Inside track: Vegetables aren't just for January, they're for life, says Wendy Bartlett
It seems appropriate to talk about Veganuary as everyone else is. Even my spellcheck has the word in the system now. It seems to me that the plant-based diet is no longer a fad but more a daily reality. As I type this, it has just been announced that sales of meat-free foods have grown 40% since 2014, rising from £582m to an estimated £816m last year. This is certainly no longer a fad.
At Bartlett Mitchell we have lots of brilliant chefs who work alongside two very hands-on and talented consultant chefs, who know a thing or two about good food. They are really helpingus shift our views to look at plant-based food differently.
I was fortunate enough to eat at Adam Byatt's Trinity restaurant this week. Adam is our longest-standing consultant chef and I noticed that I never actually think of his non-meat menu items as vegan or vegetarian. I just think, "wow, another great dish – what shall I chose?' To me, this is what it should be all about.
The philosophy of Andrew Dargue (our other consultant chef) at vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black, is another source of inspiration. He feels that plant-based menu items should stand on their own right as great dishes. I love how both chefs inspire our team to focus on great ingredients, great flavour and amazing presentation, rather than its ‘label'. I personally like to think of it that way. It makes more sense.
I was talking to an Italian friend of mine about the phenomenon of Veganuary, who told me that, in Italy, meat is traditionally seen as a treat, used on special occasions rather than as the core of most daily dishes. Of course, Italians are much more into fish, and they consume it two to three times a week. This wouldn't happen in most UK households, which is amazing considering we are an island surrounded by water.
What struck me was that in the UK we traditionally come from a meat and two veg base and there is an expectation of that in every meal. We expect big portions of meat and to be able to buy it at ridiculously cheap prices. This is a real issue for caterers as it had traditionally formed the bulk of meals but we now know that it shouldn't.
What we should perhaps be doing is moving meat down the pecking order – give vegetarian meals the first thought when menu planning rather than the last. We need to stop thinking that creating vegetarian and vegan menu choices is a chore and something to please a few people. It's becoming what the majority want.
I also don't get the need to have ‘meat replacement' items – vegan steak or sausages just seem all wrong. I know from what I see from our chefs, plant-based foods can be incredible.
One thing I do know is that the vegetarian offer in contract catering – where we have to continually innovate, attract and inspire customers with a daily changing menu – is, in my (and my vegetarian and vegan friends') opinion, far superior to what is offered, in the main, on the high street. Our sector is leading the way. At conferences and functions I have witnessed some shocking dishes. I'm not sure the chefs have truly thought about what ingredients can be used other than goats' cheese or risotto or pathetic attempts at a last-minute pasta. I always feel sorry for my vegetarian colleagues.
Veganuary has reinforced the fact that us caterers need to stop thinking of plant-based meals as a last thought or something to be endured in menu planning. Non-meat-based dishes need to be given top billing.
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