The growth of veganism has become all-encompassing, from national days to controversial Netflix documentaries and health warnings, all encouraging people to adopt the plant-based lifestyle – and it’s had a big impact on the restaurant industry.
As more and more people take heed and indeed become vegan or, at the very least, reduce dairy and egg products in their diet, operators have had to adapt. So much so, I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t receive a press release about a new vegan restaurant or new vegan options. In the last year alone, exclusively vegan restaurants by Chloe, The Vurger Co and Essence Cuisine have launched in London, while Club Mexicana teamed up with The Spread Eagle to launch the first 100% vegan pub. But the capital isn’t the only place experiencing the vegan boom. The Beach Hut opened in Manchester in February and Cambridge’s Stem + Glory achieved crowdfunding success in March in order to open a third site.
What is even more significant is when the big brands react. Back in October, wagamama launched a menu featuring 29 plant-based dishes. Busaba soon responded with the introduction of a vegan calamari dish and Bella Italia added vegan cheese onto its pizzas. However, in this edition of Chef’s Talk, it is food consultant Tonia Buxton I’m speaking to about The Real Greek’s new vegan menu.
Launched on 21 March, the vegan menu comprises 30 meat-, dairy- and egg-free dishes, while still paying homage to its Greek heritage. It follows the success of the Fulham Shore-owned restaurant’s #40DaysOfVeg in 2017, which encouraged customers to stick to a plant-based diet for Sarakosti or ‘Great Lent’, during which meat, poultry, milk, cheese, eggs and fish are taken out of the diet. However, Buxton, like other chefs, acknowledges the demand for veganism in the market long-term.
“It’s a movement that’s not going to go away and I’m so glad,” she says. “Even if you just do meat-free Monday or vegan Tuesday once in a while – it’s good for you. We were getting emails, we were getting some interest. We didn’t want to just offer some afterthought vegan dishes – we wanted to have a whole plethora of choice. What never ceases to surprise me is that people come to the restaurant who are vegetarian or meat-eaters and they order solely off the vegan menu.”
The choice that guests at The Real Greek have includes pourgouri – cracked bulgur wheat with tomatoes and onion; fasolakia – green beans, fennel and tomato with cinnamon; and melitzanosalata – a blend of smoked aubergine, garlic, shallots and lemon.
Buxton credits her grandmother for a few of the recipes on the menu. With Greek heritage – and returning to Greece and Cyprus two to three times a year – she is inspired by the Greek Mediterranean diet that she stresses is extremely ‘vegan’ at its core. With plenty of oils, spices and pulses, the menu is successfully vegan, but also retains the heart of The Real Greek.
“We wanted to keep the tradition of flavours – cinnamon, spices, aniseed,” Buxton explains. “In the braised artichokes, for example, there’s an olive oil zing, and we wanted to keep that as it was, but modernise it slightly for the modern palette.”
Following the rise of vegan options, certain ingredients are appearing more and more on menus, whether to imitate a meaty texture or make customers feel full and satisfied. Aubergine features quite heavily on The Real Greek vegan menu, as does another popular meat-like substance that has come into its own since the vegan revolution.
“We include jackfruit because of its texture – we’d be crazy not to use it in our dishes. The jackfruit gyros leans towards that dirty burger, dirty vegan trend. We’re not doing any fakery – we don’t have fake bacon or fake cheese. I’m not sure how I feel about it.”
While keen to only use natural, authentically-Greek ingredients that come as they are, and provide a vegan menu that is not only inclusive but healthy, Buxton brings up the turn that vegan food seems to be taking in 2018.
The term ‘dirty vegan’ has been used a lot this year, to describe the messy, sticky, dripping fried stuff that, while still not using animal products, offers a similarly indulgent experience. You can see it at the vegan burger joints, jackfruit ‘wing’ shacks and tofu hot dog stalls. You can even get vegan ‘ribs’! Furthermore, Dirty Bones has latched onto the catchphrase to launch its very own vegan pop-up. Considering Veganuary found that the main reason people choose to go vegan is for their health – are vegan dishes taking the imitation game too far?
Buxton uses her children as an example of The Real Greek finding a happy medium between ‘clean vegan’ and ‘dirty vegan’ through the use of the infamous jackfruit.
“It’s a great way of getting kids into eating more vegetables, because they’ve got no idea. I can’t take my sons to by Chloe because it’s too processed, I can’t take them to Ethos because everything looks too green. But, if I bring them here, my youngest loves the jackfruit gyros.”
A restaurant for all people and all diets seems to be what The Real Greek is aiming for with the vegan menu. Buxton, and marketing manager Emily Douglas who joins us for the chat, stress time and again that the menu itself is certainly not exclusive to vegans and tables can, of course, mix dishes with those on the main menu. It is not trying to be a vegan restaurant, but rather evoke the very phrase the brand lives by of ‘eating together’. With this in mind, veganism can’t possibly be the only dietary requirement that it caters for, as that would potentially isolate other diners.
“Emily is actually coeliac, so gluten-free is very important to us, because if we don’t get it right, she is on our case!” says Buxton. “We always try to cater for any allergies. We are looking to highlight salt and fat content on menus for people who may be on a low-salt or low-fat diet. That’s something we’re working towards. It’s important to cater to everybody’s individual needs.”
What’s required of operators in dietary requirements?
“A recent study released by comparethemarket.com suggests that more than 3.5m British people now identify as being vegan, which is a big increase since 2016 when The Vegan Society revealed there were approximately 540,000 vegans over the age of 15 living in Britain,” reveals Central Foods managing director Gordon Lauder.
Brakes Food marketing manager comments: “Over the coming year we will be educating our customers and inspiring them to add ‘free-from’ to the menu. The demand is definitely there, not just from those who have an allergy or intolerance, but also from the increasing number who have adopted a ‘free-from’ lifestyle for its health benefits.”
“Customers are instantly attracted to free-from products and are willing to pay a premium price for a healthier alternative,” adds Pidy UK foodservice national account manager Fabien Levet. “As a result, all areas of foodservice have had to make a conscious effort to adapt their offering to include products suitable and ensure they keep up with the competition.”
Kerrymaid brand manager Karen Heavey says: “Creating menus that cater for a range of dietary requirements doesn’t necessarily mean creating brand new menus from scratch; it is about making careful ingredient choices, allowing a variety of diets to be accommodated and giving consumers the opportunity to make more informed choices.”