The vegetable era has arrived. No longer are carrots, beets, and cauliflower mere accessories, fated to sit humbly alongside whatever noble proteins are being honored by the chef. At Dirt Candy, a vegetable restaurant in New York, Amanda Cohen tempts unbelievers with an irresistible starter, much as the wicked witch captivated Hansel and Gretel with that gingerbread house.

Almost all customers begin their meal with jalapeño hush puppies—hot, crunchy, spicy, and sweet on the inside. A side of maple butter adds to the bliss. When I last ate there, the hush puppies were soon surpassed by re-imagined onion pancakes, soft and puffy; fried cabbage jalape on a kohlrabi-noodle salad; and most astonishing of all, parsnip pillows on grilled watermelon radish. The parsnips in fact constituted new-style gnocchi, more alluring than the traditional Italian kind.

"What you're eating," Cohen said to me after that meal, "are not luxury ingredients. My vegetables come in bags. This is not Per Se, where every vegetable is beautiful and comes from someplace else. The carrots I serve here are just carrots."

But of course, they are not. We are entering a time of equalopportunity eating—vegetables have achieved parity with meat and fish, inconceivable throughout most of my lifetime. They have taken their place at the center of the plate.

Until recently, few chefs had come close to unlocking the genetic code for transforming vegetables into satisfying main courses. Those who tried were considered freakish, like the alchemists who tried to change lead into gold. Finally, Cohen and other chefs have created the soul-satisfying entrée that is not a half pound of beef. "Vegetables," she says, "are the Wild West of cooking."


My generation possessed deeply personal thoughts about vegetables. We disliked them, each of us in our own way. It's not that we didn't eat them. We consumed multiple servings of McDonald's fries.

I grew up not caring if I ever saw another salad. Only twice do I recall an uncooked vegetable astounding me. One was organic asparagus served at the restaurant Sean's Panaroma in Australia, the other a Mokum carrot plucked from the earth at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

When all right-thinking people insisted that vegetables be organic or heirloom, I remained unmoved. I have until recently characterized the eating of vegetables as a chore. I had little affection, merely a distant regard, for anything green other than mint-chocolate-chip ice cream.

Vegetable-based idealism was invented by Alice Waters in the '70s, which means that almost a half century passed before vegetables ascended to the pinnacle where they are now. If the process was slow, her acolytes were many. Most prominent was Dan Barber, who worked at Chez Panisse, her Berkeley restaurant, and has matched her as a vegetable idealist—he's the man who grew that Mokum carrot. Her pedestal is so broad it accommodates all manner of chefs. René Redzepi of Noma, known for foraging, is among her admirers. So is David Chang of Momofuku Ssäm Bar, identified with pork.

To me Waters's greatest legacy is not her idealism and unrelenting proselytizing for organic vegetables. More worthwhile is her dedication to all plant life, including the ugly sort. In the front ranks of those that rose from lowliness and obscurity were Brussels sprouts.

I recall them served cut up, seasoned with a splash of sherry vinegar, and fried crisp at Vetri in Philadelphia. They made the tectonic plates of my animal-protein palate shift. I ate them whole, with palm sugar and tamarind paste, at Little Serow in Washington, D.C. Then I encountered the Brussels-sprout taco with almond mole at Empellón Cocina in New York, and I knew that the future of Brussels sprouts was safely in the hands of the hipsters. After all, they're the people who influence how we eat these days.

Kale has made the greatest comeback of all vegetables. One winter day it appeared in a salad at Battersby in Brooklyn, crisped up and placed atop veggies dressed with fish sauce, garlic, and chiles. An entire borough was transfixed. Last year kale started making inroads in Paris, where the exceptionally vegetable-friendly Alain Passard of the Michelin three-star Restaurant Arpège said, "It has a personality, a character, a power. It unlocks creativity. It touches on all the senses."