WINNER: Richard Buckley of Acorn, Bath
“Acorn is one of the most exciting restaurants we’ve visited this year,” raved our judge after experiencing the vegan cooking of Bath chef Richard Buckley. Despite being a lifelong vegetarian, Richard didn’t want to cook vegetarian food. Or, at least, not the kind of stodgy lasagnes and worthy lentil bakes that most restaurants were offering at the time. Acorn doesn’t really shout about its vegan-ness because Richard wants to cook good food that just so happens to be vegan, rather than be defined by it. This is vibrant food that keeps diners interested to the last bite, with a balanced combination of flavours and textures. “This certainly isn’t nut roast territory,” gushed our judge, who singled out a main course called One Whole Cauliflower – an elegant arrangement of roasted florets, truffled purée, molasses-cured stalk and sautéed leaves, with onion and fenugreek croquetas to add crunch, and puddles of creamy, savoury spelt rice pudding for richness. There’s serious process here, too, with Richard working in “the lab” to get almond milk to form curds for the confit tomato our judge started with. He is justifiably proud of the rich mushroom parfait with a jellied top that looks for all the world like a chicken liver version, and tasted (to our omnivore judge at least) “even better”. This is not only clever vegan cooking but clever cooking full stop.
Head judge Laura Rowe says: “Richard’s food has continued to improve and improve over the years and it’s little surprise to us at O that he’s won this award. He impressed our judges with his approach to plant-based cookery, shunning easy wins from carbs or cheese, and instead displaying the true versatility and ingenuity that can be achieved with vegetables alone.”