The Plant-based Battle for Hearts & Minds

As a long-time writer of all things restaurants I have always had the pleasure of being able to eat the whole menu. Indeed, as a “normal” meat and fish-eating customer I have always relished the term I used to describe as “menu-dilemma”. In other words, there were often more than one dish on the menu that I wanted and the dilemma was in the choosing. It’s a comforting feeling and one that I associate with eating out.

So, I was very shaken recently during a conversation with our own Events Executive Alice Kamara, who is a vegetarian with vegan leanings, when she told me that more often than not, she feels like an awkward customer and never has the luxury of being able to eat the whole menu.

As soon as she said that I realised that there was something wrong with the way vegans and, to a lesser degree, vegetarians are marginalised in restaurants. To them the luxury of an entire menu dedicated to themselves has been, largely, unavailable save for a number of specific restaurants that cater to them.

“My dream is veggie-only restaurants,” Alice explained. “I’d love to be able to eat the whole menu including desserts. But, so often all I ever get to do is choose an option. I’m a second-class guest.

“Also, and I find this a big problem, I don’t always want a vegan burger or a fruit salad. The state of play at home now is that I can eat well. There are vegan dishes and meat alternatives that make shopping and eating more fun. But the same cannot be said for restaurants.”

Twenty years ago these statements were dismissed as faddish. Just vegans. But, times have changed. The whole world has changed and today vegan philosophy, for the very first time, is in the ascendancy.

Indeed, chefs who are not thinking about their plant-based guests should be and those that are not giving over menu inches to plant-based are missing a trick. By not considering the other half they are missing out on a growing number of would-be guests who have already decided they want to go somewhere else.

“I definitely choose a restaurant now based on the amount I can eat on the menu,” Alice continued.

It’s easy not to want to think about this. It’s easy to say – well, we’ve got some vegan options. But that is no longer enough. Alice’s statement about wanting to be able to eat the whole menu has a substance to it that cannot be ignored.

So, what does it all mean? What does the future hold?

The recent move by 3 Michelin-starred Daniel Humm may hold a clue. When he decided to go all vegan that did not go down well at Claridge’s where he had a restaurant: Davies and Brooks. They parted ways. Humm’s 3 star restaurant in New York, Eleven Madison Park, is now all vegan. It remains to be seen how other senior restaurants follow suit – and how many customers like Alice vote with their feet.

“I want to eat something that I can’t get at home,” Alice further explained. “Equally, I don’t want to pay £20 plus for a main course of vegetables. Something has to give.”

That’s a good point. The cost of meat and fish is high and is the reason that menus are expensive. But a vegan option doesn’t have that cost associated with it and the perception is that, therefore, it should be cheaper.

“I believe that chefs do not like vegans,” Alice said emphatically.

I thought about that and what it meant.

“I don’t mean that personally,” she went on. “I just mean that we are harder to cook for. A piece of meat or fish is the star of a dish. It contains its own flavours. But vegetables are often harder to flavour and require more thought and work. And we expect them to be cheaper. That’s why I think chefs don’t like us.”

She has a point. So, are there any restaurants that are fulfilling her dream of being able to eat the whole menu?

“Yes!” Alice said. “I was in London recently and had a meal at Clean Kitchen Club. It’s all vegan and it was a treat to know that I could order everything. I’m excited about Purezza – an all vegan pizza restaurant chain and I had a great time at Mildred’s which is a vegan restaurant group.

“It showed me that there is a growing number of restaurants that are slowly getting more sophisticated where I can feel at home and enjoy the whole experience.”

The obvious conclusion of this conversation is that I, too, could enjoy the whole vegan experience as well. Just because I am not a full-time vegan does not stop me from enjoying it some of the time – which is increasing.

The problem chefs face is where to stand. Do you offer an option or do you offer none or do you go all vegan?

“It’s a conundrum,” Alice revealed. “We are not easy to cook for and I understand that but I believe we are a growing force and the more chefs and restaurants embrace us the more we will be tempted out to spend our money.”

What about the new meat and fish alternatives? Are they a way for restaurants to draw in vegans?

“I like products like redefine meat and This!” Alice said. “However, I don’t always want a meat alternative. I do sometimes. I told you I was difficult! I loved Exose Grant’s Redefine Meat lamb kofta at the 10th Anniversary lunch we had for The Chefs’ Forum in Manchester. It was delicious and it has a place. I had it again at Chotto Matte and Mr White’s in London. It definitely has a place. But plant-based as a philosophy is more than just having an alternative. We want our cake (vegan) and be able to eat it.”

Alice Kamara talked to The Chef’s Forum Editor Chandos Elletson.