Winning with plant-based: meet the chefs making vegetables work for them

The  Staff Canteen

For a growing number of restaurants, putting more plant-based food  on the menu is an increasingly appetising option. 

We're half way through January - and for many, committing to a dry, detox, depriving month - is wearing thin.  

We spoke to chefs Nitin Pawar, Kirk HaworthSkye Gyngell and Eddie Shepherd - about their decision to swap beef for beets - and what chefs can gain from being a bit more vegetable-focused. 

Ignoring trends can be costly 

To use the age-old phrase, the customer is always right, and according to a 2018 study, over a third of Britons had either stopped or reduced eating meat in the decade prior.

Thus it is inevitable that more chefs and restaurants will create more vegan and vegetarian dishes. While customers can't expect to find vegan dishes in specialist eateries like steak houses and fish restaurants, the clue is in the industry's name: hospitality. 

"You don't want to lose customers just because they're vegan and you can't serve vegan food," said Kirk Haworth, executive chef of Plates.  

And bucking them can be lucrative

Ex-Petersham Nurseries chef Skye Gyngell - now at the helm of her own venture at Somerset House, Spring, has taken the public's newfound love for all things plant-based and ran with it. 

Her Scratch menu, which changes daily, using only vegetables which would have otherwise gone to waste - bringing the restaurant's waste percentage down from 30 percent to 4 - gets people through the doors before the dinner rush kicks off. 

"It gives a beautiful atmosphere in the room. It doesn't earn us a great deal of money, but you've also got to remember we haven't got a food cost on there - we have really nice food costs at the end of the month because of it."

It's hard to argue with; it's not only good for the planet and a great way for her chefs to be creative and think on their feet, but it also happens to be an extra source of revenue. 

Cooking with vegetables forces you out of your comfort zone, teaching you new skills

Nitin Pawar, head chef at The Cavendish, whose a la carte menu already features a number of vegetarian and vegan dishes, created an entirely plant-based menu this month, which he says has been a resounding success.

Despite never having subscribed to a vegan diet himself, the chef said he did "a lot of research and experimented with unique plant-based ingredients," which he said would certainly have an influence on his cooking moving forward.

"It’s showed me the versatility of vegan foods – it’s amazing what you can achieve through clever use of the varying textures, flavours and richness of vegetables, without the need for animal-based products."

Cooking with vegetables helps you be a more sustainable chef

The sustainability argument is not just a public consideration - chefs think of it too.

Chef Kirk Haworth said: "I don't preach and say that people should eat a vegetable-based diet because I understand that diets are very personal. I understand how much work it is to create vegan options so if restaurants or chefs decide not to do it we must be respectful of that also. "

The chef explained that he had just returned from a trip to Estonia, where he is working on a sustainability project. When giving a talk, it emerged that out of eighty people, just two followed a plant-based diet.  

"I said to them: imagine if everyone in Estonia ate a vegan diet twice a week." 

"Imagine the impact that would have on the environment. It's not too hardcore on you - on your bodies, and that. Then imagine if every single country in the world did that." 

Making vegetables shine 

But for Kirk, who had to radically change his diet when he was diagnosed with Lyme disease - it was never political. 

"I think when you're a cook you don't really think about it you just cook meat and fish, you don't really think." 

For Kirk, chefs need to look at it from a different perspective, which is to say that it isn't about excluding meat, so much as making vegetables taste their best.

"This year I've really tried to understand from that other vegan aspect of it -  I'm trying to showcase vegetables in a new light and give it its own genre." 

"I'm just trying to just showcase vegetable cookery." 

Pushing new boundaries 

Despite the acceleration in its ubiquity, plant-based food has been around for a long time - and some chefs have been practicing high-end vegetable cookery throughout their career.

One such chef is Eddie Shepherd, owner, and one man-band on the pass at The Walled Gardens Underground Restaurant, a plant-based restaurant in Manchester. 

And while he could see the plant-based dishes appearing on menus everywhere as competing with his own, he sees it as a largerly positive trend which will raise the bar of what is available. 

"It's only going to improve quality - it's just crazy to see how quickly it increases." 

"For me, selfishly, if I go out, ten fifteen years ago you weren't guaranteed if you went somewhere with a star or somewhere with a tasting menu, they would probably cater for vegetarians but maybe not necessarily."

"Now I feel like I could book into somewhere, not only knowing that they will have certainly thought about vegetarian options, but good, high-end places like, we're going to go to Sat Bains' in a couple of months, and I know that their veggie version of the menu will be amazing. 

"It's nice to see that overall the standard has risen - and people's understanding of the fact that it doesn't have to be rubbish has faded." 

All in all, while the plant-based trend might not be for all chefs, largely still seen either as a specialism or as a way of reeling empty-pocketed customers out of their houses after an indulgent festive period, restaurants and chefs may stand to gain from paying some attention: new skills can be learned, as well as a sense of responsibility. 

Kirk Haworth, chef owner of Plates and Chef's Wellness founder

What do you think chefs? Are you in favour of putting more vegetables on your menus? Join The Staff Canteen and share your thoughts, recipes and ideas with the UK's largest community of chefs!

This feature is sponsored by Unilever Food Solutions. 

At Unilever Food Solutions, we want to support chefs to embracing the shift in demand for plant-based dishes; not only for their benefit in their business, but for the future of our planet. We're here to equip you with the tools you need to tackle plant-based cooking challenges head on, starting with our digital guide.


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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 22nd January 2020

Winning with plant-based: meet the chefs making vegetables work for them