As a young chef, I was excited and passionate about getting stuck into the cooking scene. I was drawn to cooking because I had a natural feel and flare for it and loved to create. Food was my medium. I worked my way up through the kitchen hierarchy and developed my trade. Working in varied settings from café restaurants to fine dining venues; I grew increasingly aware of the lack of transparency and quality in the food we were serving. I craved the possibility of doing things differently; to align my values with my food.
I don’t blame venues for cutting corners, saving where they can or knowingly using sub-par produce. It’s the system that’s to blame, no one dreams of being a chef or cafe owner just to end up deep frying pre- battered and frozen potato scallops and fish fillets, or serving powdered desserts – I have done both as an apprentice.
A plate of food, I was taught, was meant to consist of three elements: protein, starch and vegetable. A meal centres around the protein I was told, and by protein, they meant meat or animal products. This made sense to me at the time, meat was the draw card for most meals in the restaurant I was working at. To create a dish, first decide on what animal protein your dish will need and then add in a starch and vegetable.
Looking back on this time I can see that the protein was actually the most boring part of the meals we were making. It was often the interesting things being done to the vegetables, the sauce and the seasonings that would bring a meal to life and elevate it to another level. Often the vegetarian dishes being made were far more creative then the traditional meat based dishes because they weren’t restricted by a big piece of flesh on the plate to have to work around – but that’s how we were taught.
Of course, protein is just one nutrient in meat or any food. I don’t know why we substitute the word protein for animal products in my industry. All foods contain protein, carbohydrate, and fat, if we really wanted to centre a meal around protein then we should have a bowl of broccoli – which per calorie contains more protein then a steak. (1) If we wanted to centre a meal around saturated fat then meat would be the way to go. This is an ingrained stereotype that a complete dish requires meat and that real chefs cook meat. This stereotype overlaps with the notion that real men eat and cook meat. Given the chef culture is very much a male dominated industry; we can see that overlap.
My training, professional experience and the chef culture was all geared around needing animal products for a great meal. A vegetarian meal was considered boring and uninteresting and was often treated in just that way. I had honestly never even heard of a vegan meal until years into professional cooking Even in my formal training vegan had never been mentioned. It was always just variations on vegetarian. It was almost impossible to conceive for myself as a chef that you could ever cook without meat, and to go without animal products altogether would be a step too far.
Meat centric and convenience culture was, and is, the common practice of my industry, this was my experience through my training, and I expect that most have a similar experience. Unknowingly we are having these ideas normalised in us. Things that might have seemed a little out of place early on quickly becomes general practice, like using ‘frozen fresh food’. I would love to see space in a chef’s training to question and explore what food really is. I would love to see education for chefs that include nutrition, local and seasonal knowledge, and food impact from an environmental and social justice perspective. Without the space to question and explore and learn what you believe in, many quickly fall in line with the current status quo. This is the problem with our food culture at large, where small everyday acts, information and processors subliminally guide our consciousness and therefor our actions and beliefs.
Right now our food systems place little value on transparency in product and practices. It’s all about the bottom line, it’s about creating a product as cheaply and quickly as possible. Whether in the restaurant or on the farm we are thinking and treating our food as a commodity instead of thinking about it as an essential, life giving, and nourishing gift from the earth that we all have a right to and are all connected with. Food I believe can bring our world together.
To be able to cook and work in our truth, Jess and I decided to open our own restaurant, we were driven by bringing honesty, transparency and quality back to the food being served. As a chef I believe I have a responsibility to represent through my food and daily practices, my values and my vision for a better food system. Cooking beautiful, fresh, and honest plant-based cuisine and sharing this knowledge with others means that I uphold my values and ethos. I believe plant-based food is the future and part of a way forward to a more beautiful world. While my upbringing as a chef was completely geared in another direction, in the end I found that being a chef ultimately helped me in my transition to a plant-based lifestyle and in helping others to do the same.
Shedding the years of conditioning wasn’t easy at first but once I allowed myself to see and feel what real food is and how I actually felt about the food I was cooking, it was easy to change. The skills that I learnt over the years actually helped. I was able to look at and adapt recipes easily, and my understanding of flavours and combinations helped in creating amazing, beautiful and tasty food. The food I produce now, and the recipes and skills I teach to others, continues to evolve into the most delicious and inspired work of my life.
(1) ‘Eat To Live’, by Joel Fuhrman M.D., pg.70, Published by Little Brown Spark – Hachette Book Group, January 2003. – accessed 25/06/2020.