Veg-centric Cuisine

Vegetables on a Fence by Dan Barber's Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Plant-based diets have hit the mainstream. We explore why consumers and chefs are adopting a meatless mindset. 

A busy lunch time in George Town’s Bread & Chocolate and there’s not a spare seat in the house. Office workers are staring at the menus, agonizing over whether to order a B.L.T., Shepherd’s Pie, Burger or the Tartare. So far, so normal. But then take a closer look and you’ll see that B.L.T. is packed with hickory-smoked tempeh instead of bacon; the pie swaps minced lamb for chopped root vegetables and lentils; and the burger and tartare haven’t been anywhere near a cow – both are made from beets. This is a vegan restaurant, and yet most people in here aren’t necessarily even vegetarians.

“I often go to vegan restaurants even though I’m a meat eater,” says one customer, Samuel Jacques-Cloutier, a manager at RBC. “I just believe we eat too much meat on some level.”

“I love how these places use fresh local produce,” agrees technology trainer Julia Hornigold. “Somehow they manage to add all these flavors to their dishes so I feel satisfied but never sluggish afterwards.”

It’s a similar story at West Bay’s Vivo, where owner Michele Zama estimates that only about 30 percent of his clientele is vegan or vegetarian. “It is nice to notice that most of the non-vegan/vegetarian guests who come to Vivo are now on a journey for a better and healthier lifestyle,” he says, noting that the coconut ‘bacon’ and ‘ceviche’ are the most popular signature dishes on the menu. “Many people are now cutting out the consumption of meat and animal products in favor of sustainable plant-based options.”

Roasted beet salad, edamame pesto, white miso dressing on Asia de Cuba’s vegan brunch menu.

In large part, the motivation is utilizing local ingredients: Cayman has an abundance of coconuts, not so much in the way of pigs (equally, local lion fish is allowed on its menu since this is a sustainable solution to tackling an invasive species). But it is also a sign of a much larger movement towards reducing our consumption of animal products.

Top chefs with a traditional meat-centric training are increasingly putting veggies center-stage. They are elevating seasonal greens and roots with creative techniques, and presenting these as entrees rather than merely side dishes. Meat is not entirely phased out, but it is less dominant, a support act.

“Meat is not entirely phased out, but it is less dominant, a support act.”

“A plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean going vegan or even vegetarian,” explains Cayman-based Holistic Nutrition Educator, Andrea Hill. “Quality animal foods like grass-fed meat, free-range and organic poultry, organic/local eggs and wild fish aren’t necessarily off-limits. They’re just no longer the ‘main feature’ at every meal time, taking a backseat, if you will, to eating lots of unprocessed plant foods. In fact, in my experience, the interest in plant-based diets has been driven by omnivore consumers. Remember, it’s about finding the right balance for you.”

The ripple effect can be seen all around the world. Dan Barber – one of America’s most influential chefs and subject of the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” – recently introduced a veg-centric bar menu at his restaurant Blue Hill in New York State. Meat-based proteins appear mostly as condiments, while wholegrains and vegetables from the on-site farm dominate.

Self-proclaimed “veg-forward” restaurant Bad Hunter in Chicago gives as much menu space to its “Plants” section (dishes include bok choy hot pot, and crispy braised carrot with beluga lentils and fermented hot sauce) as it does to “Protein.” Similarly, Hearth in New York has eliminated its side dish category in favor of a dozen daily vegetable specials front and center on its menu; meat, fish or cheese lend supporting flavor in dishes such as truffled mushrooms with gremolata (an anchovy-herb condiment) or purple kale sprouts with sweet potato and egg yolk.

Who is missing the meat with such creative, flavorsome dishes? In fact, the plant-based trend could be said to encourage culinary innovation as chefs seek to elevate humble vegetables to headline acts or use them in never-seen-before ways. Just look at the Beyond Burger, which uses beet juice to “bleed” and has won investment from Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Gates and a former McDonald’s CEO.

Beet burgers

At Thievery, a popular veg-focused restaurant in Sydney, head chef Julian Cincotta says he includes a few meat dishes as a security blanket for reluctant vegetarians: “Seeing a bit of meat on there removes the mental barrier for veg-sceptics. Eventually, our meat-eating customers generally opt for a mostly veg menu.”

While Cayman’s restaurants often follow a more traditional format, prizing seafood and steaks, change is afoot. Ave Restaurant, for example, has a Mountain & Garden entrée section, which puts a dish of “Wild Mushrooms, aromatic herbs, chestnut miso” on the same footing as meat and fish options.

There is nothing worthy or bland about Icoa’s K.F.C. – pieces of cauliflower, rather than chicken, coated in an array of fiery spices and deep-fried – nor Saucha’s tacos stuffed with jackfruit, which has a texture remarkably like pulled pork. With indulgent options such as coconut, cashew or almond milk ice-cream now a regular sight in local supermarket aisles, this dietary choice increasingly feels less like ‘missing out.’ The options are certainly more varied and exciting than in the past.

Vivo’s coconut ceviche. Photo by Stephen Clarke.

Britta Bush, founder of Saucha Conscious Living, observes: “Slowly, but absolutely, people’s attitudes are changing as to what constitutes a main meal. It’s no longer just the old-fashioned meat and two veg. There has always been this stigma surrounding anything labeled as vegan, so when introducing people to plant-based cuisine, showcasing lively flavors and interesting textures is essential. It’s a matter of tasting it to believe it.”

There are many reasons behind this attitudinal shift, from new health research to environmental concerns. The numbers make for stark reading: Livestock accounts for 51 percent of the world’s anthropogenic greenhouse gases, according to the World Watch Institute, while nearly half of all the water used in the U.S. and 80 percent of its agricultural lands is used for raising animals for food. It takes almost 20 times less land to feed someone on a plant-based diet than it does to feed a meat-eater, since the crops are consumed directly.

“Slowly, but absolutely, people’s attitudes are changing as to what constitutes a main meal” – BRITTA bUSH

There has also been a slew of influential books and documentaries highlighting poor conditions in the farming industry, notably “What the Health,” “Food Inc.” and “Cowspiracy.”

Such sources had an impact on Britta Bush’s decision to start her own plant-based, locally-sourced meal delivery service. “Much of what we’ve been told about nutrition in the past 30-50 years is now being revealed as influence of lobbyists behind Big Ag, promoting not only the dairy and meat industry, but also subsidizing the soybean, corn and cheap filler industry,” she says. “People are starting to recognize that what we need to come back to is eating locally, supporting farmers and our community, and taking back ownership of our relationship with food. We’re witnessing a cultural and global shift surrounding our food sources. Are they healing a disease, or feeding it?”

New Forest wild mushroom, roasted hazelnut and pear salad at Pollen Street Social.

Andrea also reports that clients are showing more interest in where their food comes from, how it was raised and treated, versus what a product claims to contain nutritionally on packaged food. She points to factory-farmed or processed red meats and non-organic dairy products as the smartest foodstuffs to reduce, as these tend to be higher in saturated fats and salt, both of which are linked to increased heart disease and stroke risk. “There is also something to be said about the hormones and antibiotics used in the conventional meat and dairy industry… and how they can impact our own hormonal balance and cancer risk. Again, it goes back to food quality, and knowing where your meat and dairy came from.”

Meat-free Mondays have helped to present a palatable, achievable take on reducing animal products.

Movements such as Flexitarianism (eating predominantly, but not strictly, vegetarian) and Meat-free Mondays have helped to present a palatable, achievable take on reducing animal products – they show that one needn’t live on tofu alone, or transform their entire lifestyle, but instead take small steps. Veganism, meanwhile, has been given an A-list boost in the media by figures such as Brad Pitt, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande, not to mention elite athletes like Venus and Serena Williams and David Haye.

Whether our motivation is being kinder to animals, the environment or our personal health, or a combination of the three, all roads seem to lead to embracing foods that we can pluck straight from the soil, plant or tree.

Thinking of going vegan?

If not carefully planned the vegan diet can leave you short on nutrients, especially protein, vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, and zinc. I would recommend supplementing with B12, a micro algae-sourced DHA (omega-3s), and a plant-based protein powder daily.

“I suggest the diet include nuts, seeds, beans, seaweed, and higher protein grains like quinoa. Because nuts, legumes and grains contain anti-nutrients like phytic acid, though, I would suggest that these foods are soaked and sprouted. Phytic acid can block key digestive enzymes which can keep the body from adequately using calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc (soaking and sprouting reduces phytic acid).

Also, be cautious of overconsuming carb-heavy meals, which can promote yeast overgrowth, blood sugar irregularities, and weight gain.”