Lots of people overindulge on New Year’s Eve, but on Dec. 31, 2016, Josh Berry took this annual culinary excess to a whole new level.

Berry, the executive chef at Union, the restaurant in Portland’s Press Hotel, had each of his sous chefs cook him an over-the-top meat dish. That night he chowed down on a veal porterhouse. He devoured some pork belly. And he wolfed a serving of lamb meatballs.

“We had this gluttony, Game of Thrones kind of meal that was all just meat,” Berry recalled.

On New Year’s Day, while still digesting that massive amount of meat, he took the big leap into vegetarianism. For the next year, Berry would let no meats, eggs, or bacon or beef fats touch his lips. “I couldn’t live without dairy, though,” Berry said. “I got most of my protein from yogurt, honestly. I’d eat probably two cups of yogurt a day, and lots of soy protein. But it was fun. It was a lot easier than gluten.”

Yes, Berry is once again a carnivore, but this year he is going gluten-free. When it comes to this new dietary challenge, the chef doesn’t mince words.

“Gluten-free sucks way worse than vegetarian,” he said. “It’s horrible. But it’s taught me a lot in a couple of months already about the struggle that someone with celiac (disease) must have.”

Berry has long wanted to experiment with his diet so that he could get firsthand experience of what it’s like to live with food restrictions, and could embrace the trend of meatless meals. He figured the exercise would help him improve the menu choices at the restaurant, too.

Many people experiment with vegetarianism, trying it for a week or a month or a year; then they either make a commitment or revert to their old ways. But it’s different for a chef, who must worry every day about the quality of food – all of the food – going out to his customers. Before the food hits the table at Union, typically the cook on the “station” that made it tastes it, then the sous chefs, then Berry, all checking that a dish is cooked and seasoned properly. It wasn’t until the fall of 2016 that Berry felt his kitchen crew’s palates were trained well enough to leave the tasting of the restaurant’s meat dishes to them.

Matt Duley, Union’s executive sous chef, says he was surprised when Berry announced his plans, “but at the same time I could understand his reasoning. If you’re not on a strict vegetarian diet, you might not understand vegetables the same way someone who is vegetarian or vegan would.”

MMM, TOFUNA

Berry doesn’t remember what his first vegetarian meal was, but he does know that he gained about 8 pounds during the first month of his no-meat year. That’s because he made the rookie mistake of substituting carbs and sugar for meat. He ate loads of pasta and breads, and stacks of grilled cheese sandwiches. By February, he realized he wasn’t incorporating enough vegetables into his diet, and he started kicking off his day with juices and smoothies rather than coffee. (He didn’t give up coffee altogether.) He also started experimenting with tofu and other plant-based products.

One of his early go-to foods was a mock tunafish salad. Berry would dry a block of tofu really well, then grate it on a box grater, push it through a fine-mesh sieve, or chop it fine. Then he’d add a little sour cream, celery, onion, fresh dill and shallots.

“The guys hated it,” Berry said of his staff. “They’d say ‘This looks disgusting, chef.’ I called it tofuna.”

While Union is not a vegetarian restaurant, Berry began developing new meat-free options for diners. For the spring menu last year, for instance, he cooked some local carrots sous vide in bulgogi spice, then charred them on the grill. Tofu puree added protein and softness to the dish.

A vegetarian and gluten-free dish of roasted chickpea falafel with roast cauliflower, Harissa aioli and plumped flamed raisins at Union. Chef Josh Berry of Union went completely vegetarian last year and then decided to go gluten-free this year. He says trying out these dietary restrictions gives him a better understanding of his customers’ needs. He’s added some new items to the Press Hotel menu as a result. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

He also made “mushroom bacon” by slicing portabellas, marinating them in Liquid Smoke and soy sauce, then smoking and roasting the mushrooms.

“It didn’t taste like meat, believe me, but it was a cool mushroom condiment,” Berry said. “So we experimented. There were a lot of epic failures, but some things worked out well.”

About 10 out of every 100 guests at Union are vegetarian, Berry said, and another five or six have other dietary restrictions. Berry always tried to have one vegetarian item on the menu even before his experiment, but during his vegetarian year he decided he wanted to be able to pull the meat off any of the dishes on the menu and make them vegetarian by substituting tempeh, tofu, falafel or panisse (chickpea fries that are popular in France and Italy). Thus the popular Casco Bay Cod entree that’s been on the menu since Union opened – served with littleneck clams; soy brown butter; bok choy; and lap cheong, a Chinese fermented sausage – became tempeh with bok choy, soy brown butter and smoked portabellas.

One of the most difficult dishes he tried was lentil gnocchi made without eggs. He ground red, beluga and French lentils, then had to figure out how to blend them, how much water to add, and how to boil them without having them disintegrate.

“We finally figured out something that actually worked, that would hold its shape in boiling water, and it worked out great,” he said. “We put it on the tasting menu and it was awesome. But that started out as lentil dust.”

Other challenges: Berry was invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York last March. His two sous chefs and his executive sous chef got the job of ensuring the three animal proteins on the menu – clams, duck and lamb – were properly prepared.

He also had to deal with a lot of ribbing from his staff: “Chef, you should have tried this, it was great.” “Hey chef, there’s one last piece of bacon. You sure you don’t want it?”

“On the down times, they tried to sabotage me at every moment possible,” Berry said, laughing.

Even on his very first day. That day, Union’s pastry chef, Dave Robinson, made some egg-free, gluten-free apricot muffins. Berry always tastes the gluten-free muffins – the restaurant has a daily gluten-free option – but as soon as he took a bite, “Dave looked at me and said, ‘it’s apricot and bacon.’ I’m like, really? The only time you’ve ever put bacon in these muffins, and it’s the first day I’m ever going vegetarian in my life?”

A broccoli and kale salad with optional salmon. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

But the staff also supported Berry, making suggestions for vegetarian dishes. Sometimes –if there were, say, hidden bacon fat in a dish – they kept him from eating things he shouldn’t.

WALK IT OFF

What did Berry miss the most during his vegetarian year? Eggs. And fried clams, which he will have to give up for his gluten-free year as well.

His most difficult moment, however, came when Union’s pastry chef was heating beef fat for Yorkshire pudding.

“That roasting beef smell was wafting through the whole kitchen,” Berry said, “and I said ‘Matt, I’ve just got to go for a walk right now. I’m having one of those days, man, I’ve just got to get out of here for a second.’ ” Berry says although he was sorely tempted many times during the year, he never knowingly cheated.

About six months in, Berry and his physician started planning how the dietary challenge would end. His doctor cautioned him that he should ease back into eating meat. Start with just eggs in January, he suggested. In February, add chicken and fish.

Berry followed his doctor’s advice, eventually. But first, he broke his meat fast on New Year’s Day with a few bites of prime Kobe steak prepared by Duley. The next day, he ate a slice of bacon. It was only after those two indulgences that he switched to mostly eggs. The first week, he only ate egg whites.

Jan. 1 marked not only the final day of Berry’s vegetarianism but also his first day of gluten-free living.

“It’s funny because last year at this time I was ballooning up, and now I’ve probably lost six pounds,” Berry said, because he no longer tastes the cakes, breads and madeleines the restaurant serves.

Berry hopes that going gluten-free will give him ideas for how to avoid bad gluten-free pastas. He has already replaced the flour he used in some dishes with rice flour, which is gluten-free. Robinson, the pastry chef, is experimenting with different brands of gluten-free flour, too.

Most people who come into Union asking for gluten-free food do not have celiac disease, Berry said, but he is already gaining an appreciation for how difficult it is for people who are gluten-free or gluten-intolerant to eat in restaurants.

So what else did Berry learn after a year as a vegetarian and two-and-a-half months of gluten-free eating?

Reading labels more carefully gave him a better understanding of what goes into America’s food.

While he likes locally made tofu, Berry says mass-produced brands sold in grocery stores have “no flavor.” And he hates seitan: “It tastes like saturated cardboard.”

His “proudest moment,” he said, was realizing how he could rely on his staff to step up to the challenge. Berry said his chefs now have a greater sense of ownership over the restaurant’s menus because they were writing more of them. “I really saw the team blossom.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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