Vernon Mascarenhas, seen above, can't wait for the meat-free and fish-free restaurant menus that seem to be heading our way …
The excitement of virtually every chef in England at the relaxation of the final constraints of the third lockdown as they draw to an end this coming Monday 17 May is palpable. From that date onwards, and let us hope forever, restaurants will be able to serve their customers indoors as well as outdoors, which will lead many of those that had no outside seating to reopen for the first time since mid December 2020.
That is according to my old friend, vegetable supplier to the restaurant business Vernon Mascarenhas. When we met on Wednesday 5 May he told me that the day before, on a four-hour round car trip to Bicester Village, the reason for which is unimportant (suffice to say that Mascarenhas has a big heart), his iPhone received non-stop phone calls, emails and WhatsApps from many of his chef/customers. ‘It was going crazy’, he said, ‘as they are all so excited and keen to know exactly what will be in season and what they can put on their opening menus.’
The timing of the reopening happens, for once, to fit perfectly the British growing season, on which he is quite the expert. After working for many years as a restaurateur, he then worked at Secretts Farm in Surrey before joining Nature’s Choice, a multi-million-pound business that supplies many of the top British restaurants with produce from numerous farms around the UK and abroad. Mascarenhas has become their commercial director but one who does not let titles get in the way of what he most enjoys: being the conduit between the farmer, the grower and his many chefs.
‘Please don’t get me wrong. I never voted Conservative but I do think that they have done a pretty good job of preserving the British hospitality industry through the pandemic’, Mascarenhas began. ‘Firstly, with the furlough scheme that has allowed many restaurant staff to survive and secondly, because the reopening for many on 17 May coincides with the arrival of some of the best British produce, which happens to be incredibly late this year thanks to the cold, dry spring.’
The week before we met, Mascarenhas reported that the cold spring had pushed back the vegetable season by a good two weeks, and has this to say about the partial lockdown imposed on English restaurants until now: ‘This partial opening has been very difficult to manage as crops cannot be partially turned on or off. We have lost a substantial amount of over-winter brassicas as there has been very little demand. An interesting crop is the forced rhubarb. Normally demand exceeds supply and due to the way it is grown, it is not an easy crop to multiply up. This year, as the growers have been cutting less, the season has been extended by about three weeks and the last cut was on Friday. Not many people would have noticed but the forced rhubarb this year has been noticeably thicker due to it being cut later, hence getting fatter.
‘With limited outdoor seating, I have seen that menus have been cut down in size with limited offerings. A lot of my time at the moment is spent working with chefs on their opening menus. I know Boris didn’t plan it, however when the 17th comes around we will be just at the start of the British season. Asparagus, Jersey Royals, strawberries, radishes, salad heads, tomatoes, baby spring carrots, beets and leeks will be just starting. After long discussions with my growers we decided to go ahead with a full sowing programme and even an enhanced volume, taking Brexit into account.’
Mascarenhas reports a distinct shift in the balance of power post-lockdown. ‘I believe that my company is going to come out of the pandemic stronger than when we went into it. Yes, we have had a few bad debts and a few customers are still to pay outstanding invoices (we know of a few who are sitting on government loans but are not paying their suppliers until threatened with court action). Most noticeable is that credit terms have been slashed. No longer can the big boys (not naming any one here but you know who they are: D&D, Caprice Holdings and Gordon Ramsay Holdings) demand 90–120 days’ credit. Any new customer is on a one-week credit term or if your credit rating is good, one month credit, but payment is due on the seventh day of the following month not the thirtieth.’
Despite all the uncertainty of the past year, Mascarenhas was able to see some positives. ‘The past year away from their stoves has allowed many chefs the rare opportunity to stop and consider what they are going to put on their menus and it has given many the chance not just to cook at home, rather than be in their office within the kitchen. And of course they have had the chance to talk to one another and to me.’
All of which leads Mascarenhas to ponder whether now is the right time for chefs to consider more fundamental changes to their menus. Luxury items, mainly expensive cuts of meat and fish, are likely to be less widely available as chefs write shorter menus with a greater emphasis on vegetables. Just the day before, chef Daniel Humm had announced that his New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, would henceforth be free of meat and seafood as he contends that the world’s current food system is unsustainable. The menu price of $335 per person including service is to remain the same as lower food costs will be offset by higher labour costs and the restaurant will continue to support Rethink Food, a Brooklyn-based charity that aims to address what it describes as ‘food insecurity’.
But Mascarenhas believes that we do not have to look across the Atlantic for inspiration. ‘I believe that more chefs will follow the example of Bruno Loubet when he was cooking at Grain Store in King’s Cross where the menu’s emphasis was on vegetables but not exclusively. And then there is the Italian tradition of eating the entire vegetable, plant, tendrils and veins, what I call “root to flower” as opposed to Fergus Henderson’s “nose to tail”.’
As an example, Michel Roux Jr, the chef/proprietor of Le Gavroche, buys the whole of the broad beans when they first come into season apparently. When I quizzed him about this last week he said, ‘I think Vernon was reminiscing about a little ragout of broad beans with a butter emulsion finished with a little tarragon vinegar – heavenly! It can be served with fish or meat but equally as a standalone dish with some Jersey Royals – another seasonal deliciousness!’
The menus of the future will be lighter and feature more vegetables. But they will continue to be just as delicious – and probably better for us and the planet.