’s Andrew Dargue: ‘We don't look at other vegetarian restaurants for ideas. I look at meat restaurants’

The chef behind one of Britain’s most famous meat-free eateries on crafting tasty veg-forward dishes and consulting for caterer Bartlett Mitchell.

6 December 2019

Dargue on paper – CV

  • Opened his pioneering meat-free restaurant Vanilla Black in York in 2004
  • Relocated Vanilla Black to Tooks Court, near London’s Chancery Lane, in 2008
  • Started as a consultant chef with independent caterer Bartlett Mitchell in 2019 to help inspire its chefs to create original meat-free dishes

Andrew Dargue was working as a chef-lecturer at Middlesbrough College and running a sideline as a producer of frozen vegetarian meals for restaurants, pubs and bars in the Teesside area when he and his wife Donna decided to open their first restaurant.

Vanilla Black, a 22-cover gourmet vegetarian restaurant opened in Swinegate, York, in 2004 to much acclaim, but the couple wanted a larger restaurant and to reach more people, so in 2008 relocated to London.

Dismayed by the uninspiring vegetarian choices when eating out, Dargue set out to challenge the stereotypes of vegetarian cookery and applied an unconventional, innovative approach to meat-free cuisine. 

“I didn't want to rely on pasta dishes, meat substitutes or spicing, because I saw that as an easy route,” says the chef, whose dishes over the years have included a main course of Bakewell tart made with chilli jam and unsweetened almond sponge and a dessert of mushroom custard.

Opening an avant-garde vegetarian restaurant in London at the height of the economic downturn meant the chef sometimes questioned moving the business to the capital, but he kept a tight rein on costs and stuck to his guns, allowing his ahead-of-the-curve approach to meat-free cooking to inspire others, both through Vanilla Black and in his role as a consultant to universities and contract caterers, including Bartlett Mitchell.

“Twenty years ago, chefs didn't want to know about vegetarian or vegan food,” he tells Food Spark, “but now they do, they're interested, and that's great.”

I didn't become vegetarian because I wanted to save the planet or the animals. Donna had never liked eating meat and would often choose the vegetarian option when we ate out. It was always the same thing – pasta bake or vegetable curry. Chefs are programmed to think of a dish with meat as the focal point with a starch to go with it, then the veg. One day I told Donna I'd stop eating meat and fish so I could see it from a different angle. We didn't consciously become vegetarian, we just stopped eating meat and never went back. That was 20 odd years ago.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when we went to a vegetarian restaurant and the main course was sweet potato sprinkled with pine nuts. I said, 'This is terrible' and Donna said, 'The food you do for your sideline business is better,' so we got the idea to open our own restaurant.

We knew opening a restaurant would be hard work and we didn't have any money – I was a chef lecturer and Donna was working as a nurse – so we went to the bank and lied. We told them we needed £40k to put an extension on the back of the house. Instead we bought a lease on a restaurant in York.

I never wanted to follow the path that everyone else followed. My youth was centred around the punk rock era and it was always about not following the norm, so Vanilla Black was always going to be different to what was already out there.

When we started the restaurant, we were poaching radish in seaweed and serving it with a foam of butter, which shocked people 15 years ago. They were expecting a bowl of chickpea curry and a flatbread on the side for £4.95.

We start every dish with a theme. Years ago, we made a dish with mushrooms that was inspired by a Fray Bentos pie, and one we're working on now is inspired by a cheese and onion pasty. It won't look like a pasty, it will be a cheddar cheese sponge with other elements on the plate – some dauphinoise potato, some pickled apple and roasted onions. The theme is the focal point, then we add starch and vegetables around it, in the same way you would with a meat dish. After that we'll work on the other elements like texture, colour and a sauce.

There have been some weird subjects over the years. We had a dessert on the menu inspired by chilli con carne. It was a chocolate dish, based around chocolate, chilli, rice and sweetened kidney beans.

We always said, 'We aren't here to fill your bellies, we're here to fill your mind.'  You can go to a sandwich shop and get something to fill you up; we want people to eat our food and still talk about it three days later. Donna and I were in a vegetarian restaurant last year and there was a table behind us talking about Vanilla Black and a dish they'd had in a positive way. That's what we wanted.

It's important to challenge perceptions. Parsnips are very sweet, so a while back I made a dessert using parsnip and orange. People would order it and say, 'That was weird.' I didn't understand, because a parsnip is sweeter than a carrot; however, if you give someone carrot cake as a dessert, they wouldn't bat an eyelid, so why does parsnip in a dessert throw people? We took the parsnip dessert off and put carrot cake on, but not as a dessert, as a starter. Just to annoy people.

We had an avocado ice cream on our dessert menu years ago. It's since been done, but it was strange then. We'd been talking about creating a chocolate dessert and a guy from Argentina who was working with us said, 'What about using avocado?' We said, 'That's a bit weird Mariano,' but he told us that he thought it was weird that we put it in salads. When he was a kid his mum would cut it up into quarters and dip it in sugar.

We don't look at other vegetarian restaurants for ideas. There are some good ones out there, but I tend to look at meat restaurants and the different elements of their dishes. Most ideas come from conversation and our past memories. I'll sit with the team and we'll laugh about things we used to eat like profiteroles and chocolate sauce.

When I was introduced to Wendy [Bartlett] and the chef directors at Bartlett Mitchell, I was very impressed. They are nice people with a strong foodie ethos and mean what they say. I've worked with contract caterers in the past and they can be money motivated.

We don't expect Bartlett Mitchell chefs to copy our dishes. We give them bases with derivatives that they can use in different ways. At a recent training session, there were chefs working in high-end catering while others did canteen style, so we did a blue cheese loaf that could be done as a multi-portion, but also in a small timbale with a garnish.

I like working with the chefs at Bartlett Mitchell. Their interest has inspired me to help them improve their vegetarian and vegan dishes, so I'll demonstrate dishes that they can adapt. Because I'm from a kitchen background I realise that the last thing they want is someone coming in and poncing around and saying look at this it's beautiful. It has to be something they can actually use.

The stereotyping around vegetarian restaurants is so deep-rooted that customers are still shocked by our menu. People come to us expecting a vegetable burrito or a mung bean casserole and instead they get fennel or mushrooms in a dessert. We warn people on our website that they won't get pasta bake, but 15 years on they still ask if we have any chips or 'normal food,' like quiche.

On the flipside, we have people from all over the world booking tables. You can have a restaurant packed one day with two students on one table, a celebrity on the next and a politician on the next. I think it's brilliant that we attract such a wide range.

Being thrifty, looking after staff and innovating has helped our business survive. I read a report telling chefs to check food costs because of Brexit. That's a load of rubbish. Brexit or not, you should always be questioning the price of things and look after the pennies by turning the lights off and closing the fridge. Now it's called being green, but it's something we've always done. I don't know if it's because of my northern, working-class background, but I've always been quite thrifty.

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