Throughout October, OpenTable is celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month by spotlighting chefs, restaurateurs, trends and innovations in the world of plant-based dining. Follow along here.
At the same time that OpenTable released our list of the top vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the U.S., our London-based team put together a similar list to celebrate plant-forward restaurants in the U.K. The Gate earned not one but two spots on the list (one each for their locations in Hammersmith and Islington), thanks to their 25-year tradition of creative vegetarian cooking, blending Indian and Arabic cuisines with classic Jewish food.
To learn more about plant-based dining across the pond, we talked to Michael Daniel, co-founder of The Gate with his brother, Adrian. The duo opened The Gate back in 1989, without any formal training or restaurant experience — but with a strong passion for good food. Here, Michael tells us about the biggest vegetarian dining trends in the U.K., how his food and his guests have evolved over the years, and what he sees for the future of food.
The Gate opened as a vegetarian restaurant in 1989, so you were ahead of the curb. Why did you choose to open a vegetarian restaurant?
It was a natural choice after we became vegetarians. We were doing a bit of cooking for our home, serving to local delicatessens and food shops, and the kitchen we were cooking from was just too small. And then we had a stroke of fate; we found the restaurant in Hammersmith.
It’s a very unusual location — unless you know where it is, you won’t find it. It’s a destination restaurant. It was sort of a natural progression from what we were doing at home to start cooking on a daily basis.
Why did you become vegetarians yourselves?
I think it was just something that felt right at the time. Around the age of 17, it just felt like, I can’t eat meat. What we originally started creating were the dishes we grew up on, which were meat-based dishes and fish-based dishes. We just took the meat and fish out, and had this natural vegetable dish that replaced it.
What were some of the flavors you were working with?
Originally a lot of our inspiration was the Indo-Iraqi cuisine we grew up on: sweet and sour beetroot soups, or sweet and sour stews made from okra. There were vegetable curries. It was an Arabic-Indian kitchen originally, with a hint of what was going on in the vegetarian world, which was always probably replicating more modern cuisine.
When you first opened, what were some of the challenges of running a vegetarian restaurant at that time, when it was less mainstream?
I think it went hand in hand with our own development at the time. It actually gave us the time to learn how to run a restaurant or a business, because we weren’t so busy at first. I didn’t get an education, so work was what it was about. And I had a natural feeling towards food, how food should be.
The people we’ve attracted have always been open-minded enough to go into a vegetarian restaurant. Clearly, we’re a lot busier today than we were 25 years ago. The prices we charged then are a lot less than what we charge now. We’re a very different thing today — we’ve established two restaurants.
I think vegetarianism in those days was about vegetarianism. And very quickly in the ‘90s I noticed this change in the kind of people that were coming to the restaurant. They didn’t seem to be vegetarians all the time. It seemed to be more health than beauty all of the sudden.
What about how the food and menu have evolved over the years? How would you describe it now?
I would describe it as a modern, international menu. We try and cover a little bit of everything, from Asian food to a little bit of Indian food, European food. We obviously have a lot of classic vegetarian cuisine in Europe and Italy. I think that presentation is a huge thing for us — it’s got to taste as good as it looks, or the other way around.
I’d love to hear more about your messaging. People say vegetarian, plant-based, delicious — what has been your angle when talking to customers about the food?
Whatever we put in front of somebody is going to be really tasty, it’s not going to be too expensive, and it’s going to fill you up. And it’s going to be a visual feast of the senses, tastes and flavors and colors. That’s not an easy thing to constantly be achieving.
What trends are you seeing for vegetarian dining in the U.K. as a whole?
I think vegan is becoming more and more of a clear trend at the moment. In the past when someone mentioned the word “vegetarian” it was just no meat or no fish. Now when people mention the word “vegetarian” they’re talking about vegan, really. Vegan is becoming the norm.
Wild food and foraged food is becoming very big. It’s something that’s been lost, and now people are getting back into their environment. We’re currently doing a wild mushroom month at the restaurant; we have a seven-course wild mushroom tasting menu. Some of those mushrooms we foraged ourselves. Some of the mushrooms, you can’t buy them — you can only find them. We’re going to try and do a wild food festival in the spring. I always want to put something on the plate that people have never heard of.
In terms of how the vegetarian movement has evolved over the years, what’s your take on the changes you’ve seen? Is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
I think for me, more and more vegetarianism is about clean living. That’s what I try and put on the plate over here. What’s the point in having something vegetarian, that’s meant to be healthy, swimming in oil? It kind of goes against the ethos of what it’s about. It’s about how you feel, what you eat.
Food is a transitory thing; you’re constantly changing your feelings and your emotions. So it’s difficult, food, as much as it’s wonderful and fun.
Looking towards the future, how do you see the movement continuing to evolve?
I think it’s going to carry on evolving in the trend that it is, and there’s going to be less and less animal products in the food chain. Our society is very affluent, and people are after something unique and different and special all the time. That’s what we offer, in a way: we offer something alternative that’s really interesting and sustainable.
Photos courtesy of The Gate.