As is the case in any field where an individual demonstrates an area of expertise or even interest, this area of interest can become what that individual is known for, whether they like it or not. This is especially true of chefs who pioneer certain ingredients or techniques. Martin Picard of Pied de Cochon in Montreal will always be known as “that foie gras guy”, just as Ferran Adria will always be known as the pioneer of molecular gastronomy.
Based on the reviews I had read of Coca (783 Queen Street West), and the general trend of tapas (or small plates, if the restaurant isn’t serving specifically Spanish dishes), I had always assumed that Chef Nathan Isberg was one of those chefs who was all about the meat. I’d actually never eaten at Coca because I assumed the menu was heavily meat-reliant. So I was surprised to run into Isberg at the Green Carpet Series – An Evening of Local Cuisine last month, standing proudly behind a table of vegetarian tapas.
We talked briefly about the misconception of Coca’s menu excluding vegetarians and a few days later, I stopped by the restaurant to chat with Isberg further.
The chef admitted that, as much as he would like to, he could never make the menu completely vegetarian. First, it wouldn’t be authentic Spanish tapas, which does include many meat-based dishes, but also because it would turn off customers.
“Some things have to be on the menu,” Isberg said to me over coffee. “There is always someone who wants identifiable meat, someone who thinks of the protein first when going out to eat.” Pointing out that most people choose a restaurant based on what meat they’re in the mood for (“I could really go for a steak!”), the chef noted that it would be unwise from a business perspective to not accommodate the customer looking for specific dishes.
Instead, Isberg has approached the menu is a different way, by working from the bottom of the food chain and de-centering the meat as the main ingredient in the dish. Coca’s menu lists the vegetables first, putting the protein element in the place of a garnish. For instance, a recent menu included “heirloom carrots and rabbit” as well as “chickpeas and tripe”, which turns around the typical hunter-gatherer “meat and potatoes” mindset, and puts more emphasis on a gathering-sustained society. “You get a different sense of the culture when that is flipped around,” he points out. “The vegetable is worthy of more mention, and the dish is just as interesting.”
Citing Japan as the place that first turned him on to the love of vegetables and vegetarian cuisine, Isberg refers to that country’s food as a highly refined art form where the emphasis was on using the entire food with no waste, something he tries to emulate in the kitchens of both Coca and Czehoski.
Isberg also makes it clear that quality vegetables can be just as costly as many cuts of meat, so the emphasis on vegetables over protein is not a cost-cutting measure, but is a way for restaurants and diners to reduce their environmental impact and to eat more healthfully. “Eating vegetarian dishes make you feel better,” he says emphatically. “It fills you up without making you lethargic, and as a chef, the variety of textures and contrasting flavours are exciting to work with.”
As for the meat he does serve, Isberg insists on using quality products, creating relationships with his suppliers so he knows where the meat came from and who raised it. As his interest in a vegetarian diet is environmental rather than ethical, he works on the theory that “if you’re going to eat meat, it had better be good”.
The emphasis on vegetables on Coca’s menu is just one method Isberg uses to get customers to look at their meat differently. By adding less common items such as horse or elk to his menu, he lays the foundation for a dialogue about not just vegetarianism but the ethics of meat-eating in general. He admits to having had foie gras on the menu and removing it because he couldn’t justify it, even though customers didn’t complain. The horse carpaccio, however, tends to make some people upset, even though it is healthier and more sustainable than beef from a feedlot.
Isberg isn’t pushing his customers to go veg, but does say that getting people into a dialogue about the different types of meat and where they came from could definitely teach people about other options. That might not mean that the typical steak and potatoes customer goes vegan overnight, but things like an emphasis on the vegetables in a dish, more vegetarian options, and smaller portions of meat when they are included could all go a long way in promoting the idea that, yes, meat is tasty, but vegetables are just as tasty, and just as satisfying.
Now that’s something to be known for.