Vegan Fine Dining: where does it come from, where’s it going?
Vegan cuisine is constantly changing and very innovative. That’s because it’s newly popular and lots of seriously clever people are working hard to create new dishes. Part of that process is the emergence of vegan fine dining, which is something I’m very much a part of. I reject the idea that you must compromise the quality of what you eat in order to be a vegan and have found that the best vegan food is often better than it’s animal based equivalent.
For me, vegan fine dining first hit the mainstream when Claire Vallée‘s vegan restaurant “Ona” achieved a Michelin star. She closed the restaurant shortly afterwards citing staffing problems, but the precedent was set, vegan fine dining is possible and can’t be ignored by even the most conservative of commentators. It was interesting that Vallée is French and her restaurant wasn’t far from Bordeaux.
But Claire Vallée isn’t alone. She might have been the first to get a Michelin star, but there are others creating equally amazing food. One of the best examples is the work done by Tora Flora on vegan molecular gastronomy. Her food is quite avant garde, always a feast for the eyes and endlessly creative. It’s backed up by her extremely technical, science based approach to food. She’s an inspiration.
I particularly like Alexis Gauthier‘s story. He has a successful fine dining restaurant in London, but threw caution to the wind a few years ago and changed it to fully vegan thus alienating most of his customers. Such is the standard of his food that he quickly found new customers and his restaurant is as successful as ever.
A wholly different kind of restaurant, but in its own way just as brave as Gauthier is the UK based chain Wagamama. Rather than add a few lacklustre vegan items to their menu, they’ve transformed their offer so that a large proportion of their menu is vegan. It’s not fine dining, but this is food that’s well thought out and well cooked; probably as good as a chain restaurant can ever be. They seem to have turned the relationship between omni and vegan cookery on its head; they don’t remove animal products to make a dish vegan, they add animal products for their non-vegan menu. Apart from making some great food, Wagamama have shown that vegan food can be mainstream, that omins will eat vegan food when it’s delicious, and that with careful planning it can be scaled up. I hope other chains follow their lead.
All these people, and I could have given many more examples, are producing vegan food, as I strive to do, without compromise. Their food isn’t “good for vegan food”, it is simply good food. Well, actually, it’s excellent food. Diners at those places are not accepting an inferior meal for the sake of their ethics, they are having a great dining experience.
So where does all this innovation come from? Much of it comes from repurposing existing ingredients. One of my favourites is Umeboshi, an old staple in Japanese cooking. It’s used by vegans to replicate the piquancy and umami of cheese, although on its own it tastes nothing like cheese. It transforms a vegan risotto into something really special. I owe a debt of gratitude to whoever figured that out. Then there are novel ingredients, the best known being Aqua Faba, the liquid from a can of pulses traditionally thrown away. It has a myriad of uses like chocolate mouse and mayonnaise, often surpassing the egg it replaces, but was first used only in 2014.
These ingredients lead on to the other major source of inspiration, which to the discomfort of many vegans, is omni cookery. Both the examples I’ve given are substitutes for animal based ingredients (cheese and egg respectively), which implies that they’re used in dishes which are traditionally omni, and yes, that’s mostly true. It’s also not a problem. It was never realistic that veganism would give rise to a completely new cuisine. Omni cookery has developed over millenia and has found endless flavours and textures that people love and have become familiar with. To start again from nothing and ignore everything that had gone before would be impossible, and the problem with omni food was never the act of eating it, but its production. The more sophisticated dishes are less likely to be veganized omni staples, but will still use components from omni chefs which are vegan by their very nature. I’m thinking of foams, sauces and purées among many others. Furthermore the cooking techniques used are often classic like emulsifying, searing and glazing. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and need to stop pretending otherwise.
So this is an exciting time to be involved in vegan fine dining. There is no area of cookery which is more innovative. The ethical impertive of veganism is driving more and more people to cut or eliminate their consumption of animal products and part of what’s going to make that work is those people being able to eat really fabulous food, both in restaurants and at home. So the main develpment of vegan fine dining will be about it becoming even more mainstream. In terms of specific innovations, I’ll stick my neck out and say:
- Moving away from meat substitutes as the centre of a dish and making vegetables the star of the show
- Vegan cheese you’d actually want to eat: blue cheeses made with the same cultures traditionally used with dairy and hard cheeses containing vegan casein which taste like, well, hard cheese.
- Better vegan meat substitutes including marbled and 3d printed steak which I realise contradicts my first point, but never mind we can go in two directions at once! I’ll write more about meat substitutes in a future blog.
But of course what I love most of all about vegan fine dining is all the creative people constantly coming up with wonderful ideas to delight our tastebuds, and I really have no idea where their genius will take us next.
With thanks to Tora Flora and Alexis Gauthier for permission to use their photos. All the rest are mine!
If you want to learn about vegan fine dining, all our face-to-face courses are here. The advanced course covers fine dining best.