Comfort Foods With a Plant-Based Twist

With more and more consumers becoming interested in sustainability, the demand for plant-based food is increasing. In order to help chefs think about comfort food from a plant-based lens, ACF recently hosted the “ChefsForum: Healthful Dining Options; Classic Dishes Re-Imagined” webinar, which featured a demonstration by ACF Chef Christina Bodanza, CEC, CDM, Executive Chef at UF Health – The Villages Hospital from Morrison Healthcare. Chef Sarah Winchell, MPA, CDM CFPP, Culinary Arts Instructor at Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, was the webinar moderator and we spoke to her about her opinions on how chefs can become more comfortable with plant-based dishes, as well as where this area of cooking is going.

Q: What are the trends you’re seeing in plant-based food today?

A: I see more people that are not vegetarians, vegans, or pescatarians exploring more with how they can have protein options that aren’t animal based, or how they just transition one meal a week to make it all fruit and vegetable based. I see that becoming a huge trend also with health awareness, and people looking at how they eat and what they eat. I would like to think there can be some sort of abolishment of fad diets and diet culture, and just better health choices.

Q: Do you think it’s challenging for chefs to make regular comfort foods meatless?  

A: I think it’s challenging, but I don’t think it’s unattainable. I think it becomes a way of thinking. When you’re learning something new or you’re trying to figure out a solution to a problem, it can be a challenge, but you can make it happen. Not all of us have that time and energy sometimes, or that passion to put into that part. So while it can be a challenge, it can also be a really exciting journey.

Q: What are some tips you’d give chefs thinking about re-imagining different dishes to make them meatless?

A: I always think about how I can make a menu item I love that doesn’t need to have meat in it as the main component. I think about something as simple as a split pea soup. I’ve always had some sort of pork product in split piece soup, and I started thinking, is that the most important component to the soup, or do I really like the saltiness that it brings? Do I really like the texture that it brings? And I found that what I really loved was the smooth creaminess of the split peas and how hardy and filling it made me feel, and how it really is a taste memory of those times when it’s colder and you have something literally and figuratively warming to sit down with. So I try to look at what I love about these foods and how I just make those small changes.

Q: What are some mistakes chefs make when trying to make a dish meatless?

A: One thing I see a lot is when we think of meatless options, we add mushrooms. I see so many chefs just fall back to mushrooms like, “Oh, we’re not doing beef. We need a vegetarian option, let’s do mushrooms.” I think that’s been a fallback quite a bit.

Q: Where do you see the future of plant-based foods headed?

A: I see it being incorporated more into our everyday lives. I see it becoming more readily available at convenience stores as convenience stores are taking this turn to providing more grab-and-go items and already-made items. I see it coming into more of the fast food market or the quick-service restaurants, as well as our higher-end restaurants.

To see the demonstration of comfort foods with a plant-based twist, watch the “ChefsForum: Healthful Dining Options; Classic Dishes Re-Imagined” webinar on ACF’s YouTube channel.