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We Should All Praise the Cauliflower

The idea of giving vegetables the same culinary stature as meat isn't always something that fresh young chefs coming through kitchens I've worked in have in their minds. To be able to butcher, cook, and rest a piece of beautiful meat well is still a...
August 7, 2014, 11:29am
Foto: Liz West via Flickr

Chef Lee Westcott, backed by culinary mogul Jason Atherton, recently took over the space previously occupied by Nuno Mendes' Viajante in East London's Bethnal Green Town Hall with the brilliant Typing Room.

With dinners booked up solidly for the next three months and a bunch of great reviews under his apron, Westcott is blazing a trail with his refined, often surprising (the man serves whipped Marmite butter with his bread) food, which the notorious Faye Maschler says has "a tone of culinary alacrity, vivacity and attack."

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We caught up with Westcott, who has worked at Per Se, noma and Tom Aitkens Restaurant, after a busy, uncharacteristically stressful (the gas in the building wasn't working so they could only serve diners the seven-course tasting menu in the dining room's open service kitchen) service last night to talk about one of his biggest passions—vegetables. Namely, the humble old cauliflower.

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Yeasted cauliflower, raisins, capers and mint. Photo by Eleanor Morgan.

"People are often surprised when we serve them our cauliflower dish, because it's pretty much just that—cauliflower. They never expect to enjoy it as much as they do, and it can take a bit of explaining to get them excited. No one imagines that you can extract such big flavour from a brassica.

We serve the cauliflower loads of different ways, with different techniques to create a range of textures, but the killer component is the yeasted purée. We cook the florets in foaming brown butter and add fresh yeast to it. The yeast deactivates and you get left with this sweet, malty, nutty flavour. It's really lovely. I'm a big fan of that malty taste—hence serving Marmite butter with the bread course. We then add our own pickled raisins to cut through the richness (cauliflower, when you treat it well, can be surprisingly rich), some crispy capers which add a bitter note and some mint to freshen it up.

There was no special reason why I thought about breaking a cauliflower down—we use every single bit of it, even serving a little sliver of the leafy ribs on each plate—like this. I just really love cauliflower. When I was working as Tom Aitkens' head chef a few years back we closed the restaurant one summer for refurbishment and I went and staged at noma. While I was there they were serving their beautiful cauliflower and pine dish—a big wedge of cauliflower roasted in loads of butter, served with pine and whey. It's sensational to eat, and I think it takes guts to just present a plate with a big hunk of cauliflower on it, make it the star of the show.

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Vegetables are a big thing for me. Like most chefs these days—go to places like The Clove Club and Lyle's to see just how brilliant veg-only dishes are right now—I get really excited by their potential. If you go back even ten years, all chefs worked from the protein element outwards. Vegetables orbited the meat. They were obviously still treated with care, but were something of an afterthought, playing second fiddle to a piece of beef or something. It's totally different now. If you are a skilled chef with imagination, you will want to elevate a vegetable to something delicious and beautiful, do all sorts of things to it that will surprise people.

Aside from the cauliflower dish, I absolutely love the turnip and pea dish we have on at the moment. We salt bake and char the turnips and serve them with sweet fresh peas, pea ice cream, turnip water and crab. The crab was a recent addition—I'd love to just leave the vegetables as they are, but I think it needed a little something to carry those delicate flavours, a new dimension—but to take something as humble as the turnip, something that a lot of people wouldn't think about cooking themselves, and turn it into a dish that gets people talking is super exciting for me. Maybe they'll leave the restaurant thinking more about the potential of vegetables like that.

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Turnip, pea and crab. Photo by Eleanor Morgan.As told to Eleanor Morgan

One of other successful vegetable elements on our menu is the burnt aubergine purée we serve with the lamb dish. I really like burning things—it brings out such amazing flavours. We throw the aubergines, whole, onto an indoor barbecue and burn the shit out of them—I mean, until they're jet black and smouldering like the coals—then blend them until we're left with a smooth, silky purée that looks as though squid ink has been added to it.

The idea of giving vegetables the same culinary stature as meat isn't always something that fresh young chefs coming through kitchens I've worked in have in their minds. To be able to butcher, cook, and rest a piece of beautiful meat well is still a hallmark of being a talented chef, but they quickly come round to how vegetables can be just as exciting."