Plant-based cuisine is becoming more and more mainstream. Not only in our own kitchens, but also in those of the culinary top restaurants in the world. Our love for plant-based cuisine is still fairly new, but these renewed perspectives are permanent, says Vegetables Chef® Frank Fol. With his We're Smart® World initiative, Fol has been putting vegetable cuisine on the map for years and every year he visits the crème de la crème of all largely vegetarian restaurants around the world. According to the chef, a new world is opening up: A world bursting with colour, taste, creativity and sometimes even a touch of magic.
Chef Fol, who is the Vegetables Chef®?
I have been involved in plant-based cooking for over 30 years. From the beginning it was all about creativity for me. About the fact that a chef could make a difference by using more vegetables, in a creative way; making them the star of the dish. That meat in fact becomes secondary to vegetables.
This approach was my starting point. Over the years, the health aspect has been added. We had to start living healthier and more sustainably, and that also meant consuming less meat, more vegetables. It has been quite an evolution in the last 30 years.
In 2009 I started 'the best vegetable restaurant,' an initiative that resulted in the We’re Smart® Green Guide. I worked hard at the time to create as many ambassadors as I could: A thousand Frank Fols, spreading the same message as me, all over the world. And we succeeded. I am very pleased that today, the message is not only being shared by many, but also accepted by the general public.
What is going on in the vegetable restaurants of the world right now?
More and more customers are looking for restaurants where you can eat plant-based food in a high-quality, culinary way. As a result, we see that the new generation of chefs are discovering what the added value is, how creative you can be when you cook with fruit and vegetables. And they have succeeded: today, in many restaurants, and all over the world. For example, you can now find high-quality gastronomic vegetable cuisine everywhere in Belgium and the Netherlands: These are the kinds of countries that are forerunners. And it's with conviction, that's important too. Not because it's a trend, but this is structural.
Of course, not 100% of the public is on board yet and many countries are still in early stages. We are learning. But you do see that people are discovering how tasty vegetables can be, and that you don't actually need anything else. They are now also realising that in a plant-based restaurant you can eat beautifully, in a way that is actually very healthy ... and all that with taste. Because we can talk about health, if it is not tasty people will no longer eat plant-based food. So everything starts with taste.
“And it's with conviction, that's important too. Not because it's a trend, but this is structural"
What kind of innovations are emerging from these types of restaurants?
There are restaurants and chefs who play a pioneering role, such as Chef Emile van der Staak of De Nieuwe Winkel in the Netherlands, who is currently creating waves with his vegetable cuisine [Editorial: Chef Emile uses fresh, wild vegetables and herbs from the local Ketelbroek food forest, among other things].
Then there’s Chef René Mathieu from Luxembourg, whose La Distillerie has been voted best vegetable restaurant in the world for two years in a row now. Like Chef Emile, he incorporates wild harvest for his dishes. In addition, Chef Mathieu knows the medicinal side of what he picks well, and he is familiar with the lesser-known flavours. He builds a story on it all and delivers something very tasty.
A chef who is also a great example to us, not only of his vegetable cooking but also of the custom-made vegetable non-alcoholic drinks he works with, is Rodrigo de la Calle from El Invernadero in Madrid. Rodrigo creates truly magical things. He has a drink list of over 30 drinks, which he has tailored to his recipes. We are talking about vegetable wines, kefir, kombucha, but also about marinated wines. It is incredibly creative and innovative, and for me a new, fun experience. These chefs are all looking for ways to distinguish themselves with vegetables.
One of the products that will stay with me forever is tofu. We know it from the supermarket, but when tofu is made in a restaurant and served fresh, it suddenly becomes a kind of cream. It becomes a completely different product, not like those blocks we know. That is very intriguing. More chefs are starting to realise that sort of thing.
Tempeh that is freshly made in a restaurant is also a completely different product than the kind we can get in the supermarket today. There is a lot of creativity with different types of ingredients and with those kinds of products we are witnessing a revolution going on as well. It's a new world opening up.
What I saw in Japan recently was also very interesting. Japan is a country where nature and the seasons are sacred: it is part of the culture and you should respect that. So in today's Japan, you see more and more chefs making use of nature, and plant-based restaurants starting up everywhere. That too is an amazing evolution.
You can now see the same happening all over the world. Chefs everywhere are taking initiative to become pioneers in their country. Those are the types of chefs we're looking for, that's the kind of cuisine that we want to promote to the general public; to hopefully encourage people to choose more of these types of restaurants.
“There is a lot of creativity with different types of ingredients and we are witnessing a revolution going on. It's a new world opening up."
Chef Fol, how popular is the new vegetable restaurant?
What we are witnessing is that restaurants that opt entirely for plant-based foods are fully booked long in advance. There are also still few restaurants that actually do this. There are many that offer vegetable dishes in addition to their classic menu. But those who go for completely plant-based, sometimes even vegan, those are the kind of restaurants that are in high demand today. Just look at Eleven Madison Park in New York, with Chef Daniel Humm. [Editor: Eleven Madison Park, voted the world's best restaurant in 2017, went 100% vegetarian in 2020]. It too is fully booked months in advance.
Most of these restaurants work with seasonal vegetables. Chefs therefore work with what is available and tastiest at the time, such as the asparagus season in Belgium now. As a result, the menus often change.
Chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen [Editor: this restaurant has repeatedly been voted the world's best restaurant] also works with a “game” season, a fish season and a vegetable season. The vegetable season has just started in June, and the restaurant is just fully booked; from day one to three months later.
People are looking for those types of restaurants that show creativity with this kind of cooking. It just becomes a kind of marketing tool.
“Restaurants that opt entirely for plant-based foods are fully booked long in advance"
So, we now see products like kefir, tofu and kombucha on the menu in vegetable restaurants. Are different currents such as these coming together?
Absolutely! That flowing together is something that has grown from the belly of society, because there was already a movement that was working on it. We can see that going on a lot today. This kind of food is going to become more mainstream, and we are learning more and more to be creative with it.
We already know many chefs who all work with their own creations of drinks like kombucha and kefir. They make marinades, hot and cold teas, and they work with herbs. There are so many drinks you can create that go with food, and without alcohol! That again is an exciting development.
By the way, fresh kombucha is also something completely different from the more commercially-available kombucha that can often be very sweet. I know a good place in Antwerp where you can get it. Here, it is much lighter, fresher: It’s a product you can drink every day.
Incidentally, food as a proactive medicine is also becoming prominent. It is better to eat healthier than to take medicines, it can be immune boosting. People are becoming more and more aware of this. Let's hope this goes mainstream too.
Chef Fol, what kind of dish or ingredient do you appreciate the most yourself?
If I had to name one as a favourite it would be soil-grown chicory [Editor: Brussels soil-grown chicory is grown in the absence of light and has a rich history and tradition]. Hydroponics chicory is more of a salad, but the chicory grown in the ground has a bitterness, which is fantastic. Some people like it, others taste the bitterness too strongly, they react harshly to it. That kind of taste is also something you learn from childhood, which happened to me. If not, as is often the case with Brussels sprouts, something like this can remain a 'difficult' vegetable.
We were wondering, would you have a secret weapon you could share with a vegetable novice?
We see that many people, including chefs, are struggling with plant-based cooking. It's all new, and not at all how we’ve learned it. But most chefs are open to learning, because they realise that vegetables and plant-based cooking are the future. And that future is already here!
That's also why we help people get started with our 52 culinairy techniques of preparing fruits and vegetables. As soon as we introduce people to these skills, they begin to realise how many things you can do with vegetables. That's important because most people actually do the same thing all the time, which can make food boring. It is precisely thanks to the variation: Of the products, the techniques, and the seasons that you can put something beautiful on the table. This is when a vegetable kitchen becomes infinitely interesting and creative.
The older someone is, the more difficult it might be to change habits, to be open to innovation. The younger generations are more involved with the vegetable kitchen: For some because it is good for the planet, for others out of love for animals, and for others because it is healthy. Or just because it tastes good.
It is also particularly fun for children to be able to grow their own vegetables, maybe on a windowsill at home. When they see those tomatoes grow and change colour, see the flowers develop, they develop a bond with them. It gives them a completely different outlook on vegetables.
“It's all new, and not at all how we’ve learned it. But most chefs are open to learning, because they realise that this is the future. And that future is already here!"
And finally, what does the future of plant-based cuisine look like?
It depends on the country, but in general the vegetable kitchen continues to grow. In Belgium, for example, last year we saw for the first time that the percentage of meat sales fell by 8%. That's a serious figure.
I’m involved with Ekomenu, which supplies 100% organic packages to consumers in the Benelux, and in those countries you see that approximately 60% of customers order vegetarian or vegan meals. So there is a lot going on here too.
We are witnessing a similar kind of development in the Thalys train service where 50% of passengers currently opt for a 100% plant-based menu. Those too are numbers that say something.
A lot is happening right now. They say that a change is being made and that people are starting to approach food differently. We are increasingly aware of the importance of sustainability, health and ecology. [The epidemic] has added an extra dimension to this.
You can feel that we have entered a new era, where about 30% of the population is open to eating more plant-based foods and also going to those kinds of restaurants. Vegetables are now king and more and more people are incorporating plant-based foods into their weekly eating habits. Plant-based cooking is happening now, there is no turning back.
“You can feel that we have entered a new era...Plant-based cooking is happening right now, there is no turning back"
The Vegetables Chef®
Today, the trendiest and top culinary restaurants have a healthy menu with a high percentage of fruits and vegetables. Vegetables Chef® Frank Fol travels the world as an international advisor in the field of healthy, balanced and plant-based cooking.
Frank himself is the former owner of a Belgian Michelin star restaurant, Sire Pynnock, and he is a member of Worldchefs Feed the Planet. He is also Commander in the Order of Leopold, the highest and most important order in Belgium and is a UN Food Advocate of the World Food Programme.
His We're Smart® World initiative organises several award ceremonies every year, such as celebrating the new We’re Smart Green Guide, the new We’re Smart TOP100 for the best vegetable restaurants in the world and the We’re Smart Discovery Awards. It also holds the We're Smart Future Awards, which this year will take place at the Forum Gastronomic in Barcelona.
Inspirational Quotes: Reinventing Our Food
René Mathieu, La Distillerie, Luxembourg. Source: Michelin Guide
“Sustainability is life. I didn’t invent that, I just do what people have been doing for centuries. Eating what is available, what we find in the garden, the forest, by streams, etc. Nature is all around us. This concept also extends to the beverages, where we work with infusions, among others. Respect your environment."
De Nieuwe Winkel, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Source: De Nieuwe Winkel
“A new beginning. Let's look each other in the eye first. Am I what you are looking for? I'm not really a normal restaurant. Of course, I have food. Very nice food even. But I'm also trying to make you think. To marvel. To be surprised. What grows in your backyard is on my plate. Am I what you're looking for? Let yourself be surprised. Come in and taste."
El Invernadero, Madrid, Spain. Source: The future of food lies in plants, South China Morning Post (scmp.com)
“'The future of food lies in plants,' says Spanish chef Rodrigo de la Calle, a vegetable visionary. De la Calle doesn’t see such drinks as different from food, and refers to them as ‘cocina liquida’ (liquid cooking). ‘It’s one more dish, liquid or solid,’ he says, as I sip a bright orange (and surprisingly tasty) carrot wine. ‘What is in the cup is as important as what is on the plate.’”
Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park, New York, USA. Source: Eleven Madison Park
“It has been a year of immense learning, both culinary and academically. Stepping into this new chapter came mostly from a creative place and of course, also the need for the world to evolve towards a plant-forward future.... Food was, and will always be, our language to create change."
Noma, Copenhagen, Denmark. Source: Noma
“At Noma, we zoom into the natural world with a curiosity that turns small experiments into whole departments. From fermentation to foraging, each door opened for us opens countless more. And to be sure, we aren’t going to stop knocking."