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Chef John Fraser (Photo by David Benthal)

Chef John Fraser has a green thumb, but not in the traditional sense.

His extensive 20-year career has been spent redefining the role of vegetables in both fine dining and casual cuisine. His efforts garnered him plenty of accolades, ranging from long-standing multiple-star reviews bestowed by the New York Times to Michelin Star kitchens throughout the country and right here in Southold at North Fork Table & Inn. 

But while Fraser enjoys a little bit of a lead-the-way contrarian reputation in his veggies-take-the-lead approach, he’s not alone.

With its bountiful and varied tapestry of farms and farm stands, veg-forward eating is a natural fit for the pastoral setting of the North Fork, and the trend is growing. In places like Barrow Food House in Aquebogue, North Fork Roasting Company, Vine Street Cafe, Goodfood., Ellen’s on Front and a growing number of others, more celebratory veggie-main options are creeping onto menus. If farm-to-table was the foundation, plant-based eating, it appears, is the future.

The green revolution

A study from Good Food Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes plant and cell-based alternatives to animal products, found that the overall market of plant-based foods in grocery stores grew 44% over the last three years and is estimated to be worth over $8 billion as of December 2022. This boom in popularity can also be seen in restaurants across the United States, with nearly half of fast-food and nationwide chains offering at least one plant-based option. 

Fraser, certainly, has been part of this change, working to shatter the conventional notions surrounding plant-based cuisine and elevating vegetables beyond the realm of uninspiring side dishes and lackluster salads. When he took over the kitchen at North Fork Table & Inn four years ago, his approach to curating a fine dining menu further pushed to the fore an assortment of vegetable-based appetizers and entrees. 

“My staff and I are always making sure that people who eat plant-based [meals] have enough food and we try to have hearty entrees and people leave full,” explains Fraser. “We are lucky that we live in a place like [the North Fork] where fresh vegetables grow in abundance. It’s the perfect place for a plant-based guy to be.” 

Fraser decided to switch to a “mostly plant-based” lifestyle a little over a year ago. His attitude surrounding meat-heavy diets first shifted in the 2010s when he noticed a change in the restaurant industry.

“It was a time when everything was about overeating and [creating] big fatty pieces of meat,” he says. “There was a big movement around flavor first and nutrients second. I’m always looking the opposite way to see what else is out there and I found vegetables.” 

The idea of being 100% plant-based isn’t completely possible for Fraser, whose restaurants still serve meat-based dishes that require his daily tasting. Yet, the leap to eating plant-based outside of work came when he began considering his health. 

“My relationship with food is unique; what people do every day to survive, I do for a living,” he explains. “I wasn’t necessarily tracking a difference [in how I felt], I think I just began to consider that my palate is constantly engaged and I’m ingesting so many calories per day by way of tasting food. I made a personal choice for my health.” 

Dishes like delicata squash tempura with aleppo pepper spiced black walnuts both dazzle and satisfy chef John Fraser’s discerning clientele. (Photo by David Benthal)

Flavor first

“I think as chefs, we are just really into vegetables,” says Amanda Falcone, who not only owns Barrow Food House with her husband, Kyle Romeo, but also sources vegetables from their family-owned Cedar Grove Farm down the road. 

“It’s easier than people think to make food vegan, so we do it when it makes sense,” she says. Case in point: Falcone and Romeo are highly regarded for their bean and mushroom burgers as well as their vegetable-based curries and bowls — the idea to carry plant-based options came naturally. 

At North Fork Table & Inn, plant-based eaters have an abundance of options. From crispy squash tempura to heirloom beans smothered in truffle and Parmesan to roasted cauliflower with herbed goat cheese and apricot; leaving the restaurant hungry is impossible. 

Part and parcel to this movement is the notion that the East End of Long Island has long been, and remains, farm country, abundant with growers who are dialing in their process to get the most out of what they foster from the ground. Fraser’s leader-like emphasis on vegetable-based cuisine only continued to grow as he began to foster a relationship with KK’s The Farm, a family-owned farm located less than a mile from the restaurant. 

For KK’s The Farm owner Ira Haspel, flavorful, nutrient-dense veggies begin with healthy soil. Photo by David Benthal

Since 1999, KK’s has garnered a reputation for its abundance of delicious and nutritious vegetables. Ira Haspel, owner and purveyor of KK’s, follows the methods of biodynamics — an ethical, holistic and ecologically friendly approach to farming. 

“I stay away from the word sustainability,” explains Haspel, who has dedicated the latter half of his life to implementing practices at his farm that encourage the health of everything from the vegetables to the microbes and critters in the soil to the humans that grow and live around it. “I know that’s the key catchphrase, but we have to do better than sustainable. [At KK’s] we are constantly working to improve our practice around soil health, food health and people’s health.”

Biodynamic farmers like Haspel and his team of volunteers work to nurture and harmonize the interdependent elements of plants, animals, soils and spirit, managing them holistically and dynamically to support the health and vitality of the whole. 

“We are working for the soil and don’t add anything that is exogenous of the farm, and any type of fertilizer or pest deterrent comes from our farm, which is what sets us apart from other farms,” said Gordon Cox, partner at KK’s, which was named for Haspel’s late wife, Kathy Keller, who was instrumental in creating school gardens for kids on the North Fork and teaching the wisdom of biodynamic farming. “The microorganisms in the soil are symbiotically working, [to exude] things that the plants and animals give off and it is feeding off of those like a life cycle. In the end, our final product has flavor because it has living energy that you can taste.” 

The high nutrient density of the vegetables from KK’s is measured in the percentage of organic content within the soil. In the crop beds of the farm, organic content, an indicator of bio-nutrients, measures around 12%, which according to Haspel is very high.

This high nutritional density can also be measured through their distinctive taste. 

“A tomato grown in the winter in Florida is not going to have any nutritional value and will taste like cardboard,” Haspel says. “Our produce doesn’t taste like that because we focus on our soil health and only grow in season.” 

The abundance of delicious produce influenced many of the farm’s volunteers, like Penny Rudder, to lean into a plant-based lifestyle. 

As a former nutritionist and biochemist, Rudder maintains a deep understanding of nutrients and how food works for her body and decided to make the switch around 17 years ago.

“I used to be a big meat eater but after I took a pause, I realized that I was eating meat for the flavor and the flavor alone,” she says. “I decided that I needed to work on exploring the flavors of all foods, especially plants, because they were always just a side dish. I never had the enjoyment of being a vegetarian until I started volunteering [at KK’s] because I never had the exposure to the great flavors that vegetables are supposed to have.” 

“My staff and I are always making sure that people who eat plant-based [meals] have enough food and we try to have hearty entrees and people leave full,” says Fraser. (Photo by David Benthal)

Working in harmony

But while health should, and often is, be on the minds and menus of makers and growers of food, and those of us who enjoy it, the fact is if it doesn’t taste good, all the benefits in the world won’t make a dish compelling. 

The focus on how things are grown at farms like KK’s take this notion into (literally) deep consideration. Often the main component of vegetable flavor comes from the large amounts of fiber within it. At KK’s, Haspel has found that the nutrient-dense produce also has the side benefit of robust flavors replacing the bland ones typically found in mass-produced vegetables and fruits. Raw spinach is crisp with a slight sweetness. Carrots are woody and earthy rather than presenting the harsh bitterness found in common grocery-store varieties. When these types of ingredients are implemented into a plant-based lifestyle, it can make a world of difference. 

“There’s a beautiful bubble that Ira has in just a couple of acres of land,” says Fraser. “And each one of those veggies contributes to that bubble. It’s incredible.” 

For Fraser, there is ceremony in going to a place like KK’s to source his vegetables and honor in providing delicious, nutrient-dense options for diners at North Fork Table & Inn and his other restaurants.

“Flavor should make you feel something,” says Rudder. “I think food should have an emotion to it and that’s what I love about the plants because you can look at them and see how beautiful they are and how full of flavor they are and how strong they look. And it’s just exciting when they taste good.”