Never has it been so easy to dine out as a vegan.
There are vegan pop-ups and fast food outlets in most major cities these days; festivals are overrun by plant-based stalls; supermarkets are growing their vegan sections at an incredible rate.
But vegan fine-dining is far less common.
And flesh-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, refined sugar-free tasting menus from world-class chefs are pretty much non-existent.
That is, until plant-based chef Kirk Haworth opened Plates – the plant-based food studio and restaurant – in Hoxton, east London.
Having been trained by his father, the Michelin-starred chef Nigel Haworth, Kirk has worked in some of the worlds finest restaurants.
And now hes transforming the plant-based scene in London; he converted to plant-based dining after being diagnosed with Lyme disease 18 months ago.
We went to visit Plates (go – the food is sensational, particularly the bread!) and spoke to Kirk about how going plant-based has helped him recover, the rise of vegan junk food and what the future of UK veganism holds.
When and why did you turn vegan?
It was about 18 months ago now that I dramatically changed my diet.
When I was first diagnosed with Lyme disease I began to read a lot about diet and the foods that can cause inflammation. As I suffer from chronic pain this made a lot of sense. Bit by bit I started to take away certain foods from my diet and then record if there were changes in the way I felt.
The main things I noticed was when I didnt consume red meat, gluten, refined sugar and dairy I started to see slight changes in the intensity of my pain so then I started to apply this to more ingredients.
This then naturally affected the way I ate and cooked for myself, and the way Plates food ethos developed. Plates now follows my personal journey, a chefs journey into 100% plant-based eating and cooking.
What kind of food did you use to cook and eat?
Coming from a traditional chef / Michelin background, I learnt to cook on all sections of the kitchen, working my way up to head chef. I wanted to have a full repertoire, including bakery, and pastry, as I love all areas of cooking. I used to enjoy cooking seafood, Ive worked at the French Laundry in California where they cook incredible Maine Lobster so beautifully.
Growing up in a very food obsessed family I always ate everything. The normal sort of food eating out a lot in restaurants and never really thinking about my own diet at all.
Whats been the main challenge for you in turning your kitchen plant-based?
The main challenge for me is for my food to appeal to everybody and for non-vegans / vegetarians not to miss meat, fish etc when they eat with us.
Also, to keep creating and innovating new delicious dishes for our guests. The development of each dish is quite extensive as my personal bench mark in what Im trying to achieve is so high! We need to create richness without dairy, intense depth of flavour in sauces without meat stocks, incredible desserts without sugar – so this takes a lot of time and work to get right.
Its fantastic now though as we have been open nearly six months and are starting to see a lot of customers return to the restaurant, and tell all their friends and family, so we know were on the right path. We are so focussed to keep bettering every aspect of what we do, on both the restaurant and events side of the business, so will continue to keep evolving and exciting our guests with new creations!
A lot of people seem to believe that its impossible to make vegan food high end simply because the raw ingredients arent that rich…do you think thats true?
No thats not true for us – but of course, it is not easy. The challenge to achieve this is one of the most exciting parts of having a plant-based restaurant, and one of my biggest personal successes in creating my own style in plant-based that does, in fact, achieve this.
Many vegetables and fruits have very different textures, flavour profiles and richness. Ive found through development, researching and deeper understanding of what each vegetable can help me achieve. Development time and growing focussed knowledge in this area aids me massively in creating special dishes that are what we know as high end or refined in their technique and flavours.
Do you believe in using meat substitutes?
Personally, I dont, but I think it is a useful alternative for people on plant-based diets who dont eat meat to not make them feel left out and theyre perfect for the mid-market style food. The more diverse the plant-based food offerings are the better!
Does Plates get many non-vegans dining?
Yes, we have lots, and its continuing to grow which is great. We want to show meat eaters that they can have a full plant-based meal and be satisfied and not miss meat or fish at all. They are very open-minded and a lot of the time surprised that we can create such deep, intense, delicious flavours with only plants, and leave feeling full and satisfied.
Plates is also gluten-free – why is that?
I am gluten-free because with my illness – I am told to avoid it for inflammation issues.
Whats your favourite dish to whip up?
My favourite dish to whip up at home is veggie fried rice – I love it.
Which dish seems to go down the best with punters?
The dish that seems to go down the best at the moment is my newest creation; textures and layers of organic cacao with sour cherry and fresh almond. Its a dish that has taken a lot of work and is free of refined sugars so extremely natural but also so indulgent.
What do you think of the rapid rise of vegan junk food? Do you think its stopping people from accessing all that plant-based food has to offer?
So, I dont think it stops people at this stage, as long as the non-fast food sector continues to grow.
What were delivering at Plates and what the fast food options are offering to vegans and vegetarians, are the same choices that are out there for omnivores.
Im all for more diversity, and hopefully this will give more options which can be balanced by informed customer choices depending on the occasion.
Whats the main thing you want people to take away from a night at Plates?
I want people to have an amazing all-round dining experience, and for them to really enjoy the food, welcoming service and buzz of the space – to ultimately go home very happy!
Im on a very unique journey trying to showcase my food in a new light, creatively driven plant-based cooking with a high-end feel. Im using my skills and experience gained from working in the top Michelin restaurants around the world into creating innovative plant-based cooking. I want my food to make all our diners realise it is possible for plants and fruits to be as delicious and as satisfying as any other way of eating or cooking.
Any idea or hopes for the future of fine dining and plant-based eating?
To continue to break down more barriers, and for more exciting innovations and restaurants.
I think plant based will continue to rise in popularity. More and more we are working on lots of incredible events with forward-thinking brands creating plant-based concepts at our new food studio that my sister Keeley manages and directs. We execute brand activation events, marketing campaigns, creative and visual content – creating brand experiences through the power of food.
I think the future of plant-based dining is very bright!