Recent times have seen plant-based dishes take up a greater share of menu space across the UK, and no facet of the hospitality industry is immune. It seems we can barely open a newspaper without seeing a fast-food chain’s foray into vegan sausage rolls (Greggs), burgers (McDonald’s and Burger King) and even chicken (KFC). And while the jury is still out on the implementation of the aforementioned chains, the higher end of hospitality has not been unaffected by the growing demand for something more sustainable.
Soho House and Co. is one of a number of luxury hospitality groups now prioritising plant-based options across its member and public-facing restaurants. A lot of the responsibility lies with Executive Chef & Operations Manager Kady Yon, who in her five years with Soho House has noticed a significant shift in what this particular clientele expects.
“We have to evolve with what’s out there and what people want,” she says when we meet up at Dean Street Townhouse, mere hours after she’d sat for a plant-based burger tasting. “I think the impact on the environment is the biggest factor in it, and that means advancing our menus to tailor both to devout vegans and increasingly common eco-conscious eaters who simply look to have a few meat-free days a week.”
But while fast-food chains are free to dabble in lab-developed plant-based innovations like Beyond and Impossible, the challenge for premium food offerings is not only achieving great taste but a viable, healthy option, too. It’s all well and good offering vegans a deep-fried mushroom patty, but this isn’t quite so appealing for the eco-conscious consumer who’s also looking to stay in shape.
“The tasting we had this morning was for one of the restaurants in our public portfolio, Dirty Burger,” informs Yon. “We’re looking to create a start-to-finish, vegan everything burger that can be thrown on the plancha, and while there are good things about companies like Impossible, I always think, ‘where do we draw the line between what’s food and what is simply processed.’ One of the burgers we tried today had so much sodium in it, it was like eating spam, and that’s before we’ve added any accoutrements. Across our restaurants, our mission is to be extremely diligent with how we’re incorporating plant-based offerings onto our menus inventively, with raw ingredients.”
In Soho House’s recently opened Cecconi’s on Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street, a great example of this comes from its pane carasau vegan lasagne. The cracker-like Sicilian flatbread used as its sheets loosely translates to “musical bread”, and is given this name for its dough – so thin you can read music through it. Layered with vegan cheeses, aubergine and mushrooms, the dish does away with the need for egg- or gluten-free pasta sheets for something altogether more creative.
When Yon moved to London from Chicago, it was interesting vegan offerings such as this which she noticed lacked in comparison. “Comparative to places like Los Angeles or Miami, the cultural shift for London seems to have happened more recently,” she says. “But it’s come thick and fast. Soho House restaurants tend to now have a minimum of four or five plant-based dishes on each menu, and at least one dessert that’s not vegan ice-cream or sorbet.”
“Comparative to places like Los Angeles or Miami, the cultural shift for London seems to have happened more recently”
When you look at the statistics, enterprises such as Soho House catering to plant-based diets makes perfect business sense, too. The term #Vegan has more than 61 million posts associated with it on Instagram, Google Trends documents a remarkable rise in search term interest, and at the start of the year, over 168,000 in the UK pledged to go vegan as part of Veganuary’s campaign. It doesn’t take a data analyst to know that there’s money to be made when a little time and energy is invested in plant-based options.
As for its future on UK menus, Yon references the numerous forays of fine dining into exclusively sustainable cuisine, herself hailing from two-Michelin starred Jean-Georges in New York (the brains behind ABC Kitchen and its plant-based sister restaurant ABCV). But it’s the attempts of Ronald McDonald and The Colonel which are really setting a benchmark for large-scale change. “You know what blew me away?” she marvels. “When the first Veggie Pret opened here.” Just a few blocks away from where we sit, Pret-a-Manger opened its first branch as a limited-time pop-up concept in 2016. Recently, they announced plans to buy out competitor EAT with an aim to open 90 more. “Whenever I walk past, I’m like, well this is it.”