By Jill Alphonso
Branding & Editorial Consultant, Loaded Gun Kitchen
Oof… I don’t know about you but the latest food news that catches my eye is usually plant-based. That is not because I am vegan, or even entirely vegetarian (yeah, I eat fish and sometimes - ugh, the bacon). But I do try to stick to a whole foods, plant-based diet as much as possible because it only makes sense (ethics, health, planetary concerns etc).
So when I stumble across restaurants or chefs doing plant-based food, I want to taste to see how I myself can learn to cook better at home. What are the textures like? What veg are they using?? How are they saucing the dish?! What’s in the bloody sauce?? I wanna know as much as possible - and more.
With this mindset, I was bingeing the 2019 season of MasterChef, the last that aired pre-COVID. The challenge – Backyard BBQ. The star of the show – beef. Huge cuts of it were laid out on a table… Tomahawk steaks, T-bones, rib-eyes… It was a feast of flesh, described by the judges as ‘beautiful’.
Watching this in 2021 when many are up for adopting plant-based diets (or at least up for getting more plants into their diets), I thought: “A huge chef needs to announce that they’re going meat-free – and talk about it lots.”
Epicurious.com recently announced its departure from beef recipes. That it had taken the direction over climate concerns is an even better result. And Burger King also announced it would open its first plant-based outlet this summer. Celebs like Arnold Schwarzenneger, Lance Armstrong and Jackie Chan also backed the Netflix show Game Changers – a must-watch for anyone needing information about the benefits of going largely meat-free. They talked freely about how they feel on the diet, and why it’s good for the planet.
These are all steps that will lead more people to at least trying to say goodbye to meat but where, I thought, are the big chefs in this mix?
Of course, as the New York Times noted in its recent article on three-starred (and previously meat-focused) Eleven Madison Park going vegan, there have been chefs to announce that they are eschewing meat. The Bay Area’s Dominique Crenn did so for her restaurants in 2019. Then there’s Alexis Gauthier in London, who turned his outfit vegan because he himself is vegan and it would be “unethical of me to profit from selling dead animals”. But I’m still waiting for a household name to make the leap.
The reasons for going more plant-based all make sense. Not even going into health or animal issues, the climate concerns surrounding the meat and dairy trades alone are enough to make a person stop and think - as I am sure you are doing.
- Animal agriculture is responsible for more emissions than all the trains, planes, trucks, and other vehicles in the world.
- Beef may be the most carbon-intensive to produce; the amount of energy it takes to produce just a 113g burger can power an iPhone for six months. The facts surrounding farming of pork, chicken, duck, fish and so on are all just as bad.
- To be sustainable, we should eat just 57g of poultry or seafood a day. We currently eat around 156g on average.
Any person concerned about the above would be pushed to make a change. And for many flexitarians like myself, I’d like to be shown how to transition to a plant-based diet - and keep doing better.
If I was to give myself a ‘number’, I’d say I’m 70% plant-based. One gap in my own knowledge is how to keep going. That, to me, is where a big-name chef could really come in and grab the bull by the horns. How are they dealing with the change? How are they feeding their families – and their customers? What exactly are they feeling and facing when it comes to cooking veg all the time?
Where are the Gordon Ramsays and Joe Bastianich-es in this conversation? Why does it matter? Well, to me, professionals taking the lead inspires me and informs me to help me with my own super-basic cooking skills.
Here are a few things I personally realised when restaurants took on plant-based items.
1. Their menus got way more colourful and my plate got so much more interesting.
Luke’s steak house here in Singapore does a plant-based burger at lunch (yup!) and it’s made from beets, prunes and oatmeal and has a crazy smoke flavour. That inspired me to try some recipes of my own - to varying degrees of success, but at least I had a baseline for what I was trying to make!
2. Eleven Mad acknowledged that while its ingredient costs will go down as it turns vegan, its labour costs will rise.
The reason: Plant-based processing (as Loaded Gun Kitchen well knows) is time-consuming.
A meat-based eater used to spicing, searing and serving would balk at the time it takes to strip, chop, pulse, bake and grind plant-based ingredients. I know this too, because that was me when I transitioned from a meat-based paleo/keto regime to a largely plant-based diet in 2018.
3. Information always helps.
When I made the shift, I looked on YouTube, Instagram, various blogs. I read countless books. I needed to learn how to cook and create great flavours with veg - STAT. Yet finding good, reliable (and tasty!) sources of info also were tough (sorry, but the Forks Over Knives cookbook just didn’t cut it for me).
A big chef making a stand for plant-based eating and developing whole foods, plant-based recipes around this, would help people taking those steps forward today. They would also be setting an example for those still leery of going for a veg-focused diet.
My colleagues at my corporate workplace have opted for meatless Monday lunches. But they also send pictures with jokes about their ‘sad’ plates to a group chat. Would they be doing this if a celeb chef helped shift their mindsets by speaking on how delicious ‘green’ can be, or how to keep full by eating more grains and grazing throughout the day? It would not solve the problem entirely, but it sure would help.
Whatever the case, I suspect that with more chefs staring down the rabbit hole of meat production and its effect on the planet, that big name will emerge.
Your move, Master Chefs.