Opinions are divided about plant-based “meats” or substitute, fake, alternative or meat-free meats, as they are also called. Some chefs dismiss these products as little more than processed waste, while others see them as an important part of the solution to our environmentally degraded world.
But no matter where you stand on the spectrum of opinion, plant-based/replacement meats will always be around. Recent reports predict that the global market for vegan meat will reach about $20 to $30 billion within 5 years.
But Asma Khan, the first British chef to be featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table and who runs the popular London restaurant Darjeeling Express, says she would never use meat substitutes in the kitchen because “if you don’t want to eat or cook meat, there are plenty of fresh vegetarian and vegan ingredients you can cook with.”
She offers a selection of vegetarian and vegan options on her menu of Bengali and Rajput dishes.
“My menu reflects a home-cooked way of eating, and most Indian households have always had an abundance of vegan and vegetarian dishes,” she says. “In most cities in India, there would be a meatless day, where there would be no meat in the market. So even where a family could afford to eat a lot of meat, because of the heat and the tradition of meatless days, we all grew up with a rich variety of vegan and vegetarian dishes,” she says. This is reflected in my menu.”
Another critic, Sat Bains, of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Sat Bains, also refuses to use “fake” meat. He offers only tasting menus at his fine-dining restaurant in Nottingham, central England.
“Substitute meat is not a gastronomic product,” he says. “On my menus, you’ll find ingredients like wild sea bass, venison, salmon and vegetables from an organic allotment in Oxfordshire,” he says.
From a produce perspective, he sees chefs as middlemen and customers as end consumers, and he wants to be able to ensure traceability throughout the process.
“I have a purist fantasy of not eating garbage. Don’t get me wrong, I do eat at McDonald’s occasionally, but if I wanted to eat less meat, I’d rather eat vegetables. Why eat vegetarian bacon when you can have beautiful eggplant roasted in olive oil? My mom makes Quorn (mycoprotein) edema, and it looks a bit like dry scrambled eggs, to me it’s just not as nice as real meat edema. If you don’t want to eat meat, don’t make it meat. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s not for me – it’s too man-made.”
Mélissa Astier, chef at the vegan restaurant Munchies in Bordeaux, France, also dislikes the man-made aspect of “fake” meat, but the problem for her is also that they taste like meat. She cooks with soy protein, but says she’s not a big fan of products like Impossible or Beyond Meat burgers.
“They’re really like a meat steak, which is perfect if you still like meat, but I don’t think I need the taste anymore because I never gravitated toward that particular flavor,” she says. “I don’t cook them in restaurants now because I’m not sold on the recipe, I figured it was too industrial, and I’d like more organic or local meatless meat. It seems a bit too chemical for me,” she says.
Belgian food, beverage, music and hospitality duo Blend Brothers, which has created vegetarian and vegan menus for events around the world, takes the view that “you eat meat or you don’t.”
“We’ve tried plant-based meat, and it’s different and interesting, but we prefer to look for a different protein solution rather than a ‘meat substitute,'” says Kamiel Buysse, one of the brothers. “We see it as a positive and exciting challenge to create a real menu using only vegetables. There are so many opportunities and possibilities,” says Kamiel Buysse.
However, Kamiel says a vegan menu without meatless meat substitutes requires some planning.
“You have to think differently about the courses, and you have to make sure when you put the menu together that there are a lot of variations, especially with the protein that normally comes from meat, fish or dairy,” he says.
Last January, Blend Brothers served a four-course menu of vegan street food to 400 guests in Cologne, Germany.
“That was a lot of fun! We made a vegan curry with cauliflower, squash and nuts, combined with basil oil, spicy mizuna salad and fried onions,” Kamiel says. “We also served a boxed seaweed salad that has all different types of seaweed in kimchi, combined with roasted cauliflower to add depth. We call it the salad of the future because seaweed is the vegetable of the future,” Kamiel says.
However, there are some chefs who are potentially more open to using meatless meats. Jamie Raftery, director of culinary development at Thanyapura Sports & Health Resort Phuket in Thailand, says that while the resort does not currently use “fake” meat, he will “keep an eye out for upcoming new products and brands, and if I come across some high-quality meatless products, I will consider adding them to the menu.”
As a holistic chef, he focuses on the nutritional, ethical and environmental aspects of food, rooting 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 whole foods and avoid as many processed products as possible. From my perspective, there are pros and cons to substituting meat,” he says. “I think alternative meats are a good temporary replacement for people who want to transition from an animal-based lifestyle to a more ethical vegan lifestyle. From an environmental and animal welfare perspective, meat substitutes help reduce negative impacts by reducing overall global animal consumption and all other resources associated with the sector.
But he is concerned about the health effects of the products.
“These processed meat-free products are man-made in factories and contain various additives, flavorings and preservatives in their formulas to extend shelf life and mass produce,” he says. “Major food industries are seeing the growth and demand for vegan products, so they in turn are adapting their products and making even greater profits.”
Ben Kiely, culinary arts chef instructor at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA) in Vancouver, Canada, puts pros and cons aside and says the culinary school recently added plant-based substitutes to the curriculum to meet student and N&G industry demand.
“In the first three months of the course, we maintained learning the basic techniques of cooking meat and fish, but in the last three months, we’ve adapted to student and industry needs and added more plant-based options to the menu, including cooking with grains and plant-based substitutes,” he says.
Some chefs see the value of substitute meats, and the uptake in Asia has been remarkable. Que Vinh Dang of contemporary Vietnamese restaurant Nhau in Hong Kong has used the OmniPork substitute meat product in his dishes in the two years since opening. He says diners have responded positively.
“Depending on how you do it, most people didn’t know the difference,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to predict if these products will become more popular, but I suspect there will be an increase because of the various other brands on the market, for example Beyond Meats.
Substitute meats are also on the menu at Yung’s Bistro. Yvonne Kam, founder of the modern Cantonese restaurant, says that while the bistro doesn’t specialize in vegan dishes, “it’s always nice to have more choices for groups of people with different dietary needs, which is why we also have a vegetarian menu with vegan options.”
She says meat eaters regularly order substitute meat dishes as part of their meal, and they report that the dish tastes almost the same.
“The good response we’ve received shows that demand is increasing, which has given us more confidence to develop more meatless dishes for our customers. Offering more choices will encourage customers to bring their vegetarian friends to dine with us. Second, the constant change of new dishes gets customers excited,” she says
She includes meatless meats for environmental reasons and, contrary to other chefs’ opinions, for health reasons – they have “zero cholesterol, low calories and low fat,” she says.
“It’s also a good challenge for our chefs to develop more meat-free Chinese dishes. In the past, Chinese vegetarian dishes didn’t look too interesting or appetizing. With the increasing demand for meat-free dishes, it pushes our chefs to step out of their comfort zone and explore different meat-free ingredients and preparation methods,” she says.