I’ve got beef with the meat alternative products — I kind of want my vegetables to be vegetables. And I’m not vegan or vegetarian. Vegetables are probably my favorite food group, and I think trying to turn them into meat is doing vegetables a disservice. I came to this realization while being lucky enough to attend the food events at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, last week.
On Friday, there was programming offered by the Future of Food and on Saturday, Food Tank hosted panels, movie screenings and food tastings at its All Things Food event at the Huston-Tillotson University. The tastings included salad bowls from Farmer’s Fridge, pesto made from Gotham Greens and alternative tuna poke bowls from Finless Foods.
That night I was also invited to a plant-forward dinner hosted by ADM, the food processing and ingredient company. ADM invited top chefs Maneet Chauhan, a judge on "Chopped," restaurant owner in Nashville and James Beard award winner, and Philip Speer, an Austin local and James Beard nominee, to work with ADM’s own vice president of culinary innovation, John Stephanian, to create a delish meal for us at the Commodore in Austin.
The chefs at the ADM dinner were letting the vegetables be vegetables and celebrating their vegetabliness.
A subtlety I noticed when inspecting the menu for the dinner — not a single dish was trying to emulate a meat dish. There wasn’t a plant-based shrimp curry; instead there was an oyster mushroom curry with heirloom masa chochoyote. There wasn’t an Impossible Meat taco with cilantro but a teff kebab taco with cucumber pomegranate raita and a crispy cauliflower taco. There is absolutely a role for alternative meats in a more sustainable food system future, but we shouldn’t forget about how good vegetables are along the way, especially for consumers who might never be able to afford alternative meats or just might not want them. Creating amazingly tasty vegetables is also a way to open consumers' minds to the possibility of plant-based ingredients.
The chefs at the ADM dinner were letting the vegetables be vegetables and celebrating their vegetabliness. Instead of trying to copy the texture and flavor profiles of beef, fish or poultry, they just got to indulge in creativity — something all the chefs said during the short chats before the dinner was their favorite part of coming up with the meal. And as a non-vegan diner, I wasn’t comparing the dishes to the traditional meat versions but was instead enjoying the fantastic things these chefs were able to create with just plants.
"There’s a time and a place for alternative meats, but tonight we really wanted the vegetables to shine," Stephanian said.
This was a contrast to how I approached the food I got to taste at the All Things Food event. When Finless Food came around with their tuna-less ceviche tostada samples, my first question was "What was the ‘tuna’ made out of?" Answer: a marinated winter melon. And my first thought after taking a bite? "Well, it’s tasty, but the texture isn’t quite right; it’s a little too sweet and watery to be tuna, and I can tell it’s melon." Instinctively and immediately, I was comparing the sample with actual tuna because it was being positioned as tuna instead of melon.
Embracing plants to help the alt-protein market
There has been a lot of talk of the cooling alternative meat market. In 2021, Beyond Meat’s stock slumped 83 percent, and retail sales of all alternative meat products dropped more than 10 percent. I think we need a bit of a shift in mindset to bring those sales back. Alternative meats will be key to unlocking a more sustainable food system if we can start marketing them to hard-core carnivores as substitutes for highly processed, convenience meats such as chicken nuggets, burgers and hot dogs that they mimic quite well.
But when it comes to the tastiest meals, let's show consumers just how incredible vegetables can be as vegetables.
For a little vegetable inspiration, here is one of my favorite YouTube videos that highlights all-vegan restaurants. It ends with a great quote from one of the hosts: "Whenever I think about what I want for dinner, I never think about the vegetable component first. That is going to change for me."
Maybe for you, too?