Plant-Based Cuisine, a new Speciality Cuisine?
The virtue of being proven wrong
Sometimes it feels good to be wrong. I mean “dead wrong” on something I was supposed to know. I didn’t believe in such a drastic evolution in both the offer and the demand for plant-based foods, plant-centered restaurants and such… not only in the USA or the UK, but worldwide. I plead guilty of wishing it but not believing in it. To my defense, the percentage of self-declared vegans has stayed pretty much stable around 3% in most developed countries during this period of time. But something else happened. 92% of plant-based meals are eaten by non-vegans (1) I didn’t saw that coming.
Times are changing!
Aleluya ! (inside voice) Finally a real game changer. As any real Parisian may enjoy a pizza on a Sunday night or Mexican tacos from time to time, why not enjoy a plant-based brunch after your morning run?
People can be attracted by colorful, healthy and tasty plant-based cuisine without associating it necessarily with the animal liberation movement. It is the kind of change that I have been patiently waiting for. I became vegan 15 years ago for personal reasons. Since then, I always wanted to open plant-based cuisine to anyone. Yes, 100% plant-based cuisine is suitable for vegetarians, vegans. But I believed that its appeal could go way beyond this first circle. It can spread to health or eco-conscious up to any curious eater looking for a different culinary experience. It is liberating to finally see people looking for your food, simply because they enjoy it, even when it is only from time to time.
It is not exactly inspirational to limit your work to people having no other options and people who feel like they must eat this way only (as a restrictive diet). I hardly know any inspired cook who doesn’t want to prepare something that anyone can enjoy, be intrigued by or curious about. Obligation isn’t really the most appealing driver to answer to. We need to open our kitchens to a new audience. Curiosity is fine, health reasons are not to be ashamed about, looking to feel well after eating is ok. Whatever brings you to eat more plants is perfectly fine! Just eat more plants! It opens the way to a new speciality cuisine: the plant-based cuisine!
The food industry got the message pretty quickly…
Being optimistic doesn’t imply being naive. It is true that the demand is all about vegan junk food, vegan cheeses and new bloody vegan burger patties (3). The food industry realized that some restrictive diets, like vegan or gluten-free, can generate a juicy business. They suddenly realized that a simple “vegan” label attracts millennials attention. It is easier for them to buy out “vegan startups” (example: the acquisition of Alpro by the Danone group) than to question or transform the way they are used to produce food. A new form of green-washing is making its way in marketing and advertising campaigns. Sadly over-processed vegan food will soon become as unhealthy as any over-processed food. The food industry is meant to make profits. It is no surprise that they will keep trying to save on costs using cheap ingredients and to extend the shelf-life of their products using preservative techniques or additives while making it as addictive as possible using the right combination of sugar, salt and fat. None of these criteria are related to your well-being.
Some interesting niche food companies are dedicated to producing good quality plant-based ingredients that will make a big difference for restaurants by helping to lower the workload, to keep consistent standards and to deal with scaling constraints. I have to admit that the “Just like Feta” by Violife Food is crazy good… Which doesn’t mean that you have to stop making food from scratch if you prefer to do so.
There is room for a creative answer
A true creative call can hardly be answering only to business considerations. It’s time to feel inspired and to take on this challenge in a colorful and playful way. It surely means going beyond the mimicking syndrome and going further than mass-production of simili, mock and other fake cheese or meat. These products can be a starting point, but first steps are not meant to be the ultimate destination.
I wish to see plant-based cuisine becoming a new speciality cuisine as different as Japanese cuisine is from French cuisine. I wish to see a new generation of Plant-Based specialized Chefs like you have chefs specialized in French, Thai or Mediterranean cuisine.
Sometimes, a weakness is a source of strength and resilience. It is clear that plant-based cuisine is still at an early stage of development in terms of available ingredients, recipes or naming conventions and even more so in terms terms of culinary repertoire or specific cultural background. Plant-based cuisine is a baby, who needs to growth by revealing its true identity and differences.
For Chefs, it is the opportunity of a lifetime ! A blank page to express your aspirations and creativity. You don’t have to follow existing rules or strict conventions from an established culinary heritage. You get to define your own set of rules. You get to compose and play within the plant ingredients in whatever manner that inspires you. The challenge for conventionally trained chefs is different from self-taught plant-cooks. They need to be willing to “unlearn” some cooking habits and culinary conventions to start really to experiment with plant-based cuisine.
Why talking about Plant-Based Cuisine and not vegan food?
Vegans are people, their movement goes beyond food. They are advocating for animal liberation. Plant-Based Cuisine is the craft of preparing dishes using 100% plant-based ingredients. Plant-Based meals are suitable for vegan people, plant eaters, vegetarians, flexitarians as well as any omnivorous eater looking for a different culinary experience. The naming convention “plant-based” is self-explicit, descriptive and doesn’t carry any political connotation (2). Plant meals are naturally lactose and cholesterol free and tend to be low in saturated fats and refined ingredients especially when prepared from scratch.
Plant-Based is not always suitable for gluten-free diet (it can be based on wheat or associated grains like barley, rye, spelt, kamut…). Rice, Corn, Buckwheat and Quinoa are naturally gluten-free.
Plant-based is not a synonym of organic food. These two can work very well together but are not related.
Raw (ie Raw Vegan) is a subcategory of plant-based cuisine like Sushi for Japanese cuisine, where the ingredients are unrefined and not cooked over 46°C (in order to preserve their original nutritional benefits). Culinary wise, it is a challenging art of dealing with constraints. Some techniques and preparations are interesting sources of inspiration for plant-based cuisine.
Whole Food Plant-Based is another subcategory cuisine, prepared from scratch, avoiding the use of refined ingredients (especially added sugar, salt or even oil also named “SOS” Free for Sugar-Oil-Salt). A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet (WFPD) tends to be healthy and rich in micronutrients (ie vitamins, fibers, phytonutrients…). This way of eating attracts beyond vegans especially for health, preventive or lifestyle reasons.
Develop Plant-Based Cuisine as a new Speciality
Free yourself from the mimicking syndrome. Play with freshness, well-sourced ingredients, light colorful creations and subtle flavors and fragrances. Use a diversity of cooking techniques, ferment, age, dry, marinate… a diversity of textures… develop your skills in the art of mixology with spices, herbs, flowers and natural fragrances.
Inspiration is everywhere… a fruit you like, a color, a fragrance, a combination of flavors, a dish, a type of cuisine, a piece of design… like a DJ, feel free to revisit techniques, dishes and ideas you like.
Asian flavors are of good inspiration for plant-based cuisine. Mediterranean influences are also great sources of culinary inspirations. Any traditional cuisine can be outrageously transformed and re-created in your very own creative way. Just don’t copy/paste by substituting few ingredients. Think your dish and make something out of it, really.
Keep your standards high by spending time to select the right ingredients (or even push it further and grow your own herbs, micro-greens, leafy-greens and flowers). The quality of the cuisine reflects the attention in sourcing the ingredients. It is always better if you have nothing to hide. To select your ingredients, prefer seasonal, origin or local, quality over quantity, taste and flavors over shapes and external aesthetic. Food is by nature perishable and ephemeral, good food goes bad quickly. Keep it fresh.
Each ingredient plays a full role culinary and nutritionally. Any whole plant comes with a plentiful of nutrients. Prefer to avoid nutrient depleted refined stuff and play with colorful and flavorful ingredients like black or red rice versus white polished rice.
Fast Casual is the new chic as soon as you don’t compromise on the quality of your ingredients.
Don’t be shy and do crazy things like:
- Reversing the traditional eating pattern (which tends toward a heavy evening meal and revered the dinner as THE social and culinary event). Morning and lunch can become interesting culinary experiences too. People may enjoy eating during the day versus late at night. Most plant-based café are day time places, open from the morning up to sunset. An avocado toast is more a brunch thing than a midnight fix. By the way, chefs have the right to sleep at night too.
- Forgetting the classical convention of “appetizer — main — dessert” to offer a series of courses to share (sometimes served all together), a selection of small bites to taste or even one balance bowl as the unique item for a meal.
- Purposely mixing sweet, sour and savory in the very same dish! (separating sweet from savory is important in conventional cuisine as cheeses and meats pair usually better with salty side dishes).
- Forgetting to bring a knife on the table and replace the flat plate by a bowl… As you don’t need to cut your food like you would do for meat, it is not like you really need a flat surface and a knife. Feel free to serve your dishes in a bowl with a fork and a spoon (or chopsticks and spoon). Like in Chinese cuisine, the knives can be the chefs favorite toy and stay in the kitchens.
- Not platting a “noble” ingredient (like a piece of meat or fish) at the center of your dish with the secondary ingredients on the side. It is indeed a very common convention, especially when some ingredients are supposed to be “the one piece” of value, but in plant-based cuisine there is not need for such a hierarchy between ingredients. Veggies are not anymore restricted to play the supporting actor as the optional garnish lost in a corner. You can make any humble heirloom veggie the star of your dish, if you feel inspired to.
Three plant-based cuisine forms working well:
- Small Bites for Tasting and Wine pairing (like Tapas or Mezze platter…)
- Series of dishes (sweet & savory) to share (typical of Thai Cuisine)
- Power Bowls (…buddha bowls, vegan bowls, poke bowls…): a composed dish that includes a grain, a legume, a good ratio of veggies, a sauce to pair well and a topping. Each ingredient can be prepared using different cooking techniques and displayed in a deconstruct way next to each other in one bowl. You enjoy different tastes, textures while having a balanced and healthy meal (without counting macro or calories or worrying about nutrient deficiency). It can be easily made available in personalized ways like “select your own” (one choice per category, served in a bowl) or “make your own” (selection from a buffet).
It’s now your turn to play! And to craft the plant-based cuisine that you wish to exist.
At Blue Lotus Hua Hin, we are constantly working to keep adding our small bricks of inspiration to the plant-based culinary edifice. So that you can develop more plant-based dishes on your menus! ** Update 2022: following the COVID-19 outbreak, the Blue Lotus Hua Learning Center for Plant-Based Cuisine has been closed. Blue Lotus Hua Hin is now an independent Boutique Resort.
For more, check my webpage with my projects, cooking books and articles.
- Kantar UK, Consumer study https://uk.kantar.com/consumer/shoppers/2019/only-3-of-uk-self-define-as-vegan/
- How ‘plant-based’ rebranded vegan eating for the mainstream — Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/voraciously/wp/2019/02/15/how-plant-based-rebranded-vegan-eating-for-the-mainstream/
- Burger King deal fuels plant-based meat group — Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/5ce0f058-54a8-11e9-91f9-b6515a54c5b1