Vegetables and plant-based cuisine take center stage in this year’s “What’s Hot Culinary Forecast,” after years of being relegated as side dishes or vegetarian entrees. Veggie-centric/vegetable-forward cuisine ranked No. 8 of 140 trends, showing that vegetables can play a starring role. Plant-based sausage/burgers ranked second in the protein category, behind new cuts of meat.

Why have carrots, rutabagas and radishes suddenly become sexy? Partly because chefs have found techniques that draw out their rich and nuanced flavors. Take “Rutabaga Fondue,” a signature menu item at Philadelphia’s Vedge and Washington DC’s Fancy Radish, both owned by Chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby. The chefs coax out an unexpected cheesy flavor by using nutritional yeast. “You can take the humblest of vegetables, like the rutabaga, and turn it into something elegant,” Jacoby emphasizes.

“Seared Maitake Mushroom” and “Charred Chioggia Beets” are among the veggie-centric dishes at Vedge, which Landau and Jacoby refer to as a “vegetable restaurant,” rather than a vegetarian restaurant. “We want the emphasis to be on the genre, just as you would talk about a seafood restaurant or a steakhouse,” says Jacoby. “The focus is on the food, not the lifestyle.”

Increasing consumer options

In response to consumer demand, Sodexo recently developed 200 plant-based dishes for its university, healthcare and corporate segments. According to a Nielsen global survey, 39 percent of American consumers are working to incorporate more plant-based foods in their diets. The Humane Society of the United States and the World Resource Institute-Better Buying Lab partnered with Sodexo on the project.

The selection features recipes that mimic traditional dishes like “Lentil Meatloaf,” and “Chesapeake Cakes” (a crab-cake alternative made from hearts of palm), as well as “Avocado Burrito Bowl” and “Carrot Osso Bucco,” which features carrots and mushrooms served over creamy polenta.

Stealth health

One thing you won’t find on the Sodexo menus: dishes with “vegan” in the name. “If you call out the fact that it’s healthy or that it’s vegan, the propensity to buy it goes down,” says Rob Morasco, senior director of culinary development for Sodexo USA. Yet, health concerns appear to be a prime motivator behind the movement toward more veggies. In other words, consumers want healthful food, but they don’t want to sacrifice taste. Sodexo items are clearly identified as vegan, just not as part of their names.

Vegetarians comprise 5 percent of the population, and vegans, 3 percent, according to a 2018 Gallup poll . “The question is: How can I go after the other 92 percent of the population?” asks Morasco. “You have to make it crave-worthy.”

While the percent of vegetarians/vegans is holding steady, there’s been a jump among Americans who want to reduce their meat consumption and substitute some plant-based dishes — so-called “flexitarians.”

Addressing environmental concerns

As Americans realize that plant dishes require significantly less environmental resources, more consumers are interested in plant-based options. “The food choices we make have an impact, day by day, meal by meal,” Jacoby says. Chefs can help make these changes, not by forcing them, but by making it look attractive. Using the carrot, not the stick — in Jacoby’s case, Vedge’s “Wood Roasted Carrot.”

Plant-based burgers and sausages like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are popping up on menus everywhere, from fine-dining to quickservice. Las Vegas’ upscale Andrea’s restaurant dresses up the Impossible Burger with onion, peppers, mushrooms, serrano chili and Thai basil for its “Basil ‘Beef.’ ” Andrea’s menu also features “Thai Crispy Rice Cups” made with the Impossible Burger, mint, cilantro, chili, onion, ginger and peanuts. Meanwhile, White Castle offers the “Impossible Slider,” which can be topped with smoked cheddar cheese, pickles and onions, at nearly 400 locations.

Impossible Foods says producing its plant-based burger uses about one-20th the land and one-quarter the water than a burger made from beef, and it releases one-eighth the greenhouse gas emissions. Debuting in 2016, Impossible Burger is on the menu at about 5,000 restaurants nationwide. Sodexo’s Morasco credits the popularity of the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger products to their ability to simulate the taste and experience of biting into traditional meats.

Plant-based menus are particularly big at universities packed with eco-sensitive students, says Morasco. But don’t expect these dishes to overtake other menu items. “We still have chicken tenders and burgers. They’re still extremely popular at schools,” he says. “It’s about having options.”