Reviewing the Plant-Forward Summit

The Pursuit of Deliciousness at the Intersection of Health, Sustainability, and Cultural Discovery

The Global Plant-Forward Culinary Summit 2020 covered a vast number of topics from very creative people who are so passionate about sustainability and creativity. It was so impressive to see the wonderful community who could make such a great conference a success virtually on such little notice. The list of speakers was varied and impressive. In our first week, we saw chefs who walked their talk! They were literally watching their businesses stop due to shelter in place rules and no dine-in business, yet they were propelled to sustain their stakeholders, including supply chains and employees, by impromptu curbside menus along with charity efforts to feed first responders. Dominique Crenn, Chef of Atelier 3 Star Restaurant, advises, “don’t lose focus.”

Check out the summit speakers and google them to find their instagram and cookbooks.

I have had a lot of fun trying the recipes, connecting to chefs on Instagram, and purchasing new cookbooks on the Amazon store. I always love to learn new foods and to feed my hunger for following a plant-based diet. This essay helps me put everything into focus for our pursuit of taste, health, sustainability, and global cultures. The answer in my mind is to develop and pursue a philosophy that is balanced as well as to harness art and science. Isn’t that what a chef and his passion are really all about?

What is plant-forward?

What is plant-forward? Greg Drescher defined it best in his presentation with a simple phrase, “healthy flexitarian, omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan all fit under this broad umbrella.” It defines a diet and style of eating that is centered around vegetables and plant-centric or based on plants. Plant-based is a little different, according to Drescher, because it refers to the ingredients and the foods, which include whole grains, beans, legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, plant oils, herbs, and spices. While that is an impressive list, it is not just about “flipping things” like taking out meat and adding mushrooms. As chefs and culinarians, Drescher says, we are to embrace our global brothers and sisters and study cultures where plant-based food has been a way of life for thousands of years. Mediterranean and Mexican are two examples. To that, I would certainly add African and Asian. From these partners, we can learn to embrace more sustainable menus, buy seasonal items, focus on minimally processed foods, have healthier oils in our kitchen, serve a little less red meat, use less sugar, cut the salt, and drink healthier. Many of these principles were designed by Harvard’s School of Health, which partners with Menus of Change. It is an example of how we can make little tweaks to ensure the health of our bodies and planets while making the dinner table more vibrant, satisfying, creative, and varied.

Ali Bouzari, chef and scientist, author of Ingredient, really hit the nail on the head for applying deliciousness to health, sustainability, and cultural discovery as a philosophy combined with art and science. He defined the purpose of plants and vegetables in our food and helped us use plants more effectively to capture an umami taste versus try to manipulate plants into fake meats to take the place of protein. So, his vision was more about a celebration of tomatoes, soy, and mushrooms versus fake meats. He says that umami is a complementary flavor that is subtle. It is based on MSG and other flavors, but it is not as bold or obvious as some of the other flavor sensations, including salt, sugar, acid, or bitter. It is more like a sensation in a plant-based dish. It makes a plant-based dish deeper, savory, and very satisfying to most palates. Pairing umami with other meat associated sensors to create an animal experience is key. Use charcuteries seasonings or meat cooking methods like grilling and smoking. I could just picture charred or smoked mushrooms and pairing them with meat like seasonings to create a plant-based experience that is better than meat. He also mentions many legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils. Use umami seasonings, umami-rich ingredients, and cooking methods to give a meat-like experience. He encouraged us to use meat very judiciously and encouraged everyone to take advantage of the complexities of plants. Here is where putting together an experience makes a chef more artistic. His journey to combine science and culinary art is very on point to answer our journey of how to intersect Deliciousness with the benefits of sustainability, health, and cultural discovery. Umami transcends all cultures! I felt that his plant-forward philosophy was really on point for the identification of the main issues of sustainability, the treatment of the plants as a complex and satisfying base food, the analysis and evaluation menus and recipes, the recommendations for chefs of all cultures, and plant-enthusiasts today. From a critical standpoint, I would want to pursue his Instagram channel more for inspiration and use his Ingredient book to build my repertoire of umami ingredients. It is now in my Kindle.

But perhaps the best and most important discovery was how you could literally turn all of the parts of plants into artistic and delicious elements of a cuisine. Every chef had a different way of doing this, and it shows that there are so many possibilities for delicious plant foods, and there is no right or wrong way. The process is fluid, expanding, and carrying itself across all cultures from vegan to omnivore, from the Mediterranean to American to African to Asian and all continents and cultures, and from fast food to fine dining. Since plants themselves are the base of a healthy diet as well as a sustainable food system, and their number so great and varied, it only makes sense to make them the focus. Here is an overview of my favorite chefs and how they brought plants to the table.

Amanda Cohen has such a creative name for her restaurant. Who could not fall in love with the title, Dirt Candy? She creates wonderful concoctions with kale, including a cobbler, as well as shows amazing artistic creativity with a yellow pepper carpaccio. Her vegan burgers are nothing short of artistic masterpieces with all of their layers, colors, textures, and flavors.

Other favorite mentions in lectures and presentations are numerous, but they include The Banh Mi Taco, Vital Root, Denver, Palm Carnitas in Jajaja, New York City, and Amaranth Custard in Cochina Mexicana, Washington, DC. The amaranth custard sounds amazing! And jackfruit tacos are showing up on many menus upon research. But you can also have Cauliflower Steak thanks to Prime and Provisions, Chicago, or Celery Root Shawarma by Noma in Denmark, or Smoked Cantaloupe Burger by Ducks Eatery in New York. I plan to try all of these dishes as I can find their photo or recipe. These are all examples where chefs are pairing delicious plant foods in traditional types of dishes with meat-like cooking methods. Fast food examples include SoCal Burger, Beyond 8 Layer Burrito, and Plant-based Sausage Pizza by Giordano’s. The takeaway is to just create and let the sky be the limit. I think this list shows the power of plants in the hands of chefs who love them and want to source more sustainable ingredients according to a survey in week 3 of the conference.

My two favorite cooking demo presentations deserve special mention. Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Roasted Garlic, Yogurt, and Honey-Coriander Seed Ladolemono looks fantastic. I learned that ladolemono is a lemon-like dressing with olive oil, lemon juice, and xanthan gum to help have a thicker dressing. It is paired with yogurt, honey, and coriander and drizzled over fried Brussels Sprouts. So, there are plant foods, a little yogurt, and the indulgence of olive oil in a masterpiece dish that should have everyone running to the store to buy Brussels sprouts.

Of course, as chefs and health professionals, we can never forget about consumers. Once they are on board, they vote with their pocketbooks, which helps our efforts. Jacqueline Chi and Anne McBride took on this topic and helped us understand that while many foods are familiar to us as chefs, they might not be with consumers. So, we have to remember to step back and make sure the food is easy to understand and that it looks and tastes great. Catchy titles always help, and so does a good space on social media channels. She has excellent tips for bridging familiar and unfamiliar. Amanda Topper says the vast number of consumers is an omnivore, but 2/3 follow a diet that cuts back on meat. So, the timing is good to capture the following of younger consumers who are more plant-based. There is a lot of room for growth now. They are doing this to be healthier, it tastes better, to add more variety in their diet, and to eat less meat as part of a plant-based diet. They are also concerned about animals and the environment and other ethical concerns. Vegans are more concerned about animal welfare. And younger flexitarians and vegans are concerned more about the environment.

Amanda suggests that flavor is first if you want to appeal to the numbers while ethics are secondary, and our marketing and menus must follow suit if we are to be well accepted. Meat is viewed by consumers as the best protein source, so it may be important not to throw it out but to follow Bouzari’s advice to limit or ration it in our cooking and menu design. For example, chili with meat is maybe a better option than a steak. Above all, according to Amanda Topper, most consumers just want variety. They want more animal sources and more plant-based sources. However, they tend to choose things that are familiar.

I would want to tie this point with Bouzari’s suggestion that we take unfamiliar plant foods and make them a familiar experience with seasonings and cooking methods that are associated with meat. Whole and plant-based are seen as healthier by consumers even if they don’t always pick it. However, although Bouzari does not like fake meats, the consumers like them if they really mimic meat. Perhaps this is why Impossible Burger has had such great success!

The closing of meat plants from the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted awareness of the health of people, animals, and the environment and pushed interest in plant-based foods. There has been a jump towards plant-based meats since Q3 of 2019 and also now with the pandemic. Meat substitutes are growing the fastest in the quick service restaurants, so this shows that the movement is going across all types of dining from 3 Star Michelin to QSR or quick-service restaurants that we normally think about as fast food. By combining plant-forward and comfort foods, consumers are embracing more plant-forward foods. Homemade is important in our pandemic when dining out is greatly reduced.

Here are three tips from Amanda Topper:

1) create health but also add indulgence;

2) use more whole foods like grains, beans, and potatoes because they are interesting and familiar and you can add more flavors to them

3) use original ideas because these bring consumers back to your operation.

Zak Weston is a proponent of the plant-based meat-a-logs. But he uses numbers to explain why we should override Bouzari’s philosophy and consider them. Plant-based burgers are displacing multiple types of animal proteins. But Italian sausage, brats, fillets, and meatballs are also becoming very popular and are demonstrating that there is evolution. Plant-based meat is now a choice in 34% of independent restaurants, especially in casual dining bars and grills. While these are not mainstream, they were growing very fast with a 37% growth rate last year, and they show the most growth of plant-forward foods. And for the entrepreneur who wants to increase profits, the price per pound that consumers will pay is greater. So, there are a lot of according to Zak, that is very good for business people to consider the “fake meats” that the more sophisticated chef might not consider. He reminds us that plant-based milk was the first breakout category, and burgers will be the second. A third prediction is ground meat and other dairy products including, sausage, burritos, omelets, Mexican foods, pizza toppings, pasta and meatballs, meatball subs, chicken nuggets, and yogurt.

I am not so sure about the chicken nuggets. I took a big taste test of all of them in the store earlier this year and found that the portion sizes were small, the prices were high, and the products very rubbery. But I am sure the manufacturers will cover these. My opinion is that veggie burgers are much faster and easier to make on the fly (1 minute in the microwave), and they are great to have on hand for emergencies. Cleanup is easier. But I would rather make a vegan chili or a chili with a little chicken than to buy a vegan chicken nugget. I might be inclined to make a mushroom meatball, though!

The takeaway message that helps me define the intersection of health, deliciousness, sustainability, and cultural discovery is to experiment with plants. Look at other cultures to see how they have done this for thousands of years with great success. Listen to Bouzari’s advice to focus on plants as plants and use less meat. Increase your variety of plant foods, cooking methods, and flavor combinations. Mix familiar and unfamiliar. Be creative with your veggies! They are already healthy and sustainable, and there are almost unlimited amounts of grains, beans, herbs, and spices. The sky is the limit, as we see from our friends at Dirt Candy!

Here is a handout summarizing what we know so far. 

Judy Doherty, BS, PCII

References:

  1. 2020 Global Plant Forward Series, Week 2, Ali Bouzari, Umami Lecture as part of How to Showcase Value Around Plants, Culinary Institute of America, June 2020.
  2. The Healthy Eating Plate, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-eating-plate/ Accessed June 19, 2020.
  3. Drescher, Greg, Principles of Healthy Sustainable Menus, 2020 Plant Forward Series Speaker and Presentation
  4. @dirtcandy, Instagram Channel, Dirt Candy Restaurant, Amanda Cohen, Chef
  5. Mintel Reports, Amanda Topper, Speaker, 2020 Global Plant Forward Series Speaker, Plant-Based Ingredients and Dishes and the Plant-Based Consumer, Lightspeed, Mintel
  6. Zak Weston, Good Food Institute, Speaker, 2020 Global Plant Forward Series Speaker, Plant Forward, and the Consumer Discussion
  7. Impossible Burger Becomes Number One Item Sold At Grocery Stores, Business Wire, October 1, 2019. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20191001005462/en/Impossible-Burger-No.-1-Item-Sold-Grocery Accessed June 15, 2020
  8. COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing facilities boast plant-based appeal, Meat + Poultry, June 2020. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2020/06/01/2041606/0/en/COVID-19-Impact-on-Alternative-Protein-Industry-Meticulous-Research-Viewpoint.html, Accessed June 2020.
  9. 2020 Global Plant Forward Series Recipes https://www.plantforwardkitchen.org/2020-summit-materials-week-5?fbclid=IwAR1T3JrzVxIulaJW-92IdcTVkq1tPNxlCwbYmv02mP5jaieu-taTVwNc5Mc with 2020 Global Plant Forward Series https://www.plantforwardkitchen.org/gpfcs/webcast
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