Opinion: Are South Africans ready for gourmet vegan-only cuisine?

On June 10, Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park (EMP) launched its all-vegan menu at US $ 335. The sweeping move portends a global shift to sustainability, with Epicurious magazine also removing beef content from its platform. By exploring whether the same change could occur in South Africa, two perspectives are engaged: one for and one against vegan-only gastronomy.

An appetite for uniquely vegan gourmet cuisine

Johannesburg’s beloved farm-to-fork restaurant chef James Diack of Coobs and Il Contadino emphasizes that unlike EMP, the move to South Africa should be gradual.

“If we are to build a gourmet vegan food culture, I think it needs to be introduced slowly for it to work and be successful,” he says. “This is an interesting avenue for South African chefs to explore, especially since the country is known for its love of protein. One of the advantages will be to emphasize the seasonality. If introduced gradually, it will show the main meat eater that there is great versatility in vegetables. ”

Tracking South Africa’s readiness means tapping into its growing vegan and plant communities and developments. Some local restaurants have already successfully incorporated plant-based foods into their offerings. The Executive Chef of The Chefs’ Table at Umhlanga Mathew Armbruster offers a fully separate a la carte vegan menu as well as a new vegan tasting menu. 9 from Durbane Avenue Waterside offers a separate vegan menu. The Green Mondays movement, which encourages people to eat plant-based foods once a week, has enabled trend ambassadors such as Chef Alex Poltera of the Snooty Fox at the Fernhill Hotel to include a lot more vegan options. in their menus. The Fernhill Hotel is the mecca for vegans and vegetarians visiting the Midlands.

Mathew says: “In major regions in particular, vegan-only restaurants appear regularly with excellent response from the South African community. These restaurants are the pioneers who are testing our market to see if large establishments could take the risk and potentially invest in vegan-only restaurants. “

New addition to Cape Town’s vegetable scene, Grumpy & Runt is a charming New York-style vegan grocery store owned and run by Chef Johke Steenkamp and Carla Gontier. For them, the accessibility of vegan food is important. The owners are not open to the fact that they are a vegan restaurant. This has helped to attract diverse customers to their store.

“Many of our customers are pleasantly surprised when they find out that we are vegans. We have a large vegan audience, but it’s a very inaccessible movement. Making simple and accessible foods like sandwiches or donuts is important to us, ”says Johke.

Carla adds: “What we’ve noticed overwhelmingly overseas is that places don’t have a big sign on their wall that says ‘we’re vegans’. And these are vegan restaurants with 200 to 300 seats that are full on Monday evenings. This is, to me, the future as long as you cater to the taste people have while also eliminating the things that they won’t necessarily miss because of the quality of other things.

Being creative and innovative with vegan food and pushing it beyond your limits in taste and presentation becomes more important than trying to imitate the meat that is lacking.

“There is so much you can do with vegetables, pulses and grains that can make the individual product shine, rather than turning a product in the hope of satisfying a burger urge,” says Mathew.

“Working with your local farmers is also essential. It would open up a world of new and unusual products that would create both excitement and uniqueness for a guest, ”he adds.

Afro-Asian vegan chef and artist Parusha Naidoo believes the addition of gourmet vegan restaurants will add to the current dining scene without taking anything away from it.

“At the moment, there are no vegan restaurants in South Africa that are open at night and / or that have a nice decor and ambiance for dinner. There is already a market for middle class vegans and curious vegans who can spend the money on fancy vegan food, ”she says.

For Roxanne Robinson, who eats plant-based, the most important thing is that vegan-only gourmet restaurants have a plant-based lifestyle at heart rather than just pleasing a certain customer.

“I would be more than willing to hand my money over to someone who has thought about the cultivation of food and the health benefits of each element. Healthy eating is a problem, especially in this country where “healthy eating” is sometimes served as a luxury. Show me a restaurant that provides a plate of delicacies for those who can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables and I’ll show you my wallet, ”she said.

It’s not necessarily all or nothing

We can agree that plant-based diets in their various forms aren’t going anywhere, whether it’s a flexitarian diet high in vegetables, a strict vegan diet, or something in between. However, chef and proud vegetarian champion Karen Dudley admits that that might not be enough to make entirely plant-based restaurants feasible. “As wonderful as it sounds, I’m afraid only a tiny minority of people are ready for this,” she says. “Plant-based diets make so much sense and we want to support them, but the point is, it’s hard enough for ‘mainstream’ restaurants today, let alone those with a niche. “

Ivor Jones, chef and co-owner of Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia, echoes this by saying that he sees a number of plant-based dieters on a daily basis, but there is still a very close connection between meat and the cost of eating in a fine dining restaurant. . “Last week some diners told us there needs to be more meat at this price,” says Ivor. “The problem is how people perceive the value – they often do not take into account the working hours required of everyone in the restaurant, whether it is cooking meat or vegetables.

Chef and author Mokgadi Itsweng’s comments are more intentional. “If this approach is to get people to eat more plants, I really don’t know if that’s the best,” she says. “Maybe something more affordable or accessible, like getting more casual restaurants or even fast food outlets to expand their plant-based offering, would be more successful.” Mokgadi adds that people don’t want to feel “locked in”, so in this case, it might be interesting to find a way to bring the herbal and regular diners together to further the cause.

It is evident that some restaurants are ready to meet a growing demand for more plant-based options, often in the form of all-plant menus. However, Tamsin Snyman argues that there is still a lack of herbal options. “On the one hand, I can count on the existing gourmet restaurants that offer plant-based or vegan menus,” she says. She adds that chefs can find ways to accommodate plant-based or vegan diners at fine dining restaurants, simply by “veganizing” existing menu items. “Chefs don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” says Tamsin. “They are masters of their craft and, at the end of the day, being vegan / plant-based means we eat very simply and celebrate anything that is creatively concocted without using any animal products.”

Mokgadi agrees that the message here shouldn’t be “anti-meat, but rather show people the importance of eating more vegetables.”

Maybe the bottom line is that adapting to plant-based diets doesn’t have to be “one or the other.” “Maybe the next step for some restaurants is to use plants while using butter, cream and eggs,” says Ivor.

For Karen, there is a larger discussion to be had here. “The work of educating people about vegetables and their exciting versatility still has a long way to go, which is where I think this cause would be best suited. She continues, “The best option might be to incorporate more vegetables into the lifestyles we already have.” “

Whatever the end result, just having this discussion means a huge shift in mindset and plant-based diets aren’t going anywhere. “I believe the majority of us will never go completely vegan or vegetarian,” says Tamsin. “But a lot of us are moving towards a more vegetal space, and if chefs are willing to push our creative skills a bit, they can be pleasantly surprised at what they can achieve and, in turn, they will win a whole new grateful audience.

For those who aren’t afraid of a challenge, this could mean an exciting new opportunity to cook like they’ve never done before.

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