Monday, 20 January 2014

The protein myth

I've noticed a trend that's worrying me.

I interviewed Aiden Byrne a couple of weeks after he launched Manchester House, see blog entitled 'Enemy Territory?' for the full write-up. Something came out of my chat with him that has been bothering me ever since.

I had the lovely Clarissa Hyman, a colleague from the Guild of Food Writers, with me for the ride, and she observed that the menu was very vegetable-based - perhaps not so much a vegetarian menu as a vegetable menu. Where, she wondered, were the fabulous cheeses? I took it further - where were the grains, nuts, pulses, seeds, eggs, tofu, tempeh, seitan...?

One of the first dishes on the lunchtime taster menu was a risotto of barley (which I have also seen called a barlotto) with cobnuts, topped with a blodge of smoked apple puree - very nice. One of the dishes that followed was a medley of foraged mushrooms with some salsify - great, but mainly veg... then a highly decorative plate of heritage carrots arrived, accompanied by a green olive paste, spherified, to make it look like an olive, which seemed more like a showcase of techniques than a balanced dish. All right, it's a taster menu, the individual dishes don't have to be balanced. But as a vegetarian, when a chef thinks it's OK to offer me a plate of carrots, I get a bit nervous.

I asked Aiden about how he devises his vegetarian dishes, and everything fell into place. He said that for a chef with his experience, it's straightforward. He simply devises a dish and then 'takes the protein off it'. Ah.

I might have let this pass, but a throw-away line in a recent episode of Masterchef Pro hit the same nerve. One of the contestants said 'Scallops were the first protein I learned to cook'.

Here's the issue: since when did we start refering to meat and fish as 'the protein'? I don't like the implication that only meat and fish contain protein. I don't like the way that the phrase somehow justifies the consumption of meat - it's protein, the protein. We all need protein. Finally, I really don't like the implication that vegetarian food is food without protein! Patently, that's not true. Vegetarians and vegans are not going short of protein unless they are eating very little food or imposing some very strange dietary restrictions upon themselves.

I can't help feeling that the move towards referring to meat and fish as 'protein' is something that the meat industry must be loving - possibly even fuelling. It means we don't need to look too closely at what is on the plate - it's just protein, it's necessary. I guess this is going to come in very handy when we start being offered lab meat, reclaimed/reconstituted meat and soylent green. No need to question it, it's 'the protein', eat up, you need it.

I also feel that this new terminology might be partly responsible for what is happening at Manchester House: vegetarians don't eat 'the protein', so all you need to do is take 'the protein' off the dish and hey presto, you've made the vegetarians happy.

I once received a letter from a woman complaining about provision for vegetarians at a works barbecue. Her gripe was that although she had given the organisers plenty of notice that she would be looking for vegetarian food, when the moment came, she was only offered vegetable kebabs. At first, I couldn't see what she was upset about - after all, somebody had taken some time and trouble to provide a vegetarian alternative. I came to the conclusion that either she would have preferred to blend in by having a veggie burger or sausage, or that she was peturbed by the fact that she was effectively being given a plate of vegetables to eat, not a balanced meal. No protein. Well, not an awful lot.

I have done quite a lot of teaching work with professional chefs who understand that they need to make sure that parties that include vegetarians don't walk out of their restaurants, but have a very limited perspective on what vegetarians eat. At the beginning of one week-long course I asked one chef what he thought vegetarians wanted. He said 'Vegetables?'

Thanks in part to the angry veg police, a lot of chefs are as nervous about feeding vegetarians as they are about feeding coeliacs or nut allergists. Being too demanding and difficult puts them off, and whilst a complaint might help to educate the chef and maybe ensure that the next veggie through the door has a better experience, it can also make chefs dig their heels in. As for vegans... I once worked at a vegetarian restaurant where there was a policy not to claim that any dish on the menu was suitable for vegans. In fact, the were plenty of vegan options, but the owners felt that vegans were out to find fault, and eventually decided that they would rather turn them away than keep trying to make them happy.

It would be a great shame if Aiden Byrne was on the receiving end of criticism so sustained and fierce that he stopped trying. It's delightful when chefs decide to do something that seems novel and brave, and announce that a vegetable is the 'hero' of one of their plates. It's nice to see vegetables celebrated in all their diversity of colours, flavours and textures. More and more chefs are getting wise to this, and it's a safe option because by sticking closely to vegetables and not much else, you can probably create a dish that's likely to be acceptable to a very wide range of diners. Sensible.

But vegetarians don't only eat vegetables, and we all know that there are almost limitless opportunities for innovative combinations. I would love to see a vegetarian taster menu that included some locally grown nuts, artisan cheeses, heritage grains and even a daring foray into the world of lentils and beans. Bring in some unusual takes on tofu, and other soya-based foods. Maybe even show us what top chefs can make from Quorn, which is slightly in danger of being relegated to pub grub status. Show us some new ways to present eggs and cheeses. Maybe a menu like this would attract more sales to non-vegetarians. (Although I understand that the vegetarian food at Manchester House is often gratefully received by meat-eaters who find frogs' legs a step too far.) It might also help to justify the price tag when the vegetarian menu is priced identically to the meat-based menu.

Pricing is another issue - do vegetarians want to pay less because their meals don't include meat? Or do they want to pay the same, and get food that is worth the price? Something for another blog post...


  1. I'm just watching Saturday kitchen live, and the chef, Bryn Williams is making a veggie dish for Victoria Pendleton. He just said that his vegetarian tasting menu is great for veggies and people who want to eat less protein. Why do these chefs think we have diffferent dietary requirements? Worrying indeed.


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