Fantastic Flexitarian and Free-From Food – Fad or Forever?

Vegetarian and vegan diets which were once perhaps considered somewhat wacky and the preserve of barefoot hippies are now pretty much mainstream. The reasons are many.  Health, nutrition and ethics are high up there and the publicity surrounding Veganuary has done much to suggest that this fad is far from fizzling out.

Hotels, conference venues and event organisers are really taking note of this eating revolution.  It’s only a few years ago that an organisers list of delegate dietary requirements might have been limited to a couple of ticks for a vegetarian main course.  Now it’s increasingly expected and indeed demanded that a flexitarian menu is offered at an event without the need to ask.  Nut roasts & vegan meat-loafs are out.  Chipotle Chilli Jackfruit Burgers and Wholemeal Hoagie very much in.  meetingsclub couldn’t be left behind and went investigating to see if Free-From is Fad or Forever…

FLEXITARIAN FAYRE FOR EVENT ORGANISERS 

Barry Nichols, Executive Chef of Graysons Restaurants

is pioneering flexitarian dishes for conference delegates and event guests.  Over forty years of culinary experience which started in the Army Catering Corps, has seen Barry rise through the ranks in contract catering for companies including Sutcliffe Catering, Compass and Elior.  Joining Graysons Restaurants in 2008, Barry’s been instrumental in developing Graysons’ menus for staff restaurants, hospitality suites and top event venues.  As Executive Chef he oversees Graysons innovation, development and quality standards and is a massive fan of Vegan Cuisine.  So meetingsclub caught up with Chef Nichols to ask him his thoughts about where this culinary phenomenon is heading and what it means for venues and conference organisers alike. 

FAD OR FOREVER? 

“I believe freefrom and flexitarian menus are here to stay.  The demand will plateau at some point in the future and the market won’t grow as quickly as it has over the past couple of years, but plantbased eating is blossoming thanks in part to the younger generation who are very much buying into it. As food technology moves on, the ability to replicate meat and meat texture is improving all the time.  The buzz word now is ‘Flexitarian’ and a lot of people are experimenting, reducing their meat intake and increasingly choosing from menus, plantbased food.  As meat analogues (alternatives) become better it makes it much more accessible and easier for people to try and we’re not just talking a plate full of vegetables.  

IS IT EASY TO INCORPORATE VEGAN DISHES INTO A CONFERENCE AND BANQUETING MENU? 

It’s much easier now than it ever was, thanks largely to food technology Tempeh (south-east Asian Soy) and Seitan (wheat and flour) which are flavour neutral and ready to use.  You’re really buying texture enabling the dish to be flavoured in anywaySome chefs still tend to lack imagination, but current products make it a lot easier because you can treat the food exactly as a piece of meat without having to replicate it.  I personally find it fascinating and a challenge recognising it can be hard for a chef as the reflex action is to always reach for the cream and cheese, and of course vegan food is very different.  You have to think it through more. For example, some plant-based eaters and vegans won’t have anything to do with honey because it is a by-product of an animal.  As a chef you therefore need to be even more focussed, but it isn’t really harder than any other special diet such as celiac/gluten free.  It is true however that some chefs are dyed in the wool carnivores and for them it is a process of education. Education also extends to customers.  At Graysons we now offer a taste before you buy just to give a different option such as a celeriac steak.  Often people are really surprised, saying that they would never have dreamt it would taste so good. Fundamentally my view is that if a dish looks good, tastes good and is priced right it doesn’t matter whether it is meat based or not. 

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE CHEFS MAKE WHEN CREATING VEGAN FOOD FOR MEETINGS AND EVENTS? 

“Chefs can over complicate things, when in fact all you have to do is to ensure food looks good and tastes amazing.  Sure vegan food can be quite challenging to create – it’s almost a form of molecular gastronomy as you have to find smart alternatives to meat and dairy products, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. A lot of our vegan guests and diners are satisfied with a beautiful plate of asparagus, intelligently seasoned and prepared with a delicious sauce I believe a lot of chefs over think it and get a bit nervous about what the expectation is.  Just keep it simple – well seasoned and properly cooked.”  

ARE VEGAN AND FREE-FROM MENUS MORE EXPENSIVE FOR CONFERENCE ORGANISERS? 

The good news is that many meat substitutes are very similar in price which is positive for the event organiser.  Dishes are not harder to make or necessarily labour intensive which can increase costOne of our most popular dishes is a stuffed Romano pepper with rice and cashew nuts.  It tastes delicious and essentially is simply created by squeezing some oil and lemon juice over a char-grilled pepper – it’s looks amazing, isn’t too extravagant and is reasonably priced. The secret is for venues and restaurants not to think of ‘free-from’ as a separate range or menu addition that only adds cost to the bottom line, but to think how free-from dishes can be enjoyed by everyone.” 

WHAT ARE THE MOST POPULAR DISHES AMONGST EVENT ORGANISERS? 

People do like Quorn and simple dishes are still very popular such as Quorn Chile and Lasagne.  But what is really starting to come through now from organisers are requests for Jack Fruit as it resembles pulled meat.  It’s fairly flavour neutral has the texture of a pulled pork and makes great burgers.  It’s readily available although not the cheapest and can go a little bit rubbery in the hands of an inexperienced chef. Do check out Jack Fruit Celeriac as it really is the superstar for the new generation. 

WHAT MIGHT A CONFERENCE MENU FOR VEGANS LOOK LIKE? 

“Good question… Here’s one I made earlier…” 

Chipotle Chilli Jackfruit Burger in a Wholemeal Hoagie 

celeriac and fennel cream slaw and summer salad 

choice of sauces and dressings 

* 

Wasabi and Sesame Tofu Ramen 

Miso Roast Vegetables 

choice of dressings 

scarlet slaw & Hampshire watercress salad 

* 

Aubergine and Black Bean Tostada 

celeriac and fennel “cream” slaw and summer salad 

choice of sauces and dressings 

* 

Mock Duck Hirata Bun julienne leeks, spring onion, and peppers with fresh coriander 

red rice salad 

lemon courgette salad with sprouting beans 

choice of sauces and dressings 

* 

Deep-fried Courgette & Corn Bhaji 

with spiced mango salsa 

blush tomato and broccoli salad 

pickled sweet red cabbage 

choice of sauces and dressings 

WHAT SHOULD VENUES BE OFFERING EVENT ORGANISERS INSTEAD OF BACON BUTTIES ON ARRIVAL? 

“I would emphatically say that the bacon butty equivalent is a mushroom roll! Freshly baked bread not buttered and served with beautifully seasoned wild mushrooms together with crushed pistachios.  Serve with vegan mayonnaise and ‘Rubies in the Rubble’ ketchup – that’s your bacon butty right there a very worthy replacement.  And don’t forget the drinks. You can’t go wrong with grapefruit, cranberry or pomegranate juice and tea and coffee served with oat or soya milk. 

AND FINALLY – WHAT IS ‘SLOW’ FOOD AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT? 

“SLOW” stands for SUSTAINABLE, LOCAL, ORGANIC and WILD. Slow Food in the UK is part of an international organisation with a remit to preserve food heritage. There are approaching 4,000 products at risk of disappearing from the market.  An example is that 80% of apples sold in supermarkets come from 6 varieties, when in the UK there are over 400 varieties of apples.  Slow Food have a scheme called the Ark of Taste which is a range of products that Grayson’s uniquely as a contract caterer sponsor.  We get the products that are identified as at risk into the food supply chain and used by our chefs.  It revitalises interest in the item be it an apple or a potato and helps to save the producer.  It is a fantastic scheme and enables us to preserve British food heritage and save the CO2 footprint.  It’s a great selling point for event organisers.” 

P.S.  Read how one London hotel has now designed and created the World’s first vegan hotel suite complete with separate check in and vegan mini-bar.  https://www.meetingsclub.com/club_news/the-worlds-first-vegan-suite-hilton-bankside/