After years of settling for a garden salad and a side of chips, vegans and vegetarians across the UK are enjoying a surge in plant-inspired innovation across the restaurant industry. Angela Frewin reports
A revolution in plant-based eating is well under way. “While vegetarians once had trouble ordering when dining out, choices these days extend much further than a simple salad or pasta,” says David Partridge, head of food development at Fresh Direct. “Now, the spotlight is being shone on the once unassuming vegetable and it is taking centre stage in such an irresistible way that even meat-lovers are wanting a taste. Veggie-centric dishes are part of a major movement in the culinary world, with an increasing number of chefs delivering bold flavours to ingredients that were once solely considered for side dishes.”
It’s not just the burgeoning ranks of flesh-rejecting vegetarians and ovo-lacto-averse vegans powering this plant revolution. The biggest boost is coming from meat-reducing flexitarians with similar health, animal cruelty and environmental motivations.
A new way of thinking
With plant-based meals appealing to a growing audience, high street restaurants “need to position themselves as a go-to destination for both meat eaters and vegans to remain competitive,” says Bidfood campaign manager Vicky Tripp. A token dish won’t do – meat avoiders and reducers are demanding choice and diversity across all courses, warns Alice Bexon, purchasing manager at buying group Beacon. Its leading supplier, Ribble Farm, suggests using vegetables as a substitute for meat in traditional dishes, such as portobello mushroom patties and cauliflower steaks.
“To avoid menu proliferation, one of the key pieces of advice is to offer plant-based dishes that will appeal to all diners, not just those who are vegetarian or vegan,” suggests Gordon Lauder, managing director of Central Foods. That’s the idea behind its new vegan (and gluten-free) frozen Menuserve meals of cauliflower and lentil dhal bundt with spiced mango, or Cajun-spiced sweet potato roulade with vegan cream cheese, red pepper and black bean salsa, plus two baked cheesecakes.
“Many international cuisines have a far stronger vegetarian or vegan heritage, in comparison to the UK’s traditional offering of meat and two veg. This means that there’s often a long history of developing truly sensational plant-based recipes,” says James Robinson, product trainer at Spanish operator and supplier Brindisa, whose new Navarrico chickpeas aren’t just for hummus and salads – they make hearty meat replacements in casseroles.
Popular and versatile curry and rice dishes are adjustable for both carnivores and meat-avoiders, says Tripp at Bidfood, which offers vegan versions of jambalaya and Keralan curry.
Meat your match
Tofu and Quorn are facing new challengers with direct meat replacements. Jodie White, marketing manager at Bunzl, describes Beyond Meat’s pea and beetroot juice-based Beyond Burger as “the world’s first plant-based burger that looks, cooks and tastes like a fresh beefburger – it even bleeds!”
Bland but flavour-absorbing jackfruit is in vogue, adds Bidfood’s Tripp: “It can be shredded, giving it a very similar texture to pulled pork, which can be used in tacos and burritos and as part of the popular Tex-Mex trend.” Similarly chewy seitan – made from wheat gluten – has the appearance and texture of shredded duck, making it ideal, she says, for vegan Asian dishes, such as mock duck pancakes, noodles, rice and broths.
French chef Alexis Gauthier – a high-profile vegan convert – convinced many with his ‘faux gras’ (a blend of lentils, mushrooms, beetroots, walnuts and shallots) launched recently at his Gauthier Soho restaurant. And similar vegan substitutes include the much lauded aquafaba (chickpea water), and frozen avocado flesh, which can be a great replacement for eggs in desserts, such as in dark chocolate mousse, says Brakes food marketing manager Becky Hover. White suggests substituting sugar and milk in brownies with sweet potato, and flour and milk in pizza with cauliflower and almonds.
Protein-rich cheese adds not just flavour but essential nutrients that are sparse in vegetarian fare, such as iodine and vitamins B12 and D. James Millward, managing director at Eurilait, suggests making cheese the star of a dish, such as halloumi burgers, baked Camembert and deep-fried Brie wedges. Ribble Farm sees rennet-free quark as a low-fat, low-calorie alternative to cream and béchamel sauce.
The vegan cheese market is predicted to approach £3b by 2024, while the number of new vegan ice-creams has more than doubled since 2014 globally. Veganarella, Dairy Partner’s first vegan offering, provides coconut oil-based mozzarella and Cheddar alternatives, designed to mimic the structure, texture and melting properties of dairy. Bidfood offers coconut- and rice-based vegan cheeses, including Parmesan and mozzarella replacements, along with a soya bean-based ice-cream range.
For home-made, dairy-free gelato, Michele Stanco, training and development chef at ice-cream equipment specialist Carpigiani UK, suggests combining nuts with soya, coconut, rice or almond milk for a smooth consistency.
Make your mark
Clear labelling is essential for on-the-go meals, where the Vegan Society found 91% of vegans struggled to find suitable options. Mr Lee’s Pure Foods Co plumped for the internationally recognised Vegan Society logo on its newest gluten-free noodle pots, while Planglow’s vegetarian and vegan stickers and Bunzl’s vegetarian and dairy-free Label 2 Go stickers help operators highlight meat-free takeaways.
Menu design plays a critical role in take-up – research by a London School of Economics graduate found frequent vegetarians were 56% less likely to order a plant-based meal if it was listed in a separate vegetarian section rather than being incorporated in the main menu. Conversely, highlighting plant-based dishes as chef’s specials increased take-up among infrequent vegetarians. “Foodservice outlets will need to try different possibilities for menu design to find out which works best for them,” concludes Lauder.
Nevertheless, Jo Robinson at We Create Clarity suggests trialling some in prime positions: “Providing the food sounds delicious, it seems that many meat eaters will choose a vegetarian or vegan option when eating out, so you may find that they are as popular as the best-selling meat options – but with a higher margin.”
• There are 1.2 million vegetarians (NDNS/NHS 2017) and 16.5 million flexitarians (Mintel 2017) in the UK
• UK vegan numbers soared by 360% between 2006 and 2016, from 150,000 to at least 542,000 (Vegan Society/Ipsos Mori)
• 3.5 million people in Britain now identify as vegan (Comparethemarket.com, April 2018)
• Half of UK vegans are aged 15-34 (Vegan Society 2017) and 10% of 16- to 24-year-olds are vegan (Mintel/TUCO 2017)
• Menu mentions of vegan dishes rose by 72.3% year-on-year in 2017 (Technomic)
• Demand for vegetarian options grew by 987% in 2017, and 11% of UK adults tried to follow a vegan diet (Just Eat)
• 28% of people are meat reducers (Mintel 2017) and 44% are reducing their intake of red meat (Mintel 2018)
• 200 million additional meat-free evening meals (+7%) were consumed in 2017 than 2016 (Kantar WorldPanel)
• The meat-free market will be worth £658m by 2021 (Mintel)
Back to school
The Vegetarian Society Cookery School, based in Manchester, has refreshed its professional chefs’ diploma course to include a full day on vegan pâtisserie and desserts.
The five-day intensive course includes workshops, information about nutrition, discovering new flavours, menu planning, practical cooking sessions and an introduction to vegetarian and vegan ingredients. Chefs will learn how to maximise flavours and adapt menus to keep them on-trend.
The next course runs from 8 to 12 October. Find out more at www.vegsoccookeryschool.org
An “explosion of interest” in vegetarian and vegan options over the past year means that Scandi-style café Baltzersens now offers Oatly’s Barista Edition oatmilk (the café’s favourite) along with Alpro soya, coconut and almond milk. It’s also trialling Artemis nitro cold brew as a vegan iced latte – served on draught, its velvety head gives a thicker, creamier mouthfeel, says owner Paul Rawlinson.
“We have limited space in our kitchen, so our menu needs to remain fairly tight,” Rawlinson explains. “Offering more variety has been about altering methods and finding ways to offer vegan versions of our existing dishes.” He substitutes egg yolk with potato and tapioca-based Orgran egg replacer in cakes, and with aquafaba in the garlic aïoli that accompanies Baltzersens’ avocado on toast.
“The holy grail is to find a recipe with universal appeal as this reduces waste,” he adds. He pairs the Baltz Bowl (pictured above) of cooked rye, nuts, seeds, pickles, beans and salad with chicken, salmon or halloumi; similarly, he replaces butter with rapeseed oil in Baltzersens’ vegan pyttipanne, a type of potato hash, which comes with spinach and mushroom in place of halloumi or smoked sausage.
Seeds of inspiration
The web is awash with plant-based recipe inspiration, but Seedbank (www.seed-bank.co.uk) targets foodservice operators. Vegetarian Express, the UK’s only dedicated plant-based foodservice business, designed the interactive recipe service to provide operators with vegetarian and vegan meals to tempt meat and non-meat eaters alike.
Recipes can be filtered by occasion, world flavour inspiration or main ingredient, and come with nutrient analyses, allergen and sensitivity lists, and environmental benefits.
Increased demand – particularly from B&I, foodservice, schools and universities – prompted Vegetarian Express to launch 10% more products in the past year, including bigger packs of jackfruit and tempeh (a fermented soy-based meat alternative), Khorasan grain, and Korean gochujang chilli paste. Pipeline products include a plant-based frankfurter and seitan with Italian, smokey and Cajun flavourings.
Bunzl Catering Supplies www.bunzlcatering.co.uk
Carpigiani UK www.carpigiani.co.uk
Central Foods www.centralfoods.co.uk
We Create Clarity uk.wecreateclarity.com
Dairy Partners www.dairypartners.co.uk
Fresh Direct www.freshdirect.co.uk
Mr Lee’s Pure Foods Co www.mrleesnoodles.com
Ribble Farm www.ribblefarmfare.co.uk
Thomas Ridley Foodservice www.thomasridley.co.uk
Vegetarian Express www.vegetarianexpress.co.uk