Vegan food from a non-vegan chefs' point of view
I started my journey as a vegan chef 3 years ago. When I was offered to take over the kitchen in The Hopsack - an institution in the Irish health food scene since 1979 - my knowledge of vegan cuisine came from the Lent menus in Greece. The Greek Orthodox Church applies a different concept to Lent to their Catholic counterparts. Instead of banning chocolate and wine, they stick to advising the believers not to consume meat or dairy product for 40 days before Easter. Then, for Easter, everybody feasts on whole lamb cooked over embers on a spit.
For restaurants, this period means that a lot of recipes that would contain meat or dairy must become meat-free. For example, kolokythokefdes (Zucchini fritters with feta cheese) become vegan. Beans, peas, artichokes become staple menu items for this 40-day period. Not all restaurants follow this trend, but a lot of places that have an older clientele would. Around the world, from the Far East to Russia and Ethiopia, fasting for religious purposes has always included either complete or partial abstinence from meat.
For many, the father of European vegetarianism is Pythagoras. We all know him as the father of geometry. Pythagoras, though, primarily run a school of philosophy and esotericism. He was a bit like the Deepak Chopra of 500 BC. He banned meat and fish, believing that the soul is present in all living beings. Thus, consuming living beings was deemed morally wrong.
Vegan Food and Sustainability
Fast forward to 2020 and a lot of people are agreeing with the ancient vegan maths teacher. Kalsec published a detailed analysis of food trends for 2020 considering the main trends globally. The report contains trend predictions from Mintel, Waitrose, Business Insider, Yelp and many other leaders in the food industry. Sustainability, plant-based menus and global fusion of flavours are the key trends in the global market. The Kimpton Hotels and restaurants report reaffirm these trends.
Add the alarming findings of the Lancet Report in the mix, and the image is clear. Unless we reduce the number of animals that go through our passes we will run out of food.
"Transformation to healthy diets by 2050 will require substantial dietary shifts. Global consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods such as red meat and sugar will have to be reduced by more than 50%. A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits" Prof. Walter Willett MD Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health In Ireland, Deliveroo reported a growth of 126% in vegan food orders and the number of providers that cater for this market grew by 168%.
From vegan theory to practice
When I asked the head chef of a neighbouring restaurant to give me a hand with a catering gig, the answer was a definite no. "A load of chopping - he said - not worth my time".
Ok, yes. There is a lot of work involved in preparation in vegetarian and vegan restaurants. Vegetables need more attention when it comes to extracting the right flavours. But it is also more challenging. It really depends on the profile of the restaurant and the menu involved. If we are talking about fine dining, I don't think that a fine-dining classic restaurant and a vegan fine dining restaurant differ much from a workload point of view. However, casual dining restaurants that operate with minimum staff per shift will not look forward to adding more work to their mise-en-place. As chefs adjust their menus to match plant-based trends, we need to look at ways of responding to the growing demand for plant-based dishes in Ireland. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that simplicity and cost-effectiveness should guide us.
Below I would like to share a few of my ideas about how to veganise your menu and offer my 2 pence on some of the latest plant-based trends. I understand a lot of this information is prior knowledge for most experienced chefs. On the other hand, I am hoping that up and coming chefs will benefit from this brief summary.
Impossible Burger, Seitan and other fake meats
Lately, we have seen technological innovations that answer the vegan call. Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have grown to become the flagships of industrially produced vegan food. I stand unimpressed. What is the point of creating food which is packed with chemical compounds and tastes just like meat?
There is a streak of vegan militant ideology that would applaud anything that doesn't involve the slaughter of animals. But what about sustainability. The processing plants of the likes of The Impossible Burger have as much of an environmental impact as a meat processing plant. At the end of the day does it really matter if the carbon emissions come from trucks that transport fake meat or real meat? Soy, also, is a monocrop that depletes the soil. Thus, overreliance on soy protein adds to the woes of deforestation and unsustainable agriculture.
Seitan (a gluten-based ingredient) has had a front seat in many vegan menus. But having a dish that is over 60% gluten will give your stomach the feeling of having eaten a brick layered with coconut oil. I avoid it, as at the end of the day, the health of my customers comes first.
Instead, I look at local ingredients that I can combine into patties. The aim is not to offer something that tastes like meat, but a portion of good solid ingredients that explore new flavours. Seaweed is a local superfood that one can use in veggie patties. Kale, celeriac, parsnips, red cabbage, they can all be bound in burger formation and offer nutrients that can meet customer demands. Buckwheat flour, pea protein, flax and hemp seeds can be added to boost the Omega3 and protein presence. But if you are looking for a pret-a-porter version, Strong Roots, an Irish Company offer a seaweed and root burger that is to die for.
Soup of the day - Your vegan BFF
One easy and very cost-effective way to introduce a vegan option to your menu are vegan soups. Creamy, packed with goodness and free of dairy and wheat, you can have a vegan and gluten-free option that requires little preparation. This solution makes sense as it also reduces waste. Broths, Asian Noodle soups can also add a welcome twist. I have a corn chowder as a staple item on the menu. Velouté, one of the mother sauces, works well with coconut oil, or olive oil instead of butter. Also corn flour, maize and tapioca can be helpful binders. The rest is down to cost and imagination.
Keep your salads vegan
It is self-evident, but when designing salads there is always the temptation to include dairy and charcuterie. Both charcuterie and nut cheeses are similar in price. As a result, including a vegan cheese option for your microgreens’ salad, can showcase innovation and trend awareness.
The Deep Fat Fryer Swimmers
Bhajis, fritters, corn dogs, tempura ... the list is endless. All you need is a good vegan batter and high-quality veggies. I personally prefer turning these fryer recipes into oven recipes. Simply because a deep fat fryer in a health food eatery is as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle. Having said that, cuisines all over the world have used deep-fried vegetables as stand-alone starters. Garlic mushrooms, that staple of every bar food menu can easily turn vegan.
From vegan moussaka to vegan gratins
Most vegan restaurants will have a version of layered veggies in bakes. Oat mylk works wonders for a vegan bechamel. Nuts and beans are present in almost every vegan bake. Instead of leaving them whole, I prefer to use them in a creamy form to bind the mixture together or add them on top for a crunchy finish. Here one needs to look at ethnic cuisines that have a tradition in veggie bakes. My favourites are Sicilian, North African and Persian Cuisines.
The endless list of curries and casseroles will give a ton of opportunities for plant-based creations to any chef looking to veganise their menu. Where an aubergine peanut masala might not suit the presentation of a fine dining restaurant, deconstruction will lend a helping hand. My rules here are simple. I build around the sauce, then add roasted vegetables and finish with fresh ingredients. And if you think that Thai Curries have been overused, move over to Iran for a Gormeh Sabzi or Palestine for a Makhlubeh.
Med Veg right? Well, not really. One way of changing flavours and textures is playing with different temperatures. Low-temperature roasting sous-vide, dry grill charring, smoking. Marinating vegetables beforehand with creamed fruit such as apples and kiwis can make roasted aubergines and tomatoes taste pretty unique.
Vegan Pastries and Desserts
The cashew nut "cheesecake", coconut rice pudding, yeast cakes, baklava, kadaifi, confits of whole fruits. These are all desserts that did not become vegan for the sake of millennials. Places where meat was scarce and dairy products almost non-existent have a wide variety of sweets in their arsenal of wholesome goodness. There are a lot of recipes that offer vegan options for classic desserts such as pannacotta. As a rule of thumb, if there is a traditional plant-based dessert that fits the menu, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Money talks - meat walks
First and foremost, vegetables on average cost less than meat. It is wise to have a good mix of high end and basic produce. So, forget about samphire and Shimeji mushrooms and focus on brown cups and seaweed instead. Versatility is key to veganising a menu. If your ingredients fit in your menu like a mandala you are on the right path. For example, let's take sweet potatoes. They are a medium-priced vegetable at approx. €2.00 per kg wholesale. If you use them only for Sweet potato chips, then you are offering very expensive chips. Bear in mind that potatoes work out at €0.60 per kg. But if you incorporate them in burgers, casseroles and desserts, you are adding value, nutrients and colour, which will help you with charging premium prices for your main courses.
The rise of plant-based cuisine will continue as we need to adjust to new demands. Plants are the main source of components with anti-inflammatory, health-promoting properties. Meat and dairy cover one part of the nutrients we need to thrive. Personally, I find the vegetables with their endless variety of textures, flavours much more fun to work with. As a bonus, I am happy that I don't have to scrub animal fat out of my ovens. Food trends are born out of the interaction between the creators/ producers of food and the consumers' reaction. As such, they express the interconnectedness of cultures and eating habits throughout the world. Consumers from different backgrounds exchange ideas with regards to taste and nutritional value. This free flow of information allows the contemporary chef to deploy creativity in order to offer dishes that boost the health of consumers as well as satisfy their palate-based exploration of the culinary world.
Head Chef - The Hopsack
Kosta graduated from the Professional Culinary School of Piraeus. He started his career in Athens in the Pentelikon Five Star Hotel. He spent two years as a Junior Chef de Partie in The Andromeda Boutique hotel and White Elephant restaurant under the guidance of Chef Kenneth Paterson, one of the pioneers of Fusion Cuisine. He travelled and worked as a chef in the UK and Ireland. He took over as Head Chef of the Hopsack Health Food Outlet 3 years ago. He is studying Botanical Cuisine in TUD. Zero-waste, fusion cuisine and soul food rock his boat. He writes about health, nutrition and sustainability.