"The standard of restaurant catering for vegetarians in the UK is, I believe, affected by the training that would-be vegetarian chefs have available to them. Basically, if you want to access some proper training, you'll probably have to leave your vegetarian ethics on the doorstep, because (to my knowledge) you simply can't get a vocational qualification without passing some tests to prove that you know how to cut up, cook and serve meat and fish. The only option for those who refuse point-blank to do this is to go for a career as a pastry chef.
Similarly, if you believe that on-the-job training is the best way to learn, you'll find it extremely difficult to get work experience where you're not expected to muck in with the meat cooking. The result is that there is a great divide in British vegetarian restaurants. Some are run by self-trained enthusiasts (often inexperienced people who think running a veggie cafe is easy, enjoy cooking but don't deal well with the cleaning or the cash-flow, and go out of business pretty quickly, or people who have dropped out of a well-paid career and have enough money stashed away to keep the business afloat while they learn what they're doing). Others are run by trained chefs who are not vegetarians (or weren't vegetarian when they trained). It makes me sad to think that there are people who are really passionate about vegetarian food (passionate enough to follow their dream of opening a veggie restaurant without any real training whatsoever), and there are people who take on board all that is required to be a top chef and come to believe that you can't be a really good chef without being an expert on meat and fish.
When I think of the people who are running successful vegetarian restaurants in Britain today, I think of Denis Cotter, the chef at Cafe Paradiso in Cork, who was one of a lucky handful of people to learn on the job by working at Cranks in London, Simon Rimmer, proprietor of Greens in Manchester, who is one of the only people cooking vegetarian food on TV in the UK, but who is not a vegetarian, and Yotam Ottolenghi, who is one of the only people getting vegetarian recipes into the national papers at the moment, who has published a hugely successful vegetarian cookbook ('Plenty') and who is the first on the list for any editor looking for vegetarian stuff - who didn't train in the UK and is not a vegetarian.
The fact is that many of the best chefs turn up their noses at vegetarian cookery and just don't put much love into it. The other fact is that, if you want to find really good vegetarian food, and I'm talking about cutting edge stuff, you're likely to find it in a restaurant that also serves really good meat and/or really good fish.
Which brings me to The Bay restaurant in Penzance - what a find! This is a top restaurant which does a roaring trade in weddings, and it's easy to see why, when you're selecting a bottle of fine wine on a balcony next to a swimming pool, with views over Penzance bay. Turn the pages of the menu and you'll find a whole page of vegan options. Manager David Scotter explained that it simply makes sense for the restaurant to make a really good job of catering for vegetarians - and by providing a really well thought out menu for vegans, they're able to satisfy not just vegetarians but also people who follow meat or dairy-free diets because of allergies or religious convictions. It's so sensible, you can't help wondering why more top chefs aren't doing it.
Chef Ben Reeve uses the vegan menu to showcase his capabilities, pushing plant-based cuisine to the boundaries with new flavour combinations, serious preparation skills and outstanding presentation. On the night we were there, the vegan starters included a salad of chicory, fennel and orange with a hazelnut dressing, and courgette and wood-roasted pepper crostini with pumpkin seed oil - there were four or five options, as well as a vegetarian wild garlic risotto on the main menu which is apparently the most popular starter that the restaurant offers. Served with splashes of bright green lettuce sauce and topped with smoked almond crusted goats cheese, it was a winner.
Vegan mains on offer included Tempura flat field mushrooms with a soy dipping sauce and rocket salad, Baked aubergine, tomato and courgette gateau with warm new potato salad, and Chargrilled veg and new potatoes with a salsa verde and microcress salad. The vegetarian 'assiette' on the main menu included fennel puree and fennel tempura, with artichokes and lemon and a blob of aioli - beautifully presented, it provided a new flavour and a new texture with each bite.
Vegan desserts included Cherry sorbet with cherries marinated in Kirsch, Caramelised banana with saffron syrup and pistachios, and Strawberries flambeed with balsamic and black pepper. Possibly I was overexcited by the whole experience when I ordered the tasting plate of desserts - little bits of lots of things. It was stunning to look at and a bit of a marathon to eat - surprising how lots of little bits can add up to one big dessert! The standout item was the cherry sorbet which packed a serious flavour hit - wow.
This was the best vegetarian food I had had in a restaurant for a long time and I hope they pick up a reputation for it. The only potential downside is that you might find youself sitting near somebody who is eating a lobster or something equally unpleasant - hopefully the restaurant manager is sensitive about these things... "