Veganism why it’s no longer a dirty word

15 June, 2016 by
Danielle Bowling

Vegan is no longer a dirty word. Restaurateurs have realised that catering to the growing number of diners that subscribe to a plant-based diet simply makes good business sense. By Danielle Bowling.

In years gone by, the average restaurant menu would have one, maybe two vegetarian options. Think mushroom risottos, and very lacklustre lentil burgers. How times have changed. Now, smart operators are catering not just to vegetarians, but to the growing number of Australians who follow a vegan diet, or simply want the option to eat a meal free from animal products, if that’s what tickles their fancy on any given day.

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Accessing a wider market
A common criticism from those less eager to either eat or prepare vegan meals is that they isolate meat eaters. It was a consideration for Sydney diner Yellow, which earlier this year made the bold decision to relaunch as a purely vegetarian restaurant.

Head chef Adam Wolfers said “We don’t want to be a restaurant that just caters to vegetarians. We’re cooking with vegetables, yes, but we want people who eat meat to come in and still have a great experience and not be thinking that it’s a chore to come to dinner. We want to make it for everyone.”

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The decision has paid off, with the restaurant full almost every night since relaunching in February. Since making the switch, Wolfers said he’s noticed a significant increase in the number of vegan diners eating at Yellow.

Kohlrabi-Enoki-Fermented-Apple.jpgKohlrabi, enoki and fermented apple at Yellow

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“To give you an example, on Saturday night we sat about 100 people – we do a tasting menu only on Saturdays – and I think we had about 40 vegans.

“It’s actually a lot easier to come up with a vegan dish, being vegetarian, rather than when you have meat on the plate,” he said. “You used to have your meat dishes, and someone would come in and wouldn’t tell you beforehand that they’re a vegan so you’d run around and try to come up with something, which was always hard, but … it’s actually easier now because we have the basis of the dish done.”

Hueman Lam, chef at Vintaged Bar and Grill in the Hilton, Brisbane, was understandably concerned that launching a vegan menu at the steakhouse would offend either the meat eaters or their vegan counterparts – or both – but fortunately, the menu, which launched in April, has been well received.

“It’s been really good. We’ve actually served guests who would traditionally never have come to us,” she told Hospitality. “We were a bit scared at first that people would take offence to having a vegan meal in a steak restaurant, but they come and it’s more about the fact that they like the ambience but they’ve never been able to come before because we didn’t offer anything that they liked.”

Truffled-white-polenta-and-exotic-mushrooms.jpgTruffled white polenta and exotic mushrooms at Vintaged Bar + Grill

The decision to launch a vegan menu alongside Vintaged’s regular offering wasn’t so much about catering to those that adhere to a plant-based diet, but rather catering to all diners, regardless of their dietary choices.

“For us, it was a matter of, do we not give anyone another option, other than steak or chicken or fish? It was like, ‘Hey, we can be creative with other things, where the protein is a bit more obscure,” Lam said.

“Traditionally, you’d lose out if you were a vegan and you went to a steak restaurant. So we wanted to make it a seamless dining experience for entire groups of people.”

Down in Fitzroy, Melbourne, vegan Latin restaurant Smith & Daughters, which opened in March 2014, has enjoyed such popularity that owners Mo Wyse and Shannon Martinez have also opened a vegan deli, Smith & Deli, around the corner on Moor Street.

Like at Yellow and Vintaged, Smith & Daughters doesn’t make a song and dance about its vegan-only offering, in fact Wyse believes quite a few of those that have dined at the restaurant would still be unaware that it never uses animal products.

platter.jpgClockwise from 12:Smith & Daughters' Paella Fritters with Garlic Aioli, White Truffle Forest Mushroom Pate, Quince & Cheese Empanadas, and Tuna & Green Pea Croquettas. Image: ?James Hartley

 And for good reason – menu items change daily, and have included vegan interpretations of smoked salmon, fried chicken, fish and chips and mac n’ cheese.

“When we opened the restaurant, it wasn’t to cater to the vegans and vegetarians, it was to create a really inclusive environment that everyone can come to,” Wyse said.

She doesn’t buy into the theory that offering a vegetarian or vegan menu restricts her customer-base. In fact, it couldn’t be further from the truth, she said.

“It just makes good business sense. We say that if you are a caf or a restaurant that doesn’t offer vegetarian food, you’re literally just taking money out of your own pocket and throwing it in the bin, because you’re cutting out a market of people that are potential customers.

Mexican-Cucumbers-Basil.jpg“Vegans aren’t going to eat from your menu if [there are no options for them]; they can’t, they choose not to. But meat eaters and everyone else can eat the vegan items – that’s an inclusive product. Even if it’s just avocado on toast with mushrooms or whatever, that menu item can feed everybody, and you’re also catering to a whole different market – the vegan market – so you’re putting money back in your wallet,” she said.

Pushing the boundaries
Another misconception about vegan menus is that they’re one-dimensional, or boring. The creativity of the offering, Wyse said, is limited only by the enthusiasm and drive of the chef. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.

“Shannon (Smith & Daughters’ chef) says it’s choux pastry for clairs. She’s been trying that one for ages. But it used to be aioli and then she nailed that one, then it used to be eggs and she nailed that, and meringue, and she got that. All these things that used to be impossible for vegans … I mean, she made blood sausage for goodness sake.”

At Yellow, desserts are the biggest challenge. “Desserts are always tough, because in most desserts there’s a dairy component,” Wolfers said. “I’m starting to play around with chickpea water, which can replace eggs. So when you cook out chickpeas you’re left with a syrup and apparently you can whip that and it turns into a meringue.”

A favourite amongst diners – both vegan and non-vegan – is Yellow’s whipped carrot and coconut sorbet, which includes coconut that has been compressed in carrot juice, dehydrated then made into crispy shards, and served with coconut curd and a carrot sorbet.

“Vegans always love that,” said Wolfers. “We also do a raspberry, strawberry and hazelnut dessert. So it’s basically a raspberry sorbet, and we get fresh strawberries and raspberries and slice all the strawberries really thin then cover it over with sorbet. We also infuse a soy milk with hazelnuts and whip it up so it’s like a hazelnut curd, and then we have some microplaned hazelnuts over the top.”

Boosting creativity and morale

There’s nothing like a relaunch or a new menu to get chefs’ brains ticking over, and according to Hueman Lam, the team at Vintaged is more inspired an energised than ever.

You can understand why Lam was concerned that chefs working in a steak restaurant would be reluctant to work on a vegan-only menu, but the response from her team was surprising, she said.

“They were actually quite excited. They’d played with meat for so long that it was exciting to have something new to play with. We’ve done one menu and we’re already thinking about the next one. We’re like ‘the first one is OK but we’re definitely going to make it much better the next time around.’ The team is much more excited.”

MO-SHAN-opening-shot.jpg
Shannon Martinez and Mo Wyse from Smith & Daughters

The same can be said for the team at Yellow. Again, some chefs were concerned that they’d be bored dealing purely with vegetables, but the key to getting them on-board, Wolfers said, was to include them in the menu development process.

“We didn’t lose any staff, which was great. The biggest thing was obviously when we were workshopping dishes we got everyone involved to taste and look at them, just to make everyone feel like they could see why we were doing this, and how it would make the restaurant better and more interesting. That was a big thing – trying to explain to the guys that we’re not going to be doing chickpea burgers. We’re really trying to up the ante.”

And it’s not hard to keeps chefs engaged when the ingredients they’re handling are changing all the time. Offering a vegetable-based menu means the chefs at Yellow are – perhaps more than other chefs – at the mercy of the seasons.

“You can’t get certain vegetables at certain times of the year, so it means that the menu changes a lot,” Wolfers said. “You’ve obviously got some vegetables that are available for most of the year, just because of the way Australia is, but most of the time we’ll change two or three dishes every week, on average. We use pretty much all organic vegetables and when it comes to that, especially when you’re using local stuff, at this time of the year what’s available changes a lot.”

Yellow-exterior.jpgYellow, Potts Point

And it’s not just about the vegetables; it’s about how you can make vegan ingreidents look, taste and behave like flavours derived from animals. That’s what keeps Smith & Daughters’ chef Shannon Martinez inspired. Wyse said that one of the key reasons why Martinez didn’t find her apprenticeship fulfilling was because creativity wasn’t encouraged.

“There wasn’t any variation to the curriculum; you did everything the same way … But to make meat out something that isn’t meat is exciting. To try different methods to make smoked salmon, to make eggs out of not eggs – that’s exciting. That’s something different,” she said.

“When we hire a new chef to work on the team, it’s really funny because there are a lot of people who – out of fear or pride or ignorance – don’t want to cook vegan food. They’re cutting out the thing that’s almost like a crutch to them; it’s what they’re used to and they don’t think there’s any possible way of making plants fun or tasty. But it’s the exact opposite: you have more possibilities. You’re not limited to the five animals that are regularly available to you. You have this entire world of food to make incredible meals out of.”