I've always loved a challenge, and so have always been a chef who embraces a customer who chooses a vegetarian diet. For a long time I felt a little lonely, as most celebrity chefs a decade or so ago would dismiss the idea of making any effort, other than offering the ubiquitous mushroom risotto or pasta and tomato option, with some even openly admitting to sneaking chicken stock into a veggie soup. I find it very odd when many of the ‘old school’ chefs dismiss a paying customer as having no interest in food when, by the very act of choosing to go meat free, they are making a conscious decision about what they eat.
The options and ideas open to cooks at the moment are truly staggering; there's certainly no shortage of ideas or inspiration - just look at the Sunday supplements and groaning bookshelves that offer recipe after recipe. We should look to other nationalities for our inspiration: think of the spicy, full of flavour offerings from India, the inventive modern recipes from North Africa, and the Italians offering meat as a little extra alongside their pasta, polenta and rice. Even the most modern Michelin acclaimed restaurants are putting the humble veg at the very centre of their menus. So you’d be bang on trend by eschewing the meat as, in the words of Blur, ‘all the people, so many people, they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through their plant life’. I think that's how the song goes.
2018 is the year the vegan diet has finally moved mainstream. The Tipsy Vegan launched in Norwich last year, alongside Wild Thyme in Labour in Vain Yard and the River Green Cafe in Trowse, is one of Norwich’s busiest venues. Restauranteurs will ignore this market at their peril, as we all need as many customers as we can at the moment. Of course this move to a greener cuisine is good for the balance sheet as well, the butcher traditionally accounting for the lion's share of the kitchen budget!
The news that a new burger, the B12, is set to hit the UK market next month does leave me more than a little queasy however. Already launched in the US by British based company Moving Mountains, it is designed to mimic a traditional beef burger in texture, taste, smell and appearance. It evens ‘bleeds' like a traditional quarter pounder. Yet it's made from mushrooms, beetroot, potatoes with coconut oil and, of course, soya protein. I personally just don’t understand why you would want to make a vegetable taste of meat. Fake bacon, (yes, marketed as facon), pale cylindrical ‘mock' turkey roasts, even no-fish fingers have all received a soya based makeover. Why not let vegetarian food be an entity in itself, with no meat substitutes or pretend replacements?
I live in a household with two vegetarians and a pescterain, and, though I won't be joining the crusade any time soon, I’ve definitely cut down on what I eat. I think many of us are choosing to eat less meat but seek out a better quality, which is actually good news for your local butcher.
And if one thing's guaranteed to turn you to the meat side, it's a mushroom and potato concoction that's very rare and bloody!