Not so very long ago, vegetarian food was hard to find, unless you made it at home yourself. It was clearly a sort of counter-culture admission to even talk about being a vegetarian to those who were not. There were many reasons for this clandestine sort of behavior.
I clearly remember my first bout with vegetarians. I lived in New Paltz, N.Y., a funky college town full of hippies, students and other enlightened souls. This was the early 1970s, and as Bob Dylan would say, the times they were a-changing. I was an art student and had no idea that I wanted to be a chef.
As I walked down the street, I peered inside this college vegetarian cafe and there was a cook in the window stirring a few huge pots, more like cauldrons, simmering with soups or chili. The cook had a long, straggly beard and was wearing a torn white T-shirt, shorts and a filthy apron. I smelled the strong aroma out on the street, which I now know was cumin seed.
So, flash forward 35 years. I have been a chef for more than 30 years, and have had the privilege to cook all over the world. I am lucky to have learned so much in my travels, whether it has been from other chefs or simply wonderful home cooks in their native lands.
I think my interest in vegetarian cuisine came from seeing how incredible meatless recipes can be. In other countries, great food is simply prepared without labeling the dishes. Throughout Europe and Asia there is no separation of vegetarians and people who eat meat. You can get incredible vegetarian dishes in every restaurant no matter how small or isolated.
Up until a few years ago, many restaurants here could almost not accommodate you if you were a vegetarian. Oddly enough, most of the many letters I receive from readers are not vegetarians. They simply choose to skip meat once or twice a week in order to feed their family a bit healthier. That's the most common reason given for this growing movement.
To me, it matters not. I am happy to play a part in the greening of America's dinner table. I am honored to have created so many new traditions in families all around our food nation.
—By Chef Steve Petusevsky