“Alexis Gauthier used to sell 20kg of foie gras a week. Now the chef, whose London-based restaurant became entirely vegan in 2021, only sells a plant-based version. Since becoming vegan, he admits, Gauthier Soho has “lost a lot of customers, sadly”. But he says he has gained even more new diners, all looking for something different and sustainable and prepared to pay the price.
Gauthier is not the only chef to abandon the animal produce traditionally associated with fine dining. While the number of meat-free menus has been burgeoning for some time in lower- and mid-priced restaurants, now a growing number of the world’s top chefs are starting to put plants centre stage.
Chef Daniel Humm has created headlines on both sides of the Atlantic twice in recent months. First when he announced that his three Michelin-starred New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, would be reopening after a pandemic hiatus in June minus meat or seafood on its $335 menu (but not completely free of animal products. “The current food system is simply not sustainable,” he said).
Then, in November, it was announced that he had parted ways with five-star hotel Claridge’s after it rejected his “bold new vision” of a fully plant-based menu for its restaurant, Davies and Brook, which serves, amongst other things, foie gras and caviar. The hotel said it was “not the path we wish to follow”.
And in January, Geranium in Copenhagen, ranked number two by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, will unveil a new meat-free menu of vegetarian, plant-based and seafood dishes. Announcing the move, chef Rasmus Kofoed said that he hadn’t eaten meat for the last five years at home, “so to no longer use meat on the new menu was a logical decision and a natural progression for Geranium”.
Even the Michelin Guide, which rarely used to award stars to vegetarian and vegan restaurants, appears to be moving in a plant-based direction. Last year, Claire Vallée’s restaurant ONA (which stands for origine non-animale) in Arès, near Bordeaux, became the first vegan restaurant in France to be awarded a star. They have also introduced green stars, a new award to recognise sustainability.
Gauthier – whose plant-based menu is 50% vegan versions of classic French dishes like soufflé or foie gras and the other half is more experimental – said many chefs, particularly French chefs, fear losing Michelin stars and remain bound by the “tyranny of classical French gastronomy”. The ongoing influence of Auguste Escoffier, author of the 1903 Le Guide Culinaire and former director of kitchens at the Savoy, is, he said, a “massive problem for French gastronomy to move forward”.
By contrast, Gauthier sees plant-based food as an opportunity to be truly creative. “We can write recipes that are totally out of the ordinary and nobody can come and say ‘well actually, it should not be done like that’ because it’s all new. That’s the beauty of it.”
While animals are off the menu, he said everything else remains the same. “It’s remaining 100% French, the flavours, all the tralala you think about when you go to a French restaurant.” So far, he said, the move to veganism has been “a commercial success”. As chef patron of one of the few high-end vegan restaurants in London, Gauthier hopes more chefs will follow suit. “Not a lot of chefs are brave enough to embrace a fully vegan restaurant, but a lot are looking into it and testing the water,” he said.
French chef Dominique Crenn, stopped serving meat at her three Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn in 2018. Speaking from her farm in Sonoma, where she grows produce for her three restaurants, she said it is vital that restaurants and consumers know where their products come from and do not support factory farming….”