Gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, plastic-free, meat-free… Today, foodies worldwide can enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of healthier dishes as our drive to eat more consciously gathers pace.
Healthier both for us and for our environment is the ubiquitous headline. For many, it is no longer palatable to ignore some of the ugly truths behind the provenance of what is on our plate and the harm its (often plastic) packaging is doing to our planet.
For fine dining chefs, nose-to-tail cooking – where little of an animal is wasted – is not a new concept. The challenge for them is how to balance customer expectations about what is on their plate with conscious consumerism. To bridge that gap, there is an increasing focus on local, ethically sourced produce that’s in season.
“We must rethink the concept of expensive or cheap,” according to chef-owner Mauro Colagreco of three-Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur on the French Riviera. “Behind a cheap meal we can find a huge cost for the planet in terms of the resources available for this product to arrive on our plates. The origins and traceability of products are increasingly important. There needs to be quality and respect for the product and the people who work with it. It is the future of our planet that is at stake. I find that people are eager to find other ways to have a less devastating impact and to live in a more harmonious way with our planet.”
With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that many people across the world are cutting down on meat and dairy consumption. Diets heavy on red meat have been linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes. According to the World Health Organization, “The strongest evidence for an association with colorectal cancer is eating red meat.”
Separately, the livestock industry contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. University of Oxford research indicates that raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates up to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined.
And yet, despite the anti-meat backlash, global consumption is on the up due to urbanisation and population growth (at 4% CAGR – Compound Annual Growth Rate – between 1990–2018).
The main thing is to know the producer, the way he works, the respect he gives to his environment, the quality of his product.
Chefs are quick to point out that meat is not always the greater evil. Let us not forget how much water it takes to grow avocados (around 230 litres per kilogram). “The main thing is to know the producer, the way he works, the respect he gives to his environment, the quality of his product,” Chef Colagreco believes. “If we take a vegetable and it comes from an intensive culture, full of pesticides, with large machines and litres of gasoline to produce it, then the imprint for our planet and for our health is huge.”
Where food comes from and how it reaches the table are becoming more important for both chefs and diners. But there is a potential disruptor that could revolutionise how we eat, whether it is at a luxury establishment, a corner café or at home. ‘Meatless meat’ – which tastes, smells and looks like the real thing – may vastly reduce our carbon footprint.
And it is already creating a virtuous cycle: as consumers become more health-focused and sustainability conscious, the public demand for alternative meat sources is soaring. The technology is only just getting started, but it is advancing rapidly. Scientists have been able to mimic ‘heme’ (an iron-rich molecule that is found in every living plant and animal and causes meat to taste like meat) to make plants taste like meat. On the other hand, lab-grown cultured or ‘clean’ meat is being created by using animal stem cells. Not yet available for public consumption, so-called ‘motherless meat’ is being explored by many countries and should appear on our plates in a matter of years. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in this ‘cellular agriculture’ as one of the food technologies that could bring about real change in the developing world.
Will meat substitutes catch on among smart dining establishments? Fine dining has always been synonymous with not-so-palatably produced delicacies like foie gras and caviar. But the tide may be turning. Impossible Foods has partnered with a well-known chef in Asia, May Chow, to pioneer plant-based burgers. Perhaps the day may not be far off when amuse-bouche will be all beetroot and no beef – accompanied by vegan, organic wine.
For Italian-Argentine Mauro Colagreco, the era of indulgence when it comes to unsustainable ingredients is over. He believes that chefs across the world are developing their kitchens in greater dialogue with the local region and its producers. “There is an approach to local and artisan products. Our menu is constantly changing. Nothing is fixed. We work with the products that arrive at the restaurant and as we work with local and artisanal producers, we must be flexible enough to be able to create within the fluctuations and rhythms of life.”
Sustainability and transparency, it seems, are the main ingredients for today’s progressive fine dining experiences. They are also trying to reduce waste – both food and packaging – driven by a more conscious clientele. That all adds up to less structured menus and more meat-free options. Whether tradition will be ditched altogether and meat-free menus can win Michelin stars is one for the future. For now, filet mignon with the moo is here to stay.
(picture credits: www.mirazur.fr)
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Consumers are becoming more mindful, taking the social and environmental impact of the products they buy and the services they use into consideration before making a purchasing decision. We explore what drives conscious consumers and how companies are responding.