Fake, meatless or plant based – what chefs really think of substitute meats

 

Opinion is divided on plant-based “meats”, or substitute meats, fake, alternative or meat-free meats, as they are also known. Some chefs dismiss these products as being little more than processed junk, while others see them as an important part of the solution to our environmentally devastated world.

But no matter where on the opinion spectrum you stand, plant-based/ substitute meats are here to stay. Recent reports predict the global market for vegan meats will reach somewhere around US$20-30billion within 5 years.

But Asma Khan, the first British chef to be featured on Netflix hit Chef’s Table, who runs much-loved London restaurant Darjeeling Express, says she would never use meat substitutes in the kitchen because “if you do not want to eat or cook meat there is an abundance of fresh vegetarian and vegan ingredients available for you to cook with.”

She does offer a selection of vegetarian and vegan options on her menu of Bengali and Rajput dishes.

“My menu reflects a home-style way of eating, and in most homes in India there was always an abundance of vegan and vegetarian dishes,” she says. “In most cities in India there would be a meatless day when there was no meat available in the market. So even where a family could afford to eat a lot of meat, because of the heat and tradition of meatless days, we all grew up eating a rich variety of vegan and vegetarian. This is reflected in my menu.”

 

Another detractor, Sat Bains, of two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains, also refuses to use “fake” meats. He offers only tasting menus at his fine dining restaurant in Nottingham, Central England.

“Substitute meats are not a gastronomic product,” he says. “You’ll find ingredients such as wild sea bass, deer, salmon, and vegetables from an organic allotment in Oxfordshire on my menus.”

From a produce point of view, he sees chefs as the middlemen, and customers as the end user, and he likes to be able to ensure traceability throughout the process.

“I have purist fantasy of not eating rubbish. Don’t get me wrong, I do eat at McDonald’s occasionally, but if I wanted to less eat meat I would rather eat vegetables. Why eat veg bacon when you can have beautiful aubergine roasted in olive oil? My mum makes Quorn (mycoprotein) qeema, and it turns out a little like dry scrambled eggs, for me it’s just not as nice as a real meat qeema. If you don’t want to eat meat, don’t make it into meat. There’s nothing wrong with it but it’s not for me – it’s too manmade.”

 

 

Mélissa Astier, chef-owner of vegan restaurant Munchies in Bordeaux, France, also dislikes the manmade aspect of “fake” meats, but the problem for her is also that they taste like meat. She cooks with soy protein but she says she’s not a big fan of products such as Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers.

“They’re really like a meat steak, which is perfect if you still like meat but I think I don’t need to have the taste anymore because I’ve never been attracted to that particular taste,” she says. “I don’t cook them at the restaurant now because I’m not convinced of the recipe, I figured that it’s too industrial, and I would like to have more organic or local meatless meat. It seems to me a bit too chemical.”

 

 

Belgian food, drinks, music and hospitality duo Blend Brothers, who have created vegetarian and vegan menus for events around the world, have the opinion that, “You eat meat or you don’t.”

“We have tasted plant-based meats, and its different and interesting, but we prefer to look for another protein solution rather than use a ‘meat replacer’,” says Kamiel Buysse, one of the brothers. “We see it as a positive and exciting challenge to create a proper menu existing of only vegetables. There are so many opportunities and possibilities.”

Kamiel does say, however, that a vegan menu without resorting to meatless meat replacements takes some planning.

“You have to think different of the courses, and you need to make sure that when you’re building the menu that there’s a lot of variation, especially with the protein that normally comes through meat, fish or dairy products,” he says.

Last January Blend Brothers served a four-course vegan street food menu for 400 guests in Cologne.

“This was huge fun! We made a vegan curry with cauliflower, pumpkins and nuts, combined with a basil oil, spicy mizuna salad and deep fried onions,” says Kamiel. “We also served a seaweed salad in a box, which contains all different kinds of seaweeds in kimchi, combined with roasted cauliflower to give more depth. We call it the future salad as seaweed is the vegetable of the future.”

 

 

There are some chefs who are potentially more open to using meatless meats, however. Jamie Raftery, director of culinary development at Thanyapura Sports & Health Resort Phuket in Thailand, says that while the resort currently does not use “fake” meats, he will “keep an eye on up and coming new products and brands, and if I do come across some good quality meatless products, I will consider putting them on the menu.”

As a holistic chef, he focuses on the nutritional, ethical and environmental aspects of food and roots his core ethos in Ayurvedic principles. His vegan buffet at DiLite Restaurant at Thanyapuri is designed to be holistically healthy.

“We celebrate and promote fresh wholefoods and eliminate as many processed products as possible. From my perspective, there are pros and cons to substitute meats,” he says. “I think alternative meats are a good temporary substitute for people wanting to transition from an animal-based lifestyle to a more ethical vegan lifestyle. From an environment and animal welfare perspective, meat substitutes help to reduce the negative impact by reducing overall global animal consumption and all the other resources connected to this sector.”

But he is concerned about the health impact of the products.

“These processed meatless products are man-made in factories and have various additives, flavourings and preservatives added to their formulas to extend shelflife and mass produce,” he says. “Big food industries see the growth and demand for vegan products, so in turn they are adapting their products, and making even bigger profits.”

 

Putting pros and cons aside, culinary arts chef instructor Ben Kiely at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA) in Vancouver, Canada, says the cooking school has recently introduced plant-based substitutes into the curriculum in response to demand from students and the F&B industry.

“In the first three months of the course we have still kept the learning of the fundamental techniques of cooking meats and fish, however in the last three months we have adapted to the needs of the student and the industry and included more plant-based options on the menu, including grain cooking and plant-based substitutes,” he says.

 

 

Some chefs see the value of replacement meats, and the uptake has been noteworthy in Asia. Que Vinh Dang of contemporary Vietnamese restaurant Nhau in Hong Kong has used the substitute meat product OmniPork in his dishes for the two years since opening. He says diners have responded positively.

“Depending on how it’s done, most people didn’t know the difference,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to predict whether these products will become more popular but my guess is there will be an increase because of the various other brands in the market, for example Beyond Meats.”

 

 

Substitute meats are also included on the menu at Yung’s Bistro. Yvonne Kam, founder of the modern Cantonese restaurant, says that while the bistro does not specialise in vegan dishes, “it’s always nice to have more choice for groups of people with different dietary requirements, which is why we have a vegetarian menu with vegan options, too.”

She says that meat eaters regularly order substitute meat dishes as part of their meal and they report the dish tastes almost the same.

“The good response we’ve had shows that demand is increasing, which has given us more confidence to develop more meatless dishes for our customers. If we offer more choices, this will encourage customers to bring their vegetarians friends to dine at our place. Secondly, constant changes of new dishes bring excitement to customers,” she says

She includes meat-free meats for environmental and, contrary to other chef’s opinions, for health reasons – they have “zero cholesterol, low calories and low fat,” she says.

“It’s also a good challenge to our chefs to develop more meat-free Chinese dishes. In the old days, Chinese vegetarian dishes did not look too interesting or appetising. With the increase in demand of meat-free dishes, it’s pushing our chefs to step out of their comfort zone and explore different meat-free ingredients and cooking methods,” she says.

   Victoria Burrows