With its trademark elegance and discretion, Dallas' revered retailer Neiman Marcus is inching its restaurant operation ever so delicately towards the future with a new chef and a subtle shift in its culinary direction.
While it will always save a place for the signature Neiman Marcus chicken salad and famed popovers with strawberry butter, the company is pursuing one of the biggest trends in dining right now: vegan or plant-based foods, with a refresh on the menu at its 33 restaurants and cafes in stores across the country.
To help execute that plan, NM vice president and executive chef Kevin Garvin recently hired Jessica Oost as corporate chef, replacing Anita Hirsch, who retired after serving in that role since 1999.
Oost most recently held the role of VP of Culinary Operations at Plant Lab, a culinary school founded by famed vegan and raw chef Matthew Kenney that specializes in plant-based cooking.
Kenney is a major figure on the vegan and raw food scene, having authored a number of cookbooks including such self-effacing titles as Cooked Raw: How One Celebrity Chef Risked Everything to Change the Way We Eat.
He's also opened more than a dozen restaurants, including a trio in New York: Japanese-inspired restaurant Arata, vegan pizzeria Double Zero, and Mexican restaurant Bar Verde.
Oost worked directly with Kenney as executive chef, opening restaurants such as Matthew Kenney NM, a restaurant at Neiman Marcus Beverly Hills (now closed), where she and Garvin met.
"I was so impressed with her style of interacting with people in the kitchen," Garvin says.
To clarify, Neiman Marcus' restaurants will not be vegan; they'll just be more vegan.
"One of the things I asked Jessica was whether she would do animal protein," Garvin says. "We have a tradition dating back to Neiman Marcus' original chef Helen Corbitt, with signature dishes that we'll always serve. But we want to stay on the forefront."
Garvin recently hosted a dinner at the Zodiac Room introducing Oost to some of their top Dallas catering clients — she'll oversee the local catering operation as well — where she wowed the room with dishes such as butternut squash "shooters," tempura-fried oyster mushrooms, short ribs, and a carrot risotto topped with crisp carrot slices that were reminiscent of bacon.
Her hire is not Neiman Marcus' first foray into healthy territory. Prior initiatives include listing calories on the menu, and adding symbols to indicate vegetarian or gluten-free dishes.
But Oost is likely to have a significant influence over a wide range of restaurants. She's doing recipe development for all the stores.
"Kevin wanted to do more plant-based items as a whole, because people are seeing the picture that this is the way to eat," she says. "Instead of doing one café or hiring a consultant, he hired someone who can expose the entire company to plant-based eating."
They're also looking to upgrade the way that Neiman Marcus procures produce and meats — "to find the best organic local meats and vegetables we can get, and to offer plant-based dishes where people can decide if they want to add proteins," she says.
As an example, they've adjusted their approach to salads by removing the proteins that came as an automatic topping. If diners want grilled lemon shrimp on top of their mixed green-quinoa salad, they are free to order it a la carte.
Oost is developing recipes that will be used at all restaurants, while also allowing for the individual chefs to cater to their local markets.
"We're building a chef-driven system where the menu is composed of staples and heavily plant-based dishes, and then let chefs create their own specials," she says. "They still have the freedom to be creative and execute with a smaller, more limited but thoughtful regular menu."
"In our stores, we have a clientele that's been shopping with us for years, for whom it's still a thing to eat at the restaurants," she says. "The culinary history is so rich."