Restaurants are changing, by offering meat alternatives

A Forager’s Travels

Things are changing aren’t they? I don’t mean the virus but I mean in the world of food. Restaurants are changing, for the better, by offering meat alternatives. But that’s not the only food sector that’s on the march.

Fiona Were is a New Zealander who studied classically in Christchurch and went on to have her first head chef position at 23. She was the first to score 100% in cooking theory at her college so it’s no surprise she was going to fly. Then came a series of better jobs and then travelling came into the mix. Landing in England she’s worked across the West Country in various hotels and restaurants and now has the enviable position of being her own boss as a private chef. I caught up with her recently to get her take on meatless food, her clients expectations and what she really thinks of the ubiquitous use of jackfruit as a meat substitute.

Fiona’s main drivers for vegetarian cooking are simple “I love vegetables; they are glorious in their own right. For example Cornish asparagus is at it’s very best right now and it’s a really wonderful and versatile ingredient. Living in Cornwall has enabled Fiona to stay in touch with nature and have the pick of the crop when it comes to produce choice. “There’s so much scope for creativity with cooking with vegetables beyond the ‘meat and two veg’ mentality and I think that is what makes meat free cooking exciting. I prefer to create vegetarian dishes championing the ingredients themselves rather than trying to use them as meat substitutes or replacements”.

With her experience of cooking in a great variety of restaurants I wondered how this had affected her style of cooking vegetarian dishes and whether the appetites are different depending where you are in the world? “I think in western culture we are more influenced by food trends whereas say in Asia, there is more focus on food that does not necessarily contain meat which tends to be born out of the comparatively lower standard of living or for spiritual reasons. As a result, it’s not deemed as being an unusual food choice or fashionable; it’s just part of the way of life. I find there is a tendency with some vegetarian food to mimic meat dishes rather than be a celebration of the actual ingredients themselves which I find puzzling”.

Looking at the seasons, Cornwall is blessed with some great weather and a bit more sunshine than other parts of the UK, I wondered if seasonality is an issue for you with non-meat cooking or does it require a different approach? “It greatly depends how vegetarianism is approached. As I cook seasonally, I create dishes very much dependant on what is available for any given season. There is plenty of scope for variety. For the foodie vegetarian, being in tune with the seasons is crucial for a varied and interesting diet. Making use of wild ingredients can also add fantastic flavour notes as well as enhancing the look of a dish. Wild garlic flowers, which are readily available now, not only look pretty but taste delicious too. I love to forage when I can”.



Quorn is a main stay of vegan cooking; how does Fiona stay away from that cliché to cater for that most discerning of audiences, the paying public? “Tempeh is a wonderful protein alternative for vegan cooking. It’s a mainstay in Indonesian cuisine and reasonably easy to make. Traditionally it is made with soya beans but pretty much any dried beans and grains can be used. It is delicious served in the traditional way cut into strips and fried in coconut oil, then served with a chilli kecap manis sauce. Mushrooms and jackfruit also make a great meat substitutes but lack the protein content of tempeh. With a bit of creativity they do give excellent texture if that’s what you are after”.

Fiona thrives on not replicating meat texture for vegetarian foods, so those plant-based burgers made from beetroot are out then I asked? “I am not keen on replicating the meat texture for vegetarian food but appreciate that this is more appealing to those of us who are looking to introduce more meat free options into our diets. If one chooses not to eat meat, especially for ethical reasons, why would one want to experience a meat like texture? It seems odd to me”.

Spicing food is often a great way to create interest in meatless food, especially in Asian cooking, I asked Fiona what would be her approach to a softer more delicate palette? It really depends on what spices are being used and how; whether they are there for heat or to be aromatic. For someone not so keen on these aromatics, fresh herbs and citrus, such as preserved lemon is always good to give dishes interest. Also miso is fantastic to add an umami note”.

I’m keen for Fiona’s take on the future of the industry and vegetarianism becoming mainstream. Supermarkets seem to have a better offering than restaurants these days don’t you think. “Sadly there are still a lot of chefs who are very negative about vegetarianism, which stems from a handful of celebrity chefs. There is increasing pressure for this to change and it must. Menus I see do feature vegetarian options and always have done, but there is greater creativity creeping in, moving beyond the ubiquitous wild mushroom risotto. The popularity of Asian cuisine is giving chefs more ideas for different dishes too. Vegetarianism is definitely more mainstream now for reasons. People are increasingly more concerned not just about what they are putting into their bodies but living a more ethical way of life and also being conscious of the impact their food choices have on the planet.


You can find out more about Fiona and her world of food here.

by, Neil Hennessy-Vass