Groundbreaking plant-based dishes in restaurants

18 January 2023 by

Whether recreating a dish in a vegan guise or producing startling new flavours with recipe redevelopment, these chefs have all cooked up a vegan dish that is truly groundbreaking

Blettes de la Mer (vegan bouillabaisse) by Alexis Gauthier, chef patron, Gauthier Soho, London

"Having grown up in the South of France, I really wanted to create a vegan bouillabaisse. After being trained in the classical French style and learning to make a fish stock from reductions of fish and shellfish, I thought it was impossible not to use them. But after many, many years of experimenting, I had a lightbulb moment: what I thought was the flavour of fish was actually the flavour of the sea. So I began experimenting to create a vegan ‘sea' stock, using plants and seaweed that the fish themselves feed off, which I found gives you an even more pronounced and precise flavour of the sea.

"We create the sea broth from a combination of dry and fresh seaweeds, including nori, kombu royal, haricot de mer, sea lettuce and red dulse, along with onion, carrot, white wine and water. We also add some lentils, which are very mild in flavour but help to recreate the thickness of a stock. It's cooked for a number of hours, we then pass it and reduce it, before adding other flavours, such as saffron, fennel or herb du province, depending on which dish it will be used for.

"All the ingredients are so much more refined and you can't hide behind the animal flavour. We must have tried hundreds of recipes before getting it right. We never had a bad recipe, but some were not as strong, some needed more vegetable and less seaweed, others had too much vegetable and not enough alcohol.

"The sea broth – or ‘fumet simple de Mer' – is used as the base of many dishes. But last year I transformed it into the most amazing bouillabaisse, which tastes more of the sea than anything I've cooked. It was on my summer menu as ‘blettes de la Mer', using swiss chard [blettes] braised in the broth to which I add saffron. The chard has the slightly fibrous texture you find in white fish, and it was quite moving to have the flavour of the sea and the texture of the chard and the vegetables, which absorbed this flavour. It was like eating the sea while sitting in front of the Atlantic ocean and having the sea breeze hit you."

Tiramisu by Giovann Attard, executive head chef, Norma, London

"Obviously a classic tiramisu uses eggs and dairy, so for this plant-based version I have instead used almond milk, coconut cream and almond cream. I wanted people to experience a tiramisu that tastes just as good as the original, so this vegan version is as close as possible in terms of taste and consistency. I think this version works particularly well because coffee and chocolate go really well with coconut, which is one of the key ingredients in my recipe.

"Trying to recreate a recipe that is typically non-vegan is always trial and error – not everything you try is going to work. Each vegan recipe I have created is about improving it with every try. With this recipe I found it challenging to gain the creaminess and stability of the tiramisu without using the dairy-based cream and eggs that usually provide that. By leaving the coconut cream in a cold place, the water will separate and can be removed. This gives the coconut cream a thicker consistency, which helped a lot in creating a vegan tiramisu that tastes as good as the original."

Fermented grains, shiitake, fermented cep and spent coffee by Alex Bond, chef patron of Alchemilla, Nottingham

"This dish is a perfect example of the ethos of the restaurant: it uses preservation techniques, it's minimal waste, big flavours and showcases simple ingredients. I think plant-based cooking needs to have big flavours.

"The base of the dish is fermented grains topped with a mushroom caramel made by fermenting imperfect ceps – for example, those with snapped tops or soggy bottoms. On to this we place shiitake mushrooms from a small-scale, local producer who grows them on a bed of used coffee grounds collected from local businesses.

"The mushrooms are barbecued before being warmed in a teriyaki-style stock made with dried mushrooms and local honey. On top of these are placed a scattering of smaller shiitake from the crop.

"Shards of coffee porridge are made from oats, spent coffee, butter, water and sugar, which is spread out and dehydrated to make a crisp. The final touches are wood sorrel, a little bit of mushroom powder, some of the cooking liquor from the mushrooms and finger limes."

Aslam's butter cauliflower and aubergine steak by Daniel Watkins, co-founder, Acme Fire Cult, London

"Since opening Acme Fire Cult in London's Dalston last year we've served up some cracking plant-based dishes. It's hard to pick just one, but the cauliflower, Aslam's butter mix, guindilla and pink onion has been on since the beginning and is one of my favourites.

"It has been on the menu as either fresh British corn or cauliflower that's barbecued and dropped into this Aslam's butter mix. The mix is a seasoning based on Aslam butter chicken, which is served at a restaurant in Delhi, but we've tweaked for this plant-based dish. It is super-delicious and it won't come off the menu.

"If I'm allowed a second I also love our aubergine steak with sourdough mole and hazelnut. The aubergine is trimmed, hard grilled and then rested above the fire so that it starts to take on a more dense, steak-like texture. We then take sourdough trim and make a classic mole with it – it becomes a really spicy and fragrant sauce. It's finished with an ancho chilli dukka sprinkled on top.

"I've been vegetarian all my life and was plant-based for nearly eight years, though I do love meat too. This is where it gets complicated: as soon as I step away from work I'm 100% plant-based, but when I go into work it's my career and the meat we get in is the very best, so it's not a great problem. Just the other day we were smoking some incredible pork jowls, for instance. So I do eat meat at work and when tasting, but outside of work I don't eat any. It's all about balance."

Celeriac with peanut tahini and ginger and tomato sauce by Helen Graham, executive chef, Bubala, London

"Coming up with vegan dishes can be challenging, so when you create something that's particularly delicious it's really exciting. One I'm really proud of is our celeriac with a peanut tahini and a tomato and ginger sauce.

"We roast the celeriac whole with olive oil, ras el hanout and salt for about three hours. It goes all soft and delicious. Separately we mix tahini, peanut butter, tamari and lime juice to go on top. With that we serve a tomato and ginger sauce that's cooked down with garlic and Aleppo chillies, along with more lime and tamari so it's a really tangy, fresh sauce.

"To plate it we cut the celeriac and finish it on the grill. We then put the peanut tahini on the plate, the celeriac on top and the tomato sauce on the side with a little coriander and toasted sesame seeds scattered over.

"Cooking vegan dishes is quite a different style of cooking, there's no point trying to imitate a European or particularly French dish as it will feel like it's lacking butter. If you go in a Mediterranean or even Asian direction you don't feel like you miss dairy too much."

Sticky toffee pudding by Sarah Wasserman, head of food development, Mildreds, London

"When Mildreds was a vegetarian restaurant, the sticky toffee pudding was our best-selling dessert. The desserts were the first part of the menu to go vegan eight years ago and the sticky toffee recipe was a challenge because it had quite a lot of eggs to replace, and a proper toffee sauce needs butter to keep it stable.

"Having a great sticky toffee pudding on the menu was an aspiration and we started with a version where we replaced eggs with apple sauce and we tried a banana version. But we soon realised that as a development team we were making a mistake by looking at a recipe and thinking ‘how do I replace the items I can't use to create a vegan version?' Instead, we've recently taken a different approach, which is thinking ‘what are the results we are trying to achieve?'. Instead of working out what to replace 200g of eggs with, think what is great about sticky toffee? For me, that's the dates, which makes it heavy, rich and gooey.

"Dates are full of fibre and they bind really well as long as you don't over-process them. We chop them and combine them with plant cream just to rehydrate them before binding with the batter. Like eggs, the dates actually hold everything together by binding the mixture. We used to add a little golden syrup to the toffee sauce, but now we really lean into the gooey deliciousness of the date flavour and use date molasses. We also use plant-based butters which have been an amazing innovation in recent years – in fact, what's happening in vegan pastry is so exciting right now – and we add a little cornflour to stabilise the sauce and make it thicker.

"I think this version is better than our veggie version. And the whole process of creating it has changed how we work in development for the better – by focusing on great plant-based results, rather than replacement."

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