The plant-based revolution is here: Meat-free dining goes mainstream

Matthew Kenney didn't know what a vegetarian was until he reached university. It's ironic, as the American chef is now famous for running meat-free eateries world-wide: from Bahrain's Plant Cafe to Sydney's just-launched Alibi.

Living next door to the campus health-food store where "hippie vegetarians" shopped, he learnt fast. It was a world away from his 1970s adolescence on the Maine coast, where he'd hunt for deer, rabbits and pheasants to eat – a compass in one hand and a gun in the other, carefully listening to the leaves as he walked through the woods.

Beyond Meat plant-based burger patty prepared by Shannon Martinez of Smith & Daughters. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Beyond Meat plant-based burger patty prepared by Shannon Martinez of Smith & Daughters. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

In 2018, you don't need an explainer on what a vegetarian is. In fact, plant-based eating is the biggest food shift of this decade, worldwide, and particularly in Australia.

Whether it's a social project to offer 30,000 vegan meals in Brazilian schools, to the growing numbers of vegetarians (now 11.2 per cent of the Australian population) – or the fact that the biggest meat processor in America recently expanded its investment in a vegan alternative, Beyond Meat – you know that the game is changing.

And it goes beyond the breakfast-reassessing scare of the "bacon causes cancer" headlines that were triggered when the WHO issued its warning in 2015. With nearly 10 million Aussies cutting back on red meat, you know it's a shift that is here to stay.

Ditching meat is no longer defined by your lentil haul from the health-food store. The eating out options now are truly wide-ranging, from vegan tacos at Sydney's Bad Hombres to Israeli-inspired dishes at Melbourne's vego pub, Green Man's Arms. Even places famous for dry-aged beef and porchetta, such as Sydney's Firedoor and LP's Quality Meats, ensure vegos are covered (do not pass up the latter's eggplant parmigiana).

Plant-based pub food at Green Man's Arms in Melbourne. Photo: Eugene Hyland

Plant-based pub food at Green Man's Arms in Melbourne. Photo: Eugene Hyland

"I go out and almost every venue has an offer much better than risotto and salad," says chef Alejandro Cancino. He's changing expectations about veg-based dining, too: his Brisbane three-hat restaurant, Urbane, has a truly creative five-course herbivore menu. Demand for it has quadrupled since its launch, six years ago.

Even hard-core carnivores have to admit: phasing out meat is a savvy business move. When owner Amit Tewari turned Soul Burger vegan in 2015, he feared a close call with bankruptcy; but he's since opened a food truck and three more Sydney branches, including one in Parramatta, far from the predictably vego-friendly suburbs. Other Sydney eateries (Bad Hombres, YellowGigi) have switched meat for fully plant-based options, and become more crowded than ever. Melbourne's Smith & Daughters has dished out vegan food with a rock 'n' roll attitude since 2014, with the volume turned up on flavour, and the queues haven't abated.

People are also leaving meat off their shopping lists: Hetty McKinnon's Community and the Smith & Daughters cookbook have blazed the charts (each plant-based title has sold more than 40,000 copies respectively) and led to us charring broccoli and making corn and jalapeno pancakes at home. Yotam Ottolenghi has glamorised vegetables (and made our cooking habits more veg-friendly, too) through his Plenty and Plenty More bestsellers. These hits aren't flukes: vegetarian cookbook sales have doubled since 2012 at Booktopia.

At Australia's largest book shop, Kinokuniya, the bestselling cookbook over the summer holidays was Cornersmith's Salads & Pickles, and a quarter of its top 50 bestsellers for 2017 were meat-free.

We have blokey tradies coming in high-vis buying exactly what they'd buy from 7-11 down the road, but they're coming in and they're buying vegan pies and vegan chocolate milks.

Shannon Martinez, Smith & Deli

Vegetables are becoming mega-stars on our plates, and the interest isn't just coming from vegetarians. Covers of cookbooks such as Thug KitchenPlentyLove & Lemons and Community play down their vego status, in order to attract meat-eating audiences. And it works.

"A lot of men, not traditionally big salad eaters, have told me how much they love my recipes," says McKinnon. By creating mega-flavoured dishes with humble vegetables (like char-grilled cauliflower with fried butter beans and pumpkin hummus), she's creating a "non-threatening" way for men to embrace meat-free eating.

Mary Small, publisher of McKinnon's Community cookbook (and its successors, Neighbourhood and the upcoming Family) says: "someone would make one of her salads to take to an event, people would love the salad and ask where the recipe came from, and on it went. This has led to the book staying on the Australian cookbook bestseller lists for the past four years."

Like dinner parties inspired by Plenty – and the glossy way vegetarian dishes are portrayed on social media – plant-based cooking has had a viral makeover. On Instagram, Kenney's dishes (such as his spicy udon with tempeh sausage and cashew hoisin dressing) look like they've been appointed a Hollywood stylist.

Veg-based cooking has been successfully rebranded and is no longer haunted by dowdy images of lentil salads and "hippie food".

We're also embracing vegetables for environmental reasons: livestock generates more greenhouse gases than all forms of transport; beef alone uses up to 160 times more land and causes 11 times more emissions than rice, wheat and potatoes.

Just reducing your meat intake one day a week pays off for the planet, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Then there's the health aspect (and gloat factor): because vegetarians have a fibre-rich diet, they have a much lower cancer risk than meat eaters (vegans have greater bragging rights: their risk is lower still, with rates of hypertension, obesity and diabetes decreased, too).

All this might explain why, on Google Trends, Australia tops the world for searching "vegan" online. In February 2004, demand for "vegan" queries hovered at 15 (out of 100); it now sits at 92 and has risen for 14 years. Paleo, meanwhile, peaked in January 2014 and has declined since.

Matthew Kenney's spicy udon dish. Photo: Nikki To

Matthew Kenney's spicy udon dish. Photo: Nikki To

Chef David Chang's changing attitude says it all. He famously had no vegetarian options when launching Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004. In 2016, he posted about the Impossible Burger on Instagram and said: "Today I tasted the future and it was vegan".

He called Impossible Foods' beef-like burger "more delicious and way better for the planet". At Smith & Deli, Martinez stocks Beyond Meat, a similar product where beet juice replicates the "bleeding" effect of a rare patty and demand is "mostly from meat-eaters wanting to try it".

Crossover curiosity from carnivores is amplifying interest in vegetarian options.

"A lot of people tell me that they don't tell their partners, dads [and] friends that our cafe is vegetarian when they bring them in, because they don't want to scare them off. Then once they've eaten, they let the secret out.

And then they love it," says Alex Elliott-Howery of Cornersmith's Annandale cafe in Sydney. "Ninety per cent of people don't even notice it's vegetarian." It reflects the current approach to vego food: don't label it and just make it delicious.

"The best thing we ever heard was a tradie who came in and looked at the menu and said: 'What's all this crap?'. [My partner] James … pointed him in the right direction and now he's a regular."

Alex Elliott-Howery from Cornersmith cafe in Sydney.  Photo: Kate Geraghty

Alex Elliott-Howery from Cornersmith cafe in Sydney. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Martinez has similar story from Smith & Deli.

"We have blokey tradies coming in high-vis buying exactly what they'd buy from 7-11 down the road, but they're coming in and they're buying vegan pies and vegan chocolate milks," she says. "They still get exactly what they want without changing anything." It's a no-brainer way to convert people to plant-based dining.

The fact Martinez attends events you wouldn't expect a vegan business owner to participate in (like Adelaide's Beer and Barbecue Festival) shows how accepted animal-free dining has become.

At Melbourne's Fromage A Trois cheese festival, she showcased her vegan Roquefort, genuine mould and all. Her vegan interpretation of Sizzler's menu at Sydney's the Unicorn Hotel sold out three sittings; her vegan takeover of Belles Hot Chicken attracted 700 enthusiastic patrons.

Showing people they don't have to "miss out" makes them more receptive to plant-based dining. Martinez even created convincing vegan drumsticks using soy chicken, jackfruit and spring-roll wrappers to evoke the crisp finish of fried chicken.

Previously, "all you could eat was legumes and salad", but meat-free food is no longer "a joke", she says. When a chef said it was impossible to make a vegan soufflé, Martinez's reaction was: "You watch me." (She nailed it). Her upcoming vegan takeover of Porteno, a Sydney restaurant known for its grilled meats, only reinforces the momentum for plant-based eating.

A selection of Brent Savage's vegetarian food at Bentley. Photo: Edwina Pickles

A selection of Brent Savage's vegetarian food at Bentley. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Sydney chef Brent Savage remembers, 20 years ago, being taught that "vegetarians were assholes". A vego dish was just garnishes lazily swept from the mains. He's seen "how limited some chefs are … to not think beyond a big piece of beef or protein", particularly as his wife, Fleur, is a third-generation vegetarian.

His creative, veg-friendly approach is reciprocated by diner enthusiasm. At Sydney's Bentley Restaurant & Bar, orders for vego menus have tripled. Since turning Yellow into an all-vegetarian venue, it's consistently packed, even on Mondays. "A quiet night" is when the restaurant is "only" two-thirds full.

At Yellow, Savage and head chef Chris Benedet show how creative you can be with vegetables: think an eggplant steak resembling twice-cooked pork belly, or potato evoking a schnitzel. Non-vego diners often say, "I didn't even realise there was no meat."

Even at Cirrus (Savage's seafood restaurant with business partner Nick Hildebrandt), they were besieged by demand for vegetarian dishes. "We were forced into it," he says. "But we're more than happy to."

Credit Savage's flair for showcasing vegetables – particularly his imaginative, root-to-leaf experimentation with interesting produce (such as cucamelons and zucchini stems) – for the crowds returning to his restaurants. Practically speaking, the skyrocketing price of meat means chefs have had to be more creative with vegies, he adds.

Meeting a vegan in Japan compelled chef Alejandro Cancino to ditch animal products from his diet.

"Yes, it's going to be challenging and I may sacrifice my potential as a chef and I may ruin my career," he thought. "But … the positives are so much bigger and more important. My career is not as important."

Pea and buckwheat risotto at Urbane. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Pea and buckwheat risotto at Urbane. Photo: Glenn Hunt

At Urbane, he still tastes everything in the kitchen, but off duty, he adheres to a vegan diet. As does his wife. Together, they run Fenn, a vegan company that produces sesame cheese. "We started doing five kilos a week and last week, we did 250," he says.

This demand reflects his Urbane experiences: initially, his colleagues were reluctant to launch a vegan menu: "They said, 'oh look, this is Brisbane, I don't think it will work'." But they allowed him one test run. "In three days, it was fully booked." It's been a hit ever since.

Cancino, who will leave Urbane in June, has also started running pop-up dinners at plant-based cafe, Grown – where more than half the diners are meat eaters, flirting with dietary changes. It's a precursor to him eventually opening a full-time vegan eatery in July.

Kenney was sceptical when a friend invited him to a raw vegan New York restaurant in the early 2000s. The food "wasn't even that good" (he remembers "a stew of weird stuff" and "walnut meatballs with zucchini noodles"), but he was struck by how energised he felt; he paced across town for three hours afterwards.

If you could give this healthy cuisine some fine-dining flair, "it's going to change the way people feel about restaurants and about food", he felt.

Alibi chef Matthew Kenney.  Photo: Adrian Mueller

Alibi chef Matthew Kenney. Photo: Adrian Mueller

Shifting from his classical French training – dependent on heavy buttery sauces and reductions – meant he underwent many recipe-testing failures. One success: the raw heirloom tomato lasagne with pistachio pesto from Pure Food and Wine, his first vegan restaurant in 2003, which has travelled with him to Alibi, his first Sydney restaurant. It's joined by kelp noodle cacio e pepe and vegan baked raclette on the menu. We're reaching a tipping point with meat-free diets, he believes.

"Because it works," he says. "If plant-based food is prepared and it's delicious, it's also good for people, it's good for the environment." He points to recent launches (McDonald's vegan burger in Sweden, Domino's vegan pizza here) and major dairy companies approaching him about vegan milks, as signs plant-based foods are becoming mainstream.

Even at Melbourne's Natural History Bar & Grill, a tribute to steakhouses, vegan dishes are on offer. "We definitely need to be eating less protein and meat," says co-owner Morgan McGlone. He even adopted a vegan diet ("it lasted three days!") and instigated Martinez's meat-free takeover of Fitzroy's Belles Hot Chicken. Next: a Sydney version. "Dates TBC," he says.

Veg-focused dining isn't just an inner-city trend. At Cornersmith, students travel far and wide to attend its tofu and miso classes. Diners come from interstate to stock up at Smith & Deli and one regular commutes four hours (twice a week) to get her vegan food fix. Kenney's Plantminded company, will serve hospitals, schools, universities and lower-income neighbourhoods with products like frozen pizza.

For Kenney, plant-based dining keeps gaining momentum. "We get approached a half dozen times a day about [opening] new places," he says. "The phone never rang three years ago."

The growing innovation in plant-based foods, from pea milk (which Martinez is excited about) to San Francisco start-up Just producing convincing vegan "eggs" from mung beans, is helping spur interest.

But this isn't just a fad with an expiration date. It's amplifying an idea that Dan Barber explores in The Third Plate, from 2014. In his influential book, he imagines a carrot steak as the headliner of a dish, instead of a "hulking piece of protein".

He was forecasting the way we would eat – and how we'd need to eat. The environmental, agricultural, health and economical reasons for sidelining meat are not going away – but will only become more undeniable with time.

And vegan cuisine is accessible to everyone: "It's the most widely friendly food to every group," he says, from pork-avoiding Muslims to the lactose-intolerant. "Unless you're allergic to vegetables, there's no reason to stay away."