Chefs should consider the demand for plant-based and vegan diets


Ten years ago, if you dedicated part of your menu to plant-based dishes your colleagues may have chuckled. And your customers may have skimmed over these options. But now, the past 12 months have seen vegan and plant-based diets soar in popularity. And Australia is at the forefront of this global movement, placed just behind the UK on a ‘vegans per population’ index, according to Chef’s Pencil 2020 survey.

Vegan and plant-based diets also show significant uptake on Google: a seven-fold increase in these terms being searched (2014 to 2019) and nearly four times more interest compared to vegetarian or gluten free diets.

While vegan and plant-based diets are similar, it is worth noting some important differences: a plant-based diet consists of almost exclusively of plants, but some people include small amounts of animal products. A vegan diet totally eliminates all animal products.

Vegan and plant-based diet’s popularity are predicted to keep soaring. Once a fringe food movement, in the past five years it has become mainstream due to a few factors:

  • accelerating consumer awareness, harnessed by social media
  • environmental concerns
  • confrontational documentaries (such as Cowspiracy, What The Health, and The Game Changers) focused on animal welfare
  • concerns about farming (mainly cattle) with regards to the climate crisis
  • greater health awareness (again social media)
  • and, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than halt the rise of veganism, COVID-19 hastened its popularity. Time at home allowed people to reflect (and research) on their diet and health; augmented by food supply disruptions and soaring meat prices – Australian beef and veal prices reached a record high during the third quarter of 2020 according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. Consequently a significant number of people tried and liked plant-based and vegan alternatives. Deliveroo revealed vegan takeaway orders rose by 163% between Jan 2020 and Jan 2021; over half a million people across the globe signed up to 2021 Veganuary (a ten-fold increase on a few years ago); and HappyCow (the leading vegan app) noted that the only sector of the restaurant industry that saw significant growth (including new openings) in 2020 were plant-based fooderies.

Indeed, the world does seem to be moving closer to the plant-based revolution that Alphabet – the little-known parent company of Google – predicted in 2017.

So, what does this food revolution mean for the restaurant industry? Firstly, recognition. Vegan cuisine just received the world’s highest fine-dining accolade. Two weeks ago, French restaurant ONA was awarded one Michelin star. The is a first for an animal-free establishment in France, the country where cheese is treated with reverence and meat is seen as fundamental. Claire Vallee launched ONA (Origine Non Animale), in Ares near Bordeaux, in 2016 with the help of crowdfunding and an ethical/green bank loan. She said that traditional banks said plant-based eating in France was too risky.

The main concept of ONA is to discover new tastes – crunchy, raw, cooked, creamy, sour, crisp. All of Vallee’s dishes embrace discovery: sea lettuce, black salsify and mertensia maritima; celery, tonka and amber beer; and boletus mushrooms, sake and fir (tree). Vallee also achieved a green clover, which Michelin introduced last year, to reward establishments who practice sustainable gastronomy and take responsibility for the conservation of resources and protection of biodiversity.

Closer to home, in Melbourne two chefs are living on-site in Federation Square in a sustainability display called Greenhouse By Joost. For three months, chefs Matt Stone and Jo Barrett will live in this solar-powered house, growing, eating and presenting all their own food. This 100 per cent sustainable, urban farm has vertical veggie gardens, mushroom walls, fish and yabby tanks on the roof, crickets on the menu and a worm farm consuming all the waste…including the toilet.

Demand for plant-based and vegan diets is at an all-time high, and the industry will need to adapt to the needs of mindful consumers. For chefs and restaurant owners, having plant-based options on the menu will appeal to their awakened customers, and keep pace with this growing global movement. If Guinness can change their centuries old practice of using fish bladders in filtration, then any recipe can be adapted.