Navigating the Plant-Based Craze
Chefs and restaurant owners weigh in on dining and lifestyle trends, from vegetable-forward to vegan.
When ICE alum Chef Guy Vaknin (Culinary, ’07) opened his New York City restaurant, Beyond Sushi, in 2012, neither he nor his menu were vegan. “I didn’t know much about plant-based food. I was just trying to create a healthy concept that was a little bit different,” Guy says. “But I got educated by my customers.”
Two weeks after launching, Guy made Beyond’s menu completely vegan. Six months later, he was vegan, too, and his evolution mirrors national trends. While American omnivores still outnumber vegetarians and vegans (by a lot!), enthusiasm for plant-based dining is ascendant. In a 2018 survey of 1,100 Americans, 34% of respondents expressed interest in plant-based cuisine.
The Institute of Culinary Education now offers plant-forward curriculum at the new Natural Gourmet Center. James Beard Award-winning restaurants like Vedge in Philadelphia proudly eschew meat. So do WeWork’s coworking spaces worldwide.
Even fast food drive-throughs are pivoting. Carl’s Jr. recently debuted a meat-free Beyond Burger at 1,000 locations. Meanwhile, White Castle’s Impossible Slider showcases the Impossible Burger, a plant-based meat substitute developed by Silicon Valley engineers to the tune of $80 million. Burger King is testing a Whopper made with the Impossible Burger, too.
Whether these developments signify the bright future or impending demise of plant-based cuisine depends on your worldview. Critics say the arrival of expensively engineered, faux-beef burgers in fast-food chains impedes true culinary revolution. Others argue meat-free cuisine needs mainstream ambassadors, and these could eventually help alter American attitudes toward meat.
Change is never easy, whether it’s wrapped in paper napkins or political rhetoric. The plant-based movement has arrived in America. Now we have to figure out where it goes.
In food, as in life, the terminology matters. Those who self-identify as vegans abstain from eating animal byproducts. Vegetarians don’t consume meat. “Plant-based” is a flexible, more forgiving culinary identity.
“It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy,” Katherine D. McManus, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., writes on Harvard Medical School’s health blog. “Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.”
If you have a small serving of roast chicken in your grain salad on Sunday night, followed by vegan sushi rolls twice that week for lunch, plus intermittent servings of lentil soup, congratulations! You are exploring a plant-based diet.
Alicia Kennedy, a food writer and host of the "Meatless" podcast, credits the 1971 book “Diet for a Small Planet” with introducing plant-based dining to the American mainstream. Since then, “there have been distinct phases in the culture and cuisine,” Alicia says. “It began very soy focused, with tofu and tempeh, moving toward seitan, and now a lot of the food is coconut- and nut-based.”
Social attitudes changed in tandem. Vegetarianism was once a crunchy subculture baked into your hippie aunt’s 1970s mung-bean casseroles. In the post-aughts era, however, thanks to a variety of factors, plant-based eating seems cool and a little aspirational. (Beyonce and Jay-Z famously dabble in veganism, after all.)
“Everybody is trying to be healthier, to live a long life,” Guy says. While no one is claiming veganism is a fountain of youth, a 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition did link reducing or eliminating meat from one’s diet to cancer prevention and cardiac health.
Others are eliminating meat and animal byproducts as a way of diagnosing or managing children’s food allergies — reports of which were up 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to Johns Hopkins.
Chef Tiffany Hancock, owner of The Southern V, a vegan soul food restaurant in Nashville, Tennessee, embraced plant-based cooking because of her infant daughter’s food intolerances. “I went vegan overnight to alleviate her issues,” Tiffany told Essence.
Then, of course, there is the less medical, more mindful appeal. For better or worse, plant-based eating rubs elbows with green juice and cryotherapy in the amorphous entity known as 21st-century wellness culture. Fast Company describes wellness as any activity or product connected to physical or mental well-being and values the wellness industry at $4.2 trillion. Conversations about plant-based cuisine often include terms like “clean eating” and appeal to those questioning mainstream medical systems or institutions.
The backlash against plant-based eating is predominantly directed at faux meats. Impossible and Beyond burgers are prohibitively expensive for many consumers.
“The Impossible Burger costs me more than a filet mignon would in another restaurant,” Guy says. Nation’s Restaurant News reports that the Carl’s Jr. Beyond Famous Star burger starts at $6.29, versus the $3.69 regular Famous Star burger.
Alicia believes expensively engineered burgers are also counterproductive to plant-based progress.
“I think the next step has to be a continued focus on whole foods — nuts, legumes, and seasonal fruits and vegetables,” she says. “There is clearly money to be made in more tech-driven vegan products, such as veggie burgers, but that is a step backwards, in my view, toward processed foods that don't support sustainable, localized agriculture.”
Guy avoids artificial meats or cheeses in his vegan menu items, preferring to focus on fresh vegetables, fruits and grains. Still, he is impressed by the quality of products like the Impossible Burger. For vegans who formerly ate meat, he says, the Impossible Burger’s uncanny resemblance to animal protein can render nostalgia in the pan, reminding them of long-dismissed flavors and creating bridges between omnivores and vegans.
With how many Americans use the term “meat and potatoes” to mean “fundamental,” we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the shift away from meat-centric dining requires such nuance.
Expensively engineered meat-free burgers are not the end zone; they are the completion that keeps the rest of the drive in motion. As more restaurants, culinary brands and recipe developers embrace plant-based cooking, we will inevitably see a broader sea change.
With many questioning institutions once held dear, from food pyramids to corporations to college degrees, why shouldn’t we reconsider meat’s position in the center of the plate?
“We had perceptions in the past, ‘This is how you should eat,’” Guy says. “But perception changes. And it changes a lot faster in this day and age.”
Pursue a career in plant-based cooking with our Health-Supportive Culinary Arts program.