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Sustainability month: Time to start marginalising the meat eaters?

As part of M&IT’s sustainability month, Tom Rhodes, executive chef at Twickenham Stadium, explains why becoming a vegan helped him see the world differently – and why event organisers need to improve the food experience for those trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle…

Being a vegan has allowed me to see the world from the view of a guest who has a dietary requirement, and it’s not always that pretty.

Let’s face it, as chefs we have been guilty of looking down our collective noses at people who stray away from the menu we have designed for them, and seen them at best as an inconvenience, at worst a downright pain.

In the wider hospitality industry we mark their guest card with a ‘V’, or their place card with a subtle green sticker so the wait staff can identify them. Back in the kitchen, we begrudgingly knock them up a universal risotto that has gone nowhere near nuts or gluten and serve it up regardless of whether they are nut or gluten intolerant; a dietary requirement is a dietary requirement, and we tend to put them all in together.

The consequences can be good as well as bad; on one hand, everyone looks on with jealousy at the veggie option that arrives five minutes before everyone else and wished they had ordered it. On the other, they look on with relief as the ‘dietary requirements’ wait as everyone tucks in, only to be greeted with a pasta bake which has nothing in common with the fine roast dinner that everyone else is tucking into.

Either way, what is important is those with dietary requirements feel isolated. They are first or last, but never the same; they have meals that could be better or worse, but rarely in keeping with the theme of the meal; if everyone is having a seafood risotto and the veggie option is a butternut squash risotto, that’s fine, but if everyone is having roasted belly of pork, and we serve up a penne pasta, it stands out on the table. If the little green marker or the (V) branded into their place card isn’t enough, the plate looks different too. In other hospitality businesses those with allergies may even need to be served by a separate person, specially trained just for them. If food is about bringing people together, it’s not working here.

The fact is though, we’re all guilty of isolating people because of the diets they choose to have, and it took being a vegan to experience it, and how it played out on the table. Once the food leaves our kitchen we move on to the next dish, in the
meantime though, there is a chasm being established across the table.

So, how can we close this gap? Well first of all, we have to accept that not all diners are created equal, people are different, and we can’t completely close this feeling of difference, what we can is use it to bring the table together. For me, this is about empathy, and understanding not just that people are different but why they have chosen to be so.

First things first, I consider it a chef’s responsibility to advocate for everyone’s meal on the table. I want meat eaters jealous of vegetarians, as well as vice versa. I want menus that give everyone options, regardless of their tolerances and for the dishes to share a common theme, but with subtle differences that can be explored through conversation. This is a massive opportunity for those looking to create experiences through food and to understand that what we put on the table will be talked about but that the conversation is changing.

Secondly, how we label and interact with our customers is important. Yes, we do need to follow through our duty of care to those with intolerances, but if we create, present and serve these guests confidently, with a vision of the options their requirements have presented us with creatively, we can make them feel welcomed and not feared!

Finally, understanding is imperative. Why have so many people decided to move away from meat, what are they seeing and reading that has made them make that decision. If we know that we can create options across the table that show them locally sourced ingredients, clever use of every bit of the ingredient; nose to tail, root to tip. We can show this on menu cards or through technology at the event.

There is so much opportunity out there, and things really are changing. Let’s face it, if this trend continues it may well be the meat eaters being marginalised rather than vice versa; maybe we need to put an (M) on the menu not a (V).