Chefs struggle to break with meat dishes

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Chefs have a centuries-old tradition of using meat and other animal products that today forms an obstacle to plant-based diets. They say it is harder to cook with plant-based products than with meat, but if they can meet this challenge, they could in fact play a key role in the success of the protein transition. These are the results of research by the Consumption & Healthy Lifestyle chair group into resistance against the protein transition. The research was funded by NWO (the Dutch Research Council).

Chefs are often seen as instigators of change in food transitions and they are innovators with the skills needed to create tasty plant-based dishes. So why do most chefs continue to focus on cooking with meat and fish? According to the researchers, chefs are reluctant to cook with plants because they have built an intimate relationship with animal products. That attitude hinders them from developing plant-based alternatives. Interestingly, chefs distinguish fundamental differences in the properties of animal and vegetable products, whereby they say the former offer the most benefits. It is easier to cook a steak than to create something spectacular with a beetroot.

Animal and plant products do of course have different properties, but the researchers found that chefs’ experiences of these differences are embedded in the strong relationship they have developed with animal products over the ages, which has not happened with plant products. In other words, they are highly skilled at manipulating the properties of animal products, but less so with plant products. It could help if plant-based gastronomy gained more recognition as a prestigious cuisine that is worthy of aspiration. This would make plant-based cooking a worthy challenge for chefs and so help accelerate the protein transition.

Meat and vegetables are fundamentally different

According to the chefs interviewed, the properties of meat make it relatively easy to serve a tasty, filling and satisfying dish. Animal products are naturally rich in umami compounds, filling, fatty, have a pleasant mouth-feel, and can add depth to a dish. Plants do not have these properties, or can only develop them through the food preparation process, they say. This is why it is harder to cook with plants than with animal products. Moreover, chefs say that it takes longer to prepare meals with plant-based products; an entrecôte only needs to be grilled briefly, while a vegetarian wrap requires more work before the dish is ready to serve. The researchers discovered that cooking with vegetable products is not only made difficult because they are harder to work with, but also because the relationship between chefs and plant-based cuisine is still underdeveloped, while that with animal products is strong.

Meat, potatoes and veggies still on the menu, but the ‘meat’ is now vegetarian

The strong relationship with animal products is visible in the construction of a dish and in culinary repertoires and signatures. Influenced by the French tradition, chefs build their dishes based on a primary component and garnishes, where the primary component is a piece of meat or fish. When they create vegetarian dishes, they follow this same principle. As such, the end result will still be meat, potatoes and veggies, but the ‘meat’ is a non-meat alternative. The researchers argue that this tradition may hinder the transition, because the differences between the properties of the products are more evident in these dishes; a meat-eating consumer is always going to compare a beet steak with a beef steak. Moreover, the literature reveals that the meat in such a meat, potatoes and veggies diet is replaced according to a food hierarchy, with fish as first choice, followed by other animal products, and only lastly by plant-based products such as tofu and legumes. An alternative way to build dishes would help teach consumers to stop comparing the primary component with the imitation meat alternatives, or replacing it based on a food hierarchy in which animal products occupy the highest positions. In addition, chefs have a culinary repertoire that they build on. They are used to combining certain ingredients and usually at least one of them is animal-based. For example, it can be tricky to make a plant-based jelly, because the properties of gelatine are crucial. Other barriers to more plant-based meals are the fact that chefs value traditional flavour combinations that involve animal products, and it requires some searching to find plant-based alternatives with a different taste, while these also require different techniques to cook.

Finally, many chefs have developed their own signature dishes throughout their careers, often based on meat or fish. Chefs will find it difficult to wave goodbye to these dishes because they are proud of them and the skill they take to prepare, and diners often come to their restaurants especially to experience them.

A challenge

That chefs turn to plant-based alternatives for ethical reasons is unsurprising. However it less well known that many choose to do so because of the challenge it entails. Chefs generally like to seek new challenges in their work. Because plant-based cuisine is a relatively new phenomenon within the French culinary tradition, it could well meet this need for a challenge. According to the researchers, various chefs among the group of respondents cited this challenge as a reason for cooking with plants. Even owners of specialty meat restaurants indicated they wanted to cook plant-based dishes. The finding that some cooks are motivated by the challenge of cooking with plant-based ingredients suggests that other cooks, who are not necessarily driven by the ethical arguments, could also be motivated to take up this challenge if it were to acquire sufficient status. The culinary education sector therefore has an important role to play in formulating this as a prestigious challenge.

Culinary education

The researchers therefore suggest that culinary educators have a crucial role to play in accelerating the protein transition. If chefs are to turn en masse to the creation of delicious plant-based dishes that inspire consumers, they will need to build a stronger relationship with plant-based products first. Culinary educators can provide them with the necessary skills and so help to normalise plant-based cooking and even raise it to a more prestigious level.