At The Culinary Institute of America, pop-up restaurant Pangea serves as the school’s whiteboard for the vegetable revolution. Meat and seafood come in garnish form, while seasonal greens sit comfortably at the center of the plate. Imagine Ruby Beet Tartare with herbed madeleines or Celeriac and Lentils with hazelnut and mint. Yet in a recent survey, where 988 diners filled out a 10-question sheet at the end of their meal, only 72 percent considered their meal to be “plant-forward.” However, 94 percent were completely content with the abnormally modest portions of meat.
This proved a relatively surprising notion. During this week’s Menus of Change leadership summit, held on the CIA’s Hyde Park campus in New York, the talk of flipping proteins and advancing vegetables has been at the forefront of constant dialogue. And one of the key factors, as it turns out, is simple perception. The Pangea study showed that making this shift away from large, indulgent cuts of meat might just come down to written as well as physical presentation.
“If you’re going more toward that traditional restaurant, what are you going to call [your dish] to get people more excited?” asks Allison Righter, a lecturing professor at the school, who also notes that all of the on-campus restaurants, Bocuse, American Bounty, and Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici & Al Forno Trattoria each have at least one vegetarian or vegan dish available.
In this plant-forward movement, menu labeling is key, she notes. Just calling a dish vegetarian can carry a certain weight. Many times, that’s a negative anchor. Even if, by the end of the meal, it was the same ingredients, fitting a dish into a traditional box could result in a traditional response. Some consumers avoid vegetarian just based on previous bias. To counter this, Righter explains that a restaurant, like Pangea, can serve a meal essentially promoted as great food, sans the narrow constraints. For example, Pangea is billed as Earth’s Flavors Reimagined.
In the same study, which was held from March 7 to April 15 of this year, 83 percent of people identified as omnivores. Vegetarian and pescatarian each received 5 percent, while 2 percent of diners picked vegan. Additionally, 39 percent said they try one vegetarian meal a week, and 27 percent noted that they try to order vegetarian when they go out to eat. Also, 53 percent said they are eating less red meat than they did three years ago, and 75 percent are consuming less processed meat. Why? On a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being “most concerned,” people said that, when it came to the healthy effects of meat consumption as a worry, 24 percent were at 4, and 27 percent all the way to 5.
What this shows is that restaurants have a willing audience for plant-forward preparations. “The way we communicate not wanting to label people as vegetarians is a great way to get these [dishes] to the plate,” adds Tony Nogales, an associate professor of culinary arts at the CIA.
The three-day conference, which began on Tuesday, also marked the release of its annual Menus of Change report. A 12-page hybrid infographic/white paper called “The Protein Flip,” concentrates on the urgency to “flip” the role of protein on menus. It opens by stating, “Instead of feeding plants and grains to animals, feed them directly to diners … with much smaller amounts of accompanying animal protein.”
This is an issue compounded by predictions that worldwide demand for livestock could increase 70 percent by 2050—a troubling concept when the United Nations projects the world’s population will expand to 9.7 billion by then. The Menus of Change document also suggests that nearly one in 10 premature deaths could be prevented in the U.S. if adults cut their red meat consumption to less than half a serving a day.
Chef Ed Burns, giving a culinary presentation during Wednesday’s session on Plant-Forward Menuing in High-Volume Foodservice at Menus of Change, used the term “stealth health” to explain his dish, saying that its appealing presentation and great taste outweighed the ingredient perception. He prepared roasted baby beets and farm carrots with buttermilk-green goddess dressing, puntarelle leaves, pickled lamb’s tongue (as a garnish), and rye crumbles.
“If it’s better for them and the environment, that’s a big win,” he says.
By Danny Klein