The global food landscape is shifting rapidly, thanks to changing consumer tastes and expectations, as well as a growing awareness of the relationship between food production and consumption, and the environment and human health.

Chefs, as trend-setters and leaders in the food industry, are critical to shaping a more balanced plate and diversifying our protein choices. Likewise, tomorrow’s chefs – students today – will play a crucial role in transforming our attitudes towards food in a healthy and environmentally responsible way.

This is something that The Protein Challenge 2040 has been grappling with in our exploration of how to encourage greater demand for plant-based proteins and rebalance consumption between animal and plant sources. In our work in the UK, having learnt from a vanguard of influential chefs ranging from Alexis Gauthier to Raymond Blanc, we’ve gained some vital insights on how to inspire more plant-based cooking and eating.

Firstly, taste is the number one priority. This requires quite a fundamental transformation in the way the food industry think about food preparation – rather than relying on meat as the centerpiece, instead focusing on putting delicious umami flavours at the heart of a dish, and ensuring chefs have the skills to do that with vegetables.

Some innovative chefs are already making headway; for example Olivia Gautier at Les Orangeries has created three-course plant-based menus and adopted a 50-50 meat to vegetable ratio as a standard, while Oliver Gladwin focuses on creating unique vegetable flavour combinations based on seasonality.

Secondly, positioning is key in rebranding vegetables as appealing and desirable. Traditional thinking around menu design needs to be flipped. Behavioural science researchers at LSE and Stanford found that putting vegetarian dishes in a separate menu section can reduce the proportion of people choosing those options, whilst presenting a vegetarian dish as the ‘Chef’s Recommendation’ or including a more appealing description tends to lead to a greater proportion of infrequent vegetarian eaters choosing that dish. Tredwells head chef Chantelle Nicholson avoids categorising dishes into ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’, because these words hold connotations which put off some diners.

So how can we enable and equip established professional chefs as well as upcoming chefs on the importance of diversifying away from meat as protein?

Identifying influencers, barriers and solutions

In March 2018, Forum for the Future, together with our partners the Sustainable Restaurant Association and the University of West London, brought together a broad range of UK stakeholders including top chefs, student chefs, representatives of food service industry, and culinary educators. It presented an opportunity for students to hear from industry leaders at the top of their game and participate in cooking demonstrations with leading chefs, and for us to identify how to inspire the next generation of chefs.

We polled an audience of over 120 trainee chefs on where they get their inspiration and ideas from. The overwhelming majority of them cited social media (Instagram in particular), followed closely by celebrity and TV chefs, and thirdly by experimenting with friends, family and colleagues.

At the same time we asked leading chefs and culinary educators to highlight some barriers to training and innovation for plant-based protein. These included:

  • A lack of inspiration and creativity around working with plant-based proteins
  • Meat protein remaining at the centre of culinary education
  • A lack of a plant protein module on the technical training agenda

The solutions identified to these barriers included:

Transforming the culinary education modules to focus less on meat, by integrating plant-based cooking and principles across existing modules, rather than developing a standalone plant-based module. This allows plant-based cooking to become more inclusive, and less polarised. Incorporating plant-based dishes into handbooks across modules avoids the heavy and often-polarising connotations of vegetarianism.

Investing in the professional development of chef educators by developing central resources, principles and guidance. This highlighted the importance of chef educators being aware of the latest trends and innovations, which industry can help with. Some good work and collaborative action is already underway internationally; for example in the US, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Harvard School of Public Health’s Menus of Change is now in its sixth year. The Chefs Manifesto in support of the Sustainable Development Goals, developed with over 130 chefs from 38 countries, also serves as a great hub and information point for chefs to take action and inspire others.

What’s next?

The event emphasised the importance of bringing together people working in the food industry with leaders in culinary education towards the common goal of stimulating more plant-based cooking and eating.

We need to understand more clearly where chefs and students are taking inspiration for cooking. Which influencers could create a plant-led dining zeitgeist, and through what medium?

Equally there’s a need to embed vegetable and plant cooking skills and creativity across culinary educational tools.. As with menu design, vegetable-based cooking should be given equal weight with meat-based skills as a fundamental aspect of professional cooking.

Finally, we must empower chefs to create step-change in their own operations through sharing best practice and practical steps. There may be scepticism around whether food sustainability can be prioritised in the busy world of chefs and food service. However if we can embed the notion of low-impact food consumption into early training and education, as well as provide a forum for those already successful in the profession, for example through apprenticeships and learning from well-established chefs, we can start to bring about real progress.

How can you and your business help to shift perceptions and behaviour away from meat as the primary protein source, and towards more diversified and alternative proteins? The journey and answer may not be easy, but we have to start somewhere, now, for the future of the industry.

With input from Heidi Spurrell, Research and Project Support for the Protein Challenge 2040.

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