On June 10, Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park (EMP) launched its US$335 exclusively vegan menu. This radical move hints at a global shift towards sustainability, with Epicurious magazine also having scrapped beef-based content from its platform. In exploring whether the same shift could happen in South Africa, two perspectives are engaged: one for and another against vegan-only fine dining.
“If we want to build a vegan fine-dining culinary culture, I think it has to be slowly introduced for it to work and be successful,” he says. “It’s an interesting avenue for South African chefs to explore, especially because the country is known for its love of protein. One of the benefits will be highlighting seasonality. If it is phased in slowly, it will show the predominant meat eater that there is huge versatility in vegetables.”
Tracking South Africa’s readiness means tapping into its growing vegan and plant-based communities and developments. Some local restaurants have already successfully incorporated plant-based food into their offerings. Executive chef at The Chefs’ Table in Umhlanga Mathew Armbruster boasts a fully separate vegan à la carte menu as well as a newly launched vegan tasting menu. Durban’s 9th Avenue Waterside has a separate vegan menu. The Green Mondays movement, which encourages people to eat plant-based food once a week, has allowed ambassadors of the trend such as Chef Alex Poltera of The Snooty Fox at Fernhill Hotel to include a lot more vegan dishes in their menus. Fernhill Hotel is a mecca for vegans and vegetarians visiting the Midlands.
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Mathew says: “In the major areas specifically, vegan-only eateries are popping up on the regular with a great response from the South African community. These eateries are the frontrunners that are testing our market to see whether larger establishments could take the risk and potentially invest in vegan-only dining.”
A new addition to Cape Town’s plant-based scene, Grumpy & Runt is a charming New York-style vegan deli owned and run by Chef Johke Steenkamp and Carla Gontier. For them, the accessibility of vegan food is important. The owners are not overt about the fact that they’re a vegan eatery. This has helped attract varied guests to their shop.
“A lot of our customers are pleasantly surprised when they find out we’re vegan. We do have a large vegan following, but it’s been a very inaccessible movement. Making simple and accessible food like sandwiches or donuts is a big thing for us,” says Johke.
Carla adds: “What we noticed massively overseas is that places don’t have a big sign on their wall that says ‘we are vegan’. And these are 200–300-seater vegan restaurants that are full on a Monday evening. That, for me, is the future in that you’re catering for a taste that people have while eliminating things that they might not necessarily miss because of how delicious the other things are.”
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Being creative and innovative with vegan food and pushing it beyond its limits when it comes to taste and presentation become more important than trying to mimic the meat that is missing.
“There is so much that you can do with vegetables, legumes and grains that can make the individual product shine, rather than processing a product in the hopes to satisfy a burger craving,” says Mathew.
“Working with your local farmers is also key. That would open up a world of new and unusual produce that will create both excitement and uniqueness for a guest,” he adds.
Afro-Asian vegan chef and artist Parusha Naidoo feels the addition of vegan fine-dining restaurants will add to the current food scene without taking from it.
“At the moment there aren’t any vegan restaurants in South Africa that are open at night and/or have nice decor and ambiance for a dinner date. There is already a market of middle-class vegans and vegan-curious people out there who can spend money on fine-dining vegan food,” she says.
For Roxanne Robinson, who eats plant-based, what’s more important is for vegan-only fine-dining restaurants to have the heart for a plant-based lifestyle as opposed to just pleasing a certain customer.
“I would be more willing to hand over my money to someone who had considered the growing of the food and the health benefits from every element. Wholesome food is an issue, especially in this country where ‘healthy eating’ is sometimes served up as a luxury. Show me a restaurant that is supplying those who can’t afford fresh fruit and vegetables with a plate of goodness and I’ll show you my wallet,” she says.
We can agree that plant-based diets in their various forms aren’t going anywhere – whether it’s a veg-heavy, flexitarian diet, a strict vegan one, or something in between. However, chef and proud veg champion Karen Dudley admits that this might not be enough to make entirely plant-based restaurants feasible. “As wonderful as this sounds, I do fear that only a tiny minority of people will be ready for this,” she says. “Plant-based diets make so much sense and we want to support them, but the fact is, it’s hard enough for ‘regular’ restaurants currently, let alone those with a niche.”
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Ivor Jones, head and co-owner of Chef’s Warehouse at Beau Constantia, echoes this by saying he sees a number of plant-based dieters daily, but there’s still a very strong link between meat and the cost of eating at a fine-dining restaurant. “Last week, some diners told us that there must be more meat at this price,” says Ivor. “The issue comes in how people perceive value – they often don’t take into account the hours of work required from everyone in the restaurant, regardless of whether they’re cooking meat or vegetables.”
Chef and author Mokgadi Itsweng’s comments lie more in the intention. “If this approach is to get people to eat more plants, I really don’t know if this is the best one,” she says. “Perhaps something more approachable or accessible, such as getting more casual or even fast-food restaurants to expand their plant-based offering, would be more successful.” Mokgadi adds that people don’t want to feel ‘boxed in’, so in this case it might be worth finding a way to bring the plant-based and regular diners together as a way of furthering the cause.
It’s obvious that some restaurants are ready to respond to a growing demand for more plant-based options, often in the form of entirely plant-based menus. However, Tamsin Snyman argues that there’s still a lack of plant-based options. “I can count on one hand existing fine-dining restaurants that offer plant-based or vegan menus,” she says. She adds that chefs can find ways to accommodate plant-based or vegan diners at fine-dining restaurants, simply by ‘veganising’ existing menu items. “Chefs don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Tamsin. “They are masters of their art and, at the end of the day, being vegan/plant-based means we eat very simply and celebrate anything creatively put together without using animal products.”
Mokgadi agrees that the message here shouldn’t be “anti-meat, but instead showing people the importance of eating more vegetables”.
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Perhaps the conclusion is that accommodating plant-based diets doesn’t need to be a ‘one or the other’ thing. “Maybe the next step for some restaurants is to go plant-based while still using butter and cream and eggs,” says Ivor.
For Karen, there’s a larger discussion to be had here. “The work of educating people about vegetables and their exciting versatility still has a long way to go, which is where I think this cause would be best suited.” She continues: “The better option might be to integrate more vegetables into the lifestyles we already have.”
Whatever the final outcome, merely having this discussion signifies a huge mindset shift and that plant-based diets aren’t going anywhere. “I believe that the majority of us will never fully become vegan or plant-based,” says Tamsin. “But a massive amount of us are moving to a more plant-based space, and if chefs are willing to push their creative skills out a little, they may be pleasantly surprised at what they can achieve and, in turn, they will gain a whole new appreciative audience.”
For those who aren’t scared of a challenge, this could mean an exciting new opportunity to cook as they’ve never done before.