Vanilla Black co-owner and head chef, Andrew Dargue, speaks exclusively to Produce Business UK about heading up the vegetarian revolution and making fruit and veg the stars of the show
Tucked away in the winding streets of London’s Chancery Lane is a high-end, fine-dining Michelin-recommended restaurant called Vanilla Black, which just happens to be vegetarian.
Andrew Dargue and his co-owner and partner Donna Conroy stand out in many ways. For a start, they opened a vegetarian restaurant despite the fact that neither are actually vegetarian. More quirkily still, when guests walk into Vanilla Black, it feels as though you are being welcomed into the couple’s home – albeit a very gentrified home with 45 places set for dinner that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sherlock Holmes set.
Front-of-house staff and chefs mill around adding to the buzz that the restaurant’s innovative food has created over the last 10 years and they clearly share Dargue and nurse-turned-front-of-house-manager Conroy’s passion for the business.
But it wasn’t always like this. Vanilla Black’s message is progressive: it satisfies a meat eater’s palate without the need for any meat or fish and prides itself on omitting lentil bakes, vegetable lasagne or any other veggie clichés.
Establishing a customer base, that understands the restaurant’s ethos and, more to the point, one that wanted it, was tough, however. The restaurant also relocated to London just about around the time the banks started to fail, back in 2008, moving south from its original home in York, where it opened to “disappointed hippies” in 2005.
“One blogger wrote that he gave the place six weeks,” Dargue reveals. “And he had a point. We would go three days without a soul walking through the door to eat.”
Sitting in a temporary office in the basement of the Took’s Court property amid an extension and reshuffle that will create further auxiliary space and five extra covers in the restaurant, it’s hard to believe the start was rocky. Today’s outlook is certainly in stark contrast to when the owners installed a curtain across half of the seating area so it didn’t appear so empty, reflects Dargue.
“We came in aiming too high at first. In York we pushed the boundaries. But it worked: we once had a man walk out because he couldn’t get his head round having a Savoury Bakewell Tart on the menu. But in general, we managed to get the right clientele.
“In London, no one knew of us and what we were trying to do, until when we were faced with handing the keys in, we decided to make the menu less ‘out there’ for some and had the opportunity to work with a good PR company, which kindly let us pay what we could afford.”
So, what’s exactly happening behind the minimalist, cream doors of Vanilla Black? Well, it’s pretty much a peaceful but forceful revolution for fruit and veg, and all the other tasty morsels that all too often get lost on a plate. This is not a restaurant for your average vegetarian, however. In fact, if you dislike the taste or texture of meat, it could be wise to think twice.
The dish of which Dargue is most proud, and Conroy won’t let him replace on the menu because it’s too popular, is the Double Baked Ribblesdale Pudding and Smoked Croquette with Pineapple Pickle and Poached Hen’s Egg.
“It’s based on gammon and pineapple – which was in every pub at one time,” explains Dargue, who became a chef aged 16 simply because it seemed like an interesting career path in his hometown of Stockton-on-Tees.
“We use a Ribblesdale cheese from this little supplier, who literally has two employees, to make a dense soufflé-like pudding and we serve it with a sous vide hen’s egg [cooked at 64°C so it is soft throughout], a smoked potato croquette, a homemade tomato sauce and pineapple chutney in a small pot.
“It’s aimed at a meat eater’s palate so the diner eats and thinks, wow, that’s full of flavour and reminds me of something. The smokiness of the croquette is reminiscent of the saltiness of gammon.”
And that’s the point of difference at Vanilla Black. Although it’s a vegetarian restaurant, meat is not the enemy – it’s the inspiration. The idea grew out of Conroy cutting down on meat and fish and being fed up with the lack of interesting vegetarian dishes. She ended up challenging Dargue, who was working as a chef lecturer at the time, to do something about it.
Some 20 years on, and after many loans, hard work and sleepless nights, here they are. As well as Vanilla Black, the couple have a vegetarian takeaway in Clerkenwell and a café in Holborn. Plus they plan to open a bar and restaurant version of Vanilla Black to serve a younger market.
Supply and demand
Despite the focus on non-meat products, Dargue has found sourcing fresh produce very difficult and claims to have “never met an amazing fruit and vegetable supplier”.
“We haven’t got time to go to every farm and it’s hard to get consistency from suppliers,” he reveals. “I’ve had terribly bruised, pretty much unusable courgettes sent to me by a Michelin-starred restaurant supplier. When I called them, they had no answers or solution for me. I’d rather have been told how bad the quality was and made an informed decision. I didn’t use that supplier again.
Communication is lacking when it comes to vegetable suppliers, claims Dargue. “You spend a lot of time listening to recorded voicemails telling you what’s cheap,” he explains. “They don’t promote what’s new and interesting. There doesn’t seem to be any customer service ethic – I’ve had people call up and promise the earth, then never get back to me with answers to my questions. I want to be informed about good product and I want it to turn up.”
Dargue now sources from Kirby’s Produce at New Covent Garden Market, which he discovered by chance after seeing its wares outside another restaurant, and Watts Farms. Any inspiration he needs comes from his team of seven multi-cultural chefs, who treat the everyday restaurant kitchen as a development kitchen on an on-going basis.
“I could be interested in avocado ice cream, for example, and one of my chefs is from Argentina, where avocados are common and ice cream is popular,” elaborates Dargue. “Years ago, I looked at using roman queso and one of the Italian chefs already knew what to do with it. I get a lot of ideas for new fresh produce from farmers’ markets, the Restaurant Magazine and from Twitter. But, really, it is a team effort. We are all on the adventure together.”
Vanilla Black: Give it a go
Best thing about eating there: The amuse bouches and other finishing touches, like freshly baked bread [we had cranberry and fennel breads with a creamy butter just before the starters were served]. Also, the menu never sees the same dish twice, although some dishes have not been ousted for years, despite the inevitable tinkering. Whatever it is you choose, it’s always ‘new’.
Favourite dish: A starter of brie ice cream and poached blackberries with quinoa and picked spring onion.
What’s next? Crispy milk (think meringue).
Drinks: Quite an amalgamation of wines, bottled ales, beer and a very reasonably priced couple of sherries.
Music: Classical, non-assuming.
Good to know: The group booking maximum is 12 on a weekday and eight at the weekend. Booking is required most days, and especially for the weekend.
Location: Vanilla Black is situated at 17-18 Took’s Court, London, EC4A 1LB.