Branching Out

There’s an old saying that goes: ‘Meat is meat, and man must eat.’ These days, however, chefs would be wise to balance their meat, poultry and seafood offerings with plant-based fare that combines innovation with great taste, competitive pricing, social consciousness and health benefits.

“Thirty-five percent of respondents said they eat plant-based burgers at least occasionally,” Mark Brandau, an analyst with third-party research firm Datassential, says in reference to a survey conducted in January. “We asked consumers what motivates them to try more plant-based items, and while health reasons ranked highly, they said taste is paramount. They need to be convinced it can taste better, or as good as meat. They also mentioned if it were more affordable than meat, they’d be more willing to try it.” The most common type of plant-based foods consumed today are plant-based burgers.

For restaurateurs, the message is clear, he adds. “If you can thread that needle – offering a plant-based substitute that’s competitively priced and tastes good, it’s a really good proposition. What’s more, 29% of people say reducing their impact on the environment is important to them. So if you can find plant-based items with a low carbon footprint, definitely market that.”

At the University of California Los Angeles, Chef Joey Martin, senior executive chef of dining services, says promoting the planet’s health is an important part of the university’s ethos. He introduced more vegan choices in keeping with the university’s ambitious goal of a 10% reduction of animal proteins year-over-year, and steered toward using ingredients with a low carbon footprint.

“We created a ‘soy-frito’ where tofu, sautéed with onions, peppers, garlic and spices, serves as a meat substitute for taco salads, burrito bowls and any application that requires it,” Chef Martin says. “We also offer pink lentils seasoned with Latin spices, a vibrant looking dish that’s full of flavor.”

Promoted for their low carbon footprint, these vegan dishes have steadily gained traction on the menu and are distinguished by a green planet icon that translates to low carbon footprint. Other dishes that have a high carbon footprint have a red planet, indicating that the ingredients have traveled further distances and required more resources to make it to the plate.

“We’re very transparent about the choices we’re making in our dining services,” Chef Martin says. “We don’t want to limit our diners’ options, but we do want them to understand the reasoning behind our choices.” To that end, each week the university gathers student focus groups where debates on the subject go back and forth.

“Telling the story of why we’re doing this and having guest buy-in is our biggest opportunity,” Chef Martin says. “We are training our students to be the next ambassadors, so when they leave the university they will promote this kind of food out there.”

Beyond Vegan

At Honey Salt, a farm-to-table restaurant with locations in Las Vegas and Vancouver, Elizabeth Blau, founder and CEO, has a special vegan menu aside from her regular menu and features rotating vegan specials each week. There’s a slow-roasted cauliflower steak with seasonal vegetables, arugula and chimichurri (above), and a butternut squash curry in which parsnips, carrots, basmati rice and chickpeas are served with a coconut-milk-based sauce. Both dishes menu for $19.

“If you’re vegan, you’re used to making accommodations on a menu,” she says. “We don’t want people who refrain from eating meat to feel like second-class citizens. We don’t believe in fake meats, nor do we believe you have to sacrifice flavor or excitement in a dish by losing animal protein.”

When her culinary team creates a new vegan or vegetarian dish, the focus is on maintaining overall balance while playing with flavors and textures using seitan, seeds, nuts or even mushrooms. While fried chicken sandwiches and the restaurant’s animal protein ‘backyard burger’ still outsell the vegan offerings 10-to-1, Honey Salt still celebrates and continually innovates with its vegan offerings.

Going for the Gut

At Pinewood Kitchen & Mercantile in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Chef-Owner Mee McCormick (above, right) goes one step further, focusing on gut-friendly, allergen-free menu items. “Gut health is about creating food that supports people in their wellness — menu items that are probiotic, loaded with lots of plants and are delicious; this is the face of the new hospitality,” she says. “The variety and diversity of ingredients is what influences our health.”

Chef McCormick continually reinvents her bean burgers, rotating beans like black-eyed peas, chickpeas and lentils, and adding parsley, onions and garlic. She also folds in grains — from quinoa one day to rice or millet the next. Sautéed onions, bell peppers, garlic and mushrooms add additional texture and flavor.

Every weekend, Chef McCormick sells out of her tomato soup, a rich soup made with almonds or cashews, nutritional yeast, tomatoes, basil, onion and garlic, and finished with probiotic-rich miso paste. Her carrot weiners (above, left) — which contain a striking absence of processed, vegan meats – are among her top sellers. Peeled carrots with rounded ends are simmered in a marinade of tamari, liquid smoke, cumin, mustard and apple cider vinegar until the carrots are softened but still retain their shape. They sit in the cooler overnight and are grilled the next day and served with pickled squash and turmeric relish. “I want to inspire people to eat more plants,” she says.

Even the guests at Pinewood Kitchen, which is located more than an hour from the nearest city, continually ask for meatless options, Chef McCormick says. “The people who eat in my restaurant are southern, rural people, and they still want the vegan options. So, don’t think your customer doesn’t want it,” she says. “I’m here to tell you people want to eat and feel better. If you give them more plant-based options, you will win over your diners.”

Chef McCormick believes some chefs and restaurateurs are overlooking a major audience by not introducing or increasing their offerings of plant-based foods. “There’s always at least one person in a family who wants to [forgo meat], and the media is telling consumers to eat more plants,” she says. “This means we have to make substitutions and give customers what they want. That old idea that there should be no substitutions on a menu has to go away because diners want to go to a restaurant that supports them and is thinking of their health and wellness.”

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