What I wish I knew: building a plant-based destination restaurant
Being vegan has transformed my cooking. I still make steaks, but now it’s out of watermelon instead of animal products. There is an incredible amount you can do if you think creatively. You can make vegan short ribs using tofu and vital wheat gluten, or manipulate the taste and texture of radishes to make them meaty. The plant-based food world is changing – we are constantly creating new dishes with ingredients no one would ever think to use in place of meat.
It was after watching Meet Your Meat, a documentary about factory farming, that I decided to switch to a plant-based diet - and I’ve been a professional vegan chef for 14 years. When I first decided to go down this path, people told me I was going to get sick and that all my hair would fall out! They also said I wouldn’t get any work, which was more of a worry.
But fast forward, and there’s never been a better time to be a plant-based chef. Veganism is now cool, with everyone from Beyonce to Novak Djokovic following plant-based diets. In the UK, the supermarket Tesco has introduced a vegan range. I’m blessed to say that I’m ahead of my time, at the start of a business that’s about to explode in popularity.
Working across the world has allowed me to experience how different countries operate with food. I’ve cooked in kitchens in Australia, the United States, Europe and Canada. My first job was in a British pub, where I experienced mushy peas, served with battered fish and chips. I’ve now brought the concept to Sweden, but with a vegan twist – the “fish” is made from tempeh. We use local Swedish fava beans to make the tempeh, which is traditionally an Indonesian soy product.
I enjoy putting a vegan spin on traditional dishes. Much of this comes from when I consulted for a luxury hotel in Toronto in 2011, where I became known for my vegan menus. Now I’m bringing this experience to Europe, and the restaurant at the Radisson Blu Royal Park Hotel in Stockholm. The hotel wanted to offer a vegan brunch for both its local and international guests – and you don’t get a more classic brunch dish than eggs benedict. We use spherification to make a runny yolk and the egg white, and it tastes just like the real thing.
When I developed this dish, I hadn’t expected that there are certain ingredients I needed that simply don’t exist in Sweden. I couldn’t find English muffins in Stockholm. But we sourced similar breads and were able to shape and cook them much in the same way that an English muffin looks, feels and tastes.
Staying open-minded is key
Another challenge has been that, although guests are responding well to the menu, the demand for plant-based products still isn’t at the same level as animal products. This means I don’t have access to certain items – like tofu, coconut oils and miso – in bulk yet. The food business is built on small margins, so you have to buy in bulk to make a profit. It can be a struggle to work with suppliers, but they are beginning to see that veganism is a business that’s on the rise. The team and I have been working with them to grow this demand and teach them about the bulk products in these categories. Over the last few years, I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing suppliers and I know that eventually, the availability will be even better than it is now.
I’ve had to convince other chefs about the merits of plant-based food. Many cooks don’t understand it, and can be sceptical. But once they have tried my food, their eyes light up and I know I’ve started to change their minds. After all, good food is about flavour and texture.
Being open-minded has helped me create a menu that appeals to Swedes while also tapping into my cooking experience from other countries. I spent time learning what they do with food, before building upon that. For instance, I use Swedish lingonberries instead of generic cranberries. To succeed in creating a successful menu abroad, you must embrace that country’s culture and keep an open mind.
- Think creatively about food for vegan dishes – watermelons and radishes can be used as a meat alternative if you learn how to manipulate the flavour and texture
- Give dishes a local twist – for instance, if you’re making tempah, see if you can create it from a local bean instead of Indonesian soy
- Work with the ingredients to hand, and make them work for you. If you can’t find the perfect muffin, find an alternative bread and cook and shape it like a muffin
- It’s still more challenging to buy certain plant-based products in bulk than animal-based products, but work with suppliers to highlight the merits of veganism as a business
- Being open-minded and embracing different cultures are the recipe for success in creating a successful plant-based destination restaurant