It's been six years since Alexis Gauthier began turning his restaurant away from foie gras towards veganism and while some guests may have originally been reluctant, the success of his plant-based menus has allowed the French chef to open a second restaurant. He speaks to Sophie Witts about new site 123V and why he believes the future is green.
When Alexis Gauthier began turning his London fine dining restaurant vegan in 2015, not everyone was pleased. Customers at Gauthier Soho were used to a menu featuring foie gras and classical French cuisine, and not all were open to the change.
"Some people were very upset and threatened to sue me," says Gauthier. "They thought I was doing something very nasty to them. We'd get phone calls insulting my staff; people felt very scared about the change."
But the chef refused to budge and has been gradually phasing animal products off the menu. Fast-forward to 2021 and his determination has paid off. Gauthier Soho's plant-based tasting menu has been so successful the chef has just opened a second, more casual vegan restaurant, named 123V, at the Fenwick department store in Mayfair. After indoor dining in England resumed on 17 May, the venue served 400 customers over one weekend, and Gauthier is thrilled with the response.
"You have to be quite brave to bring a vegan restaurant in to Mayfair, but our aim is to show plant-based dishes can be as good as, if not better than, those containing animal, and I think we're succeeding.
"Now more and more people are coming to us for vegan creations. There's no way we'll ever serve animals again."
Shift to veganism
Gauthier hasn't always been vegan. Growing up in the south of France he gravitated towards cooking with vegetables but trained in classical French cuisine under Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV in Monaco. He moved to London to open his first solo restaurant, Roussillon, in 1998, which held a Michelin star from 2000 until 2011. He left in 2010 to launch Gauthier Soho, which at one point was serving 20kg of foie gras a week. After reading the book Antispéciste by French journalist Aymeric Caron, Gauthier immediately stopped eating animal products and hasn't looked back.
"The book makes the case for animal consciousness and after reading it I couldn't carry on what I was doing," he says. "I haven't had a piece of meat since – it's impossible."
He adds: "I want to convince people that the future is plants and not animals. When will we wake up to the fact there are other ways? I'm not scared to lose my business or customers, because that's what I believe in. I could carry on serving beef or foie gras in my restaurants, but I couldn't sleep at night."
I'm not scared to lose my business or customers, because that's what I believe in
The shift in the menu has been gradual and prior to lockdown last year the restaurant was still serving one scallop starter and a duck course. When Gauthier Soho reopens on 23 June, permitting the government drops social distancing rules, the menu will finally be 100% vegan.
Having trained in a cuisine steeped in beef, chicken and cream, the switch prompted a broader identity crisis for the chef. "I was brought up in a very classical French way, where the ingredients were a tool I could use to express my techniques and Frenchness," he explains. "It took me 20 years to realise I can do that without needing to kill to feed."
The change also required convincing the restaurant's staff, as well as customers. Gauthier Soho won a Michelin star in 2011 but lost the award in the 2013 edition of the guide. Rather than emulating the menu that wowed inspectors, the chef forged a new path.
"Turning Gauthier Soho from a traditional French, Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurant into a no-Michelin-starred vegan restaurant was a challenge to my employees," says Gauthier. "I have to remind people on a daily basis of why we're doing it."
Not all the restaurant staff are vegan, and it is not a requirement to join the team. Gauthier believes it is more important people are open-minded but admits it may be difficult for a hardcore carnivore to work in his kitchen.
"I don't expect you to be vegan, but there are absolutely no animal products in my kitchen," he insists. "For a French pâtissier coming to London and being told they can't use double cream and eggs and butter, [it] is a message that doesn't always resonate well. Most of my waiters respect what we are doing and are into it; some of them have turned vegan because of what we've done."
While Gauthier was at the forefront of change, veganism is increasingly creeping into top London dining rooms with the likes of the Ritz and Jason Atherton's Pollen Street Social both serving plant-based menus.
The same is true in the world of high-end gastronomy beyond the UK. In January vegan restaurant ONA in Arès, near Bordeaux, became the first of its kind in France to win a Michelin star. And in May New York's three-Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park announced it was abandoning meat and switching to a plant-based tasting menu. Chef Daniel Humm admitted in an open letter than the decision was part of a drive to be more sustainable, but was not without risk. "At times I'm up in the middle of the night, thinking about the risk we're taking abandoning the dishes that once defined us," he wrote.
However, Humm concluded that the shift was allowing the restaurant to be more creative. "What at first felt limiting began to feel freeing... All this has given us the confidence to reinvent what fine dining can be."
For Gauthier, the move to plant-based dining has been similarly revolutionary. "In French cuisine there are all sorts of rules to follow, but now there is no limit on what I can do," he says.
"Because there is no past [to vegan cuisine], it's like discovering a new planet. There is no problem with simmering a turnip in syrup and serving it with an acidic pudding because nothing is written – it's all left for us to write."
This approach helps attract non-vegan and vegan chefs alike to work in Gauthier's kitchen, which focuses on discovering new ways to work with plant-based ingredients. He is currently researching vegan cheese and trying to create something as close as possible to Camembert.
"A lot of chefs are interested in vegan creativity, the depth of flavour in a stock or jus, how we treat ingredients, how we cook fruits and introduce fruits in starters and main course and aubergine in puddings. I tell young chefs that the good thing with plant-based cuisine is you can create your own future – it's super-interesting."
I tell young chefs that the good thing with plant-based cuisine is you can create your own future
Surviving the pandemic
When lockdown forced Gauthier Soho to shut last year, the team focused on dish development to keep busy. Gauthier describes the pandemic as "traumatising" for the hospitality industry, but he was able to keep his staff on throughout the closure. Although Gauthier Soho was able to briefly reopen last year, its size made it difficult to meet Covid-19 guidelines.
Instead, after being inspired by Birmingham chef Aktar Islam's home-delivery meal kits, the team began creating their own vegan version. The £75 boxes feature eight courses and serve up to four people. Menus change on a weekly basis, and the chefs are constantly working on new dishes and flavour combinations, with previous boxes drawing inspiration from Andalusia and the US. "It didn't feel like we were working," says Gauthier. "Spending our time researching and developing recipes and selling them all around the country – we loved it."
The roll-out has been so successful that the deliveries will continue after the restaurant resumes service, and Gauthier Soho now has regular customers nationwide.
This focus on innovation is carrying over to Gauthier's newest restaurant, 123V on Bond Street. The opening has been in the pipeline for several years but was delayed by the pandemic. However, the chef believes there has never been a better time to bring vegan cuisine to a wider audience.
"After everything we've lived through [over the past year], there is going to be a compassionate revolution and eating plant-based food is going to be part of it," he insists. "People are going to realise they need to leave the animals alone."
There is going to be a compassionate revolution and eating plant-based food is going to be part of it
123V's 36-cover terrace opened for outdoor dining on 12 April and its 70-seat dining room welcomed guests from 17 May. It serves more informal dishes than Gauthier Soho's £70 tasting menu, including avocado toast for breakfast (£9); a cheeseburger with a Beyond Meat patty (£14); vegetable quesadillas (£14); and a range of salads and broths (both £12.50).
The final stage of the restaurant, a fully vegan sushi counter, officially launched on 1 June. This is overseen by head chef Tes Ryu, who was born in South Korea and has worked in London restaurants including Ippudo, Sticks'n'Sushi and Mei Ume at the Four Seasons, before answering Gauthier's call-out for ‘plant-based thinkers' to run his new restaurant.
Ryu's takes on vegan sushi include V-Salmon and V-Tuna, which are made with blocks of carrot and beetroot, held together with layers of tapioca, and marinated in soy sauce, seaweed and garlic, before being cooked sous vide for a minimum of 48 hours.
"One thing a lot of vegans say they miss is sushi," says Gauthier. "The texture and flavour we have created is similar to the animal version. I think we've unlocked something special."
The chef plans to split his time between his two restaurants once both reopen and is keen to launch further ventures if 123V is a success.
"If the restaurant works and someone else asks us to go and open [another one] we will do it, but we're not driven by money at all. I've run restaurants in London for 20 years and gone through all sorts of ups and downs, but now it's more about carrying the baton for the vegan world."
Change in the industry
Gauthier is passionate about his mission to promote a plant-based diet and believes chefs have a role to play in encouraging people to make the shift.
"What drives us is that there are so many ex-vegans who try it for a year or two then give up because they think the food is not as good," he says. "Chefs are vital in showing people that the future can be plants and not animals."
While not all in the hospitality industry may have been open to serving a variety of vegan dishes in the past, Gauthier believes that times are changing.
"I actually think that everyone wants a little bit of [veganism], but some people are scared if it's the right thing to do. I would encourage my fellow chefs to look into it because it's the future. Your customers are going to ask for it. The reason people come into our restaurants is [because] they buy into our creativity, and as chefs and front of house we have to demonstrate that. Veganism is going to be a big part of it, now and in the future."
But what's next for Gauthier's plant-based mission? On the future, his response is typically determined. "I want the world to turn vegan. That's what I'm going to try and do until I stop, and I'm not stopping tomorrow."
From 123V's menu
- Soleil Riviera: green beans, golden potato, artichoke, cherry tomatoes, sweetcorn, mesclun salad leaves, Taggiasche olives, mustard vinaigrette £12.50
Bowls (served with a rich warm broth)
- Huli San Diego: Huli-Huli jackfruit, black beans, sweet and sour cucumber, tomato, spring onions, mango salsa, herb broth, red and black quinoa £12.50
- Grand sushi set: V-Prawn tempura, V-Tuna nigiri, V-Salmon nigiri, avocado nigiri, uramaki, inari (sweet tofu pocket) £19.50
Burgers and quesadillas (served with potato or chickpea fries, or chopped salad)
- California cheeseburger: Beyond Meat patty, house bun, vegan cheese, onion, lettuce, pickles, special sauce £14
- Quesadilla verde: fresh toasted corn galette, leek, chard, olives, confit tomatoes, fresh vegan cheese, wild rocket £14
- ‘Love Simon' tres leches cake: almond, oat and coconut milk tres leches cake with fresh mango and lime £7
Portrait photography: David Cotsworth
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