Sian Griffiths chats to the head chef at one of London’s best vegetarian restaurants…
Veggie cuisine has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years. There was once a time when vegetarian cuisine conjured up thoughts of bland nut loaves, mediocre stir-fries and soggy Quorn sausages, but creative home cooks and restaurants have been on a mission to make exciting meatless meals appeal to a wider, more general audience. Now we not only have vegetarian and vegan options aplenty but the art of the crafting exciting dishes has risen to dizzying heights.
The vegetarian revolution is here.
The success story of The Gate in London, is a perfect example of how the culinary world is embracing vegetarian cuisine as more than an alternative. According to Marina O’Loughlin, a judge at the London Restaurant Festival Awards, ‘The Gate manages to avoid all the clichés of vegetarian eating’ and it ‘isn’t a good vegetarian restaurant, it’s simply a good restaurant’. High praise indeed.
Opened in Hammersmith in December 1989 by brothers Adrian and Michael Daniel, The Gate has risen to become one of London’s best loved vegetarian eateries. The original branch has continued to go from strength to strength, and its younger sibling in Islington has also gained a sterling reputation for its sophisticated vegetarian fare.
The diverse offering here is heavily influenced by the brothers’ Indo-Iraqi-Jewish heritage, and some French and Italian touches are evident, too. Dishes are colourful, eye-catching and nourishing – think dolcelatte rotolo, with butternut and leeks rolled in thyme-infused potato, and pan-fried broccoli flower ravioli, with ginger, Thai basil and wasabi pumpkin purée – not to mention intriguing and immaculately presented
It is difficult to fault the menu at The Gate – it is as inventive and imaginative as it is salubrious. I was intrigued to find out more about the man who heads up the Hammersmith kitchen, executive head chef Mariusz Wegrodzki.
What brought you to The Gate?
I originally came to The Gate in Hammersmith in 2000 as a kitchen porter, but soon realised that I wanted to play a bigger role in the food that was being created. When I came over from Poland, my English wasn’t the best but Michael and Adrian Daniel were both really supportive.
Who or what is your inspiration?
Adrian Daniel has been my mentor throughout my career in the kitchen. I trained under him and everything I learned along the way led to me becoming head chef in 2006. As for celebrity chefs, I really like Rick Stein’s no-nonsense approach to food.
What does good food mean to you?
To me, good food means a marriage of top-quality produce and well-balanced flavours in amazing dishes. I’d say my style is quite experimental, which is really helpful in vegetarian cooking.
So, what’s on the menu at The Gate?
Lots of globally-inspired colourful and creative vegetarian and vegan dishes! My signature is aubergine schnitzel layered with roasted red peppers, plum tomatoes, Applewood smoked Cheddar and basil pesto – it’s a bit of a favourite at The Gate. We’ve currently got buckwheat and pickled fennel salad (with carrot, cucumber, cranberries, pistachios and pomegranate), Thai red curry (aubergine, tofu, baby corn, mange tout and mushrooms in Thai-spiced creamy coconut sauce) and butternut rotolo (roasted butternut, goat’s cheese and basil in baked thyme-infused rolled potato). I’ve just added a new dish, too: broccoli flower ravioli with wasabi pumpkin, tempura of lotus root and teriyaki glaze.
We also have an eclectic selection of organic, biodynamic and vegan varieties, plus some tempting cocktails.
What’s your favourite time of year for ingredients?
The end of summer, going into winter, is the best time of year. There’s so much on offer, and I love to go out foraging for mushrooms (my favourite ingredient). It’s a bit of a hobby of mine and there’s nothing better than sautéing them over a camp stove.
What is your favourite dish to cook and why?
I really enjoy cooking the pan-fried wild mushroom risotto cake. The one we do at the restaurant has sauté girolles, pied de mouton, king oysters and Paris brown and is finished with creamy cep sauce, rocket and cheese shavings in lemon and truffle dressing. As I said, I love mushrooms and the different flavour combinations in this dish work so well together.
Are there any foods you don’t like?
I have to admit that I’ve never liked pasta, even as a child.
What would you have been if you weren’t a chef?
Food is my love and my hobby, but if I hadn’t been a chef I’d have worked as an electrician. I had all the training and gained the professional qualifications back in Poland.
When you get home from a shift in the kitchen, what do you cook for yourself?
Before arriving at The Gate, I was a big meat eater, but now I find myself cooking and eating a lot more vegetarian food even when I’m at home. It’s become a key part of my diet. It’s always nice to make thali – I like variety and this means I can try lots of different things.
What has been your most memorable kitchen moment? Any triumphs or disasters?
In 2014, following closure for refurbishment, the Hammersmith restaurant was once again awarded an AA rosette. I think this is my career highlight to date. As for disasters, this one is a bit nasty – I once worked with a chef who went to wipe his knife (just after he’d sharpened it) on his cloth, only to miss and cut his bum cheek. He ended up having stitches but learnt a valuable lesson!
Do you have any tips for budding chefs out there?
To be a good chef you need to be passionate, committed and willing to sacrifice some things people take for granted. The hours you work in this industry are anti-social, but at the same time the job has its own great rewards.
…and any top kitchen tips for our readers?
It’s a simple one, but really useful: when chopping up ingredients, make sure you use the curve of the knife rather than just cutting ‘straight’. It prevents delicate food (like herbs) from bruising.
Looking for more vegetarian inspiration? Look no further.
10 of the best veggie restaurants
First all-vegetarian school cafeteria
An interview with VegFest’s Tim Barford
New Year’s Eve vegetarian canapés