Plant-based movement takes root in the world of Fine Dining. Gone are the days where vegans or plant-based foods are stigmatised in the dining scene. With growing consciousness of food sustainability and environmental concerns, plant-based foods have emerged as the norm rather than the exception.
According to the Good Food Institute, a record $3.1 billion was invested in alternate proteins in 2020, the highest amount so far in the industry. Among consumers who have tried plant-based meat, 80 per cent plan to replace some or all animal-based meat with plant-based meat in the next year. It’s no wonder that alternative dairy, eggs and meat have been sprouting everywhere, from supermarkets to fast-food chains.
Yet, unlike their fast-casual counterparts, the fine-dining world has lagged behind and only started to embrace change recently. Plant-based menus were either offered as month-long ‘Veganuary’ tasting menus or served as special orders for vegan/vegetarian diners. Today, top chefs are gaining cognisance of the ethical, sustainable and health benefits of a plant-based diet. They understand how their culinary creations or the ingredients used can spark conversations and create awareness. With deliberate decisions to go plant-based or figuratively turn over a new leaf, these chefs certainly make headlines as they advocate change in the gourmet world.
The Vegan Michelin Star
One such chef to make waves is Claire Vallée, founder of ONA (Origine Non Animale) in Arès, a small town near Bordeaux. Breaking away from traditional French meat-heavy cuisines, the restaurant focuses on organic and vegan dishes, serving local and seasonal produce made from 100% vegetal ingredients. In ONA’s early years, Vallée faced financial hurdles as banks turned her down, deeming the concept of a plant-based venture too risky. She had no choice but to turn to crowdfunding, an ethical bank La Nef, and volunteers to build her dream.
Going against all odds, Vallée’s herculean efforts paid off. In the short span of five years, ONA has put itself on every foodies’ wishlist, being the first vegan restaurant in France to earn one Michelin Star in January 2021. On top of that, the restaurant was awarded a Green Star, a new category created by the Michelin Guide that rewards restaurants that are “committed to advocating a virtuous, sustainable approach to gastronomy”. Yet, the most interesting finding is perhaps the fact that 95 per cent of diners are actually non-vegan, thus showing an increasing openness to plant-based foods, even among meat-lovers.
Turning the pandemic into a new culinary adventure
Another example of chefs going plant-based is Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (EMA), New York. With signature dishes of lavender honey glazed duck and butter-poached lobster, the restaurant was lauded World’s Best in 2017 and awarded three Michelin Stars in 2021. EMA was shuttered due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it was this watershed event that allowed the team to re-evaluate their menu and food philosophy. “The way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable. And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact, so we decided that our restaurant will be 100 per cent plant-based,” said Humm on a podcast with National Public Radio.
IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Fried Pepper with Swiss Chard, one of the upcoming plant-based dishes by Daniel Humm at EMA
This bold move sent shockwaves not just in New York but around the world. Critics expressed concern about the economic viability of a restaurant with high overheads in Manhattan. On the flipside, Humm’s decision was met with support from the Michelin institution itself. Gwendal Poullenne, director of the Michelin Guides called it an ‘exciting new chapter’ and ‘a way to please the customers while exploring new avenues.’
EMA’s fate remains unknown till it reopens its doors in June 2021. However, the 180-degree menu change has the media and plant-based community abuzz with excitement, while turning heads in the global fine dining scene.
Le Cordon Bleu goes green?
Perhaps the most poignant indicator of change comes from the world-renowned culinary institute, Le Cordon Bleu. Recognising the growing appetite for plant-based products and cuisines, the institution launched a new programme in 2020 — the Diploma in Plant-Based Culinary Arts programme. The 3-month course with bi-annual intakes consists of six modules educating students on cooking techniques, vegetable ingredients and plant-powered nutrition.
IMAGE: By Le Cordon Bleu | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Roasted Cauliflower Steak
Although not the first of its kind, this programme marks a seismic shift in the culinary industry. Time-honoured institutions are finally giving plant-based chefs their due recognition while also supporting the burgeoning industry with the training of new talents. This will have a ripple effect in the culinary scene and perhaps serve as an inspiration for more chefs to embrace plant-based menus.
A deliciously promising future
Taking everything into consideration, the plant-based movement is redefining the notion of fine dining and not just a ‘flash in the pan’. Chefs are the custodians of the culinary world and are more than just glorified cooks. As culinary artists, every plate is a blank canvas to showcase unique plant ingredients and innovative techniques, satisfying and educating diners with every bite. With positions of considerable influence, each dish is food for thought with the power to evoke contemplation in our role as consumers while advocating positive change in the food industry. The ultimate goal is to create a more sustainable and inclusive world of gourmet plant-based dining, where even meat-lovers can enjoy a meal that is completely meatless.
This is the beginning of a new era, but certainly a deliciously promising one.
This article was in partnership with our friends at Green Monday.
FEATURED IMAGE: Cecile Labonne | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: One of the dishes served at ONA
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