School dinner mounds of greying green beans, waterlogged cauliflower and mushy carrots, a small pile of sweetcorn (from a tin?) and a dollop of (delicious) creamed spinach. No butter or sauce, but ketchup, horseradish and three different kinds of mustard were offered when asked.
We were in a venerable steakhouse at the tail end of a poorly thought-through stateside holiday that had morphed into a brutally relentless research trip. After a week of beef-centric lunches and dinners, mid-afternoon burgers and late-night bar snacks, Huw’s wife finally snapped and politely enquired about the Vegetarian options available upon request written on the menu. The elderly waiter looked a little confused, as if it were the first time he’d heard such a question, and went away to check with the kitchen.
When the food arrived: ‘One King’s Cut Prime Rib of Beef’. And, with no hint of shame in his voice, ‘For the lady, an assiette of assorted vegetables.’ Or, as it was renamed by Huw on his return, “F*ck you” on a plate’.
Like the surly service they’d encountered at another legendary steakhouse the day before, there was something right and proper about it. The belligerent ‘Come here for steak or don’t come here.’ was completely in keeping with a place that’s a living monument to beef with every wall, and even the ceiling, dripping with chophouse history. Of such quirks institutions are made.
This was during Hawksmoor’s early days and we realised that although our dream was to emulate even a fraction of those beef palaces’ longevity, we didn’t want to follow the same path. Instead, we everything on the menu had to live up to the steak, so that even vegetarians cajoled along by friends or colleagues were shocked at how well they could eat.
Every starter, side and pesky vegetarian main course had to fit with our ‘British steak restaurant’ approach, which meant that we couldn’t fall back on the usual pasta or risotto. They also had to have real presence and personality so they didn’t look out of place next to a 400g rib-eye. So no token goat’s cheese tart.
The solution for us has been charcoal. We are constantly experimenting with myriad vegetables cooked over and directly on top of those glowing embers that are such an intrinsic ingredient in our steaks and seafood. We make clay from the ash to encase root vegetables and slow-cook tomato and more on resting shelves above the grills to intensify their natural flavour and impart a delicate smokiness.
It’s been a real challenge, but one that’s been helped by the well-kept secret that many of us who have been to Hawksmoor for years are really part-time vegetarians. When we eat meat (as we have to and which we love) we eat the good stuff, but the other three or four days a week sees us eating seafood and veg. And, now when checking out new restaurants we often find ourselves marvelling not at the latest dude-food excess that’s gripped the twittersphere, but at a simply prepared vegetable dish that’s more about the talents of mother nature than a superstar chef.