As Aussie diners become savvier about reducing their meat intake, many are asking are plant-based meat substitutes viable for restaurants. Meg Crawford reports
With around 2.5 million Australians consuming a largely vegetarian diet in 2019, it made perfect sense when outfits like Grill’d and Hungry Jacks very publicly joined the meat-free fray with their introduction of Beyond Burgers and the Rebel Whopper, both of which mimic meat. Debate is still rife though as to whether plant-based meat substitutes can find their way onto menus other than in a burger.
Is the demand for plant-based ‘meat’ real?
The answer is a resounding yes. For instance, according to 2019’s report Meat The Alternative, up to 40 per cent of adults nationally are looking to eat less meat for a range of reasons spanning environmental, sustainability and animal welfare concerns to improving health outcomes.
It’s also clear that when it comes to products mimicking meat, they’re not just for vegans—in fact, they’re probably not even the target market. Adrian Gastevski, co-founder of Future Farm Co.—which brings some of the world’s leading plant-based brands like Gardein and Beyond Meat to Australia and New Zealand consumers—agrees. “Meat alternatives have been around since the ’80s,” he says. “There are vegan brands that still exist and trade today with that one per cent of vegan Australians, but what we are experiencing now is a new suite of ‘food tech’ products that aim to perfectly replicate the taste, texture and full experience of meat. The greatest advancement in consumer experience has been in developing the texture, the mouth feel, the chew. The target market is less about ‘veganism’ and more about carnivores eating meat one to two times less per week.”
The market is broader now
Shannon Martinez, the head chef behind two of the outfits leading Melbourne’s plant-based charge, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli, concurs. “When we first started, vegans were ordering the vegan food, whereas now, the majority of our customers are actually meat eaters,” she says. “Even the most traditional meat and three veg people have started understanding that we have to change the way we eat, whether it’s for environmental or health reasons.” Martinez’s cuisine is also proof positive that meat-free substitutes are viable in a restaurant setting, with the popular Smith stable offering up 100 per cent plant-based meals incorporating everything from salami and prosciutto stand-ins to a faux roast-beef fillet.
“That’s the whole thing about our business—we’re making food look and taste the same as what people have always been eating,” she explains. Obviously, plant-based meat substitutes play an integral role in the Smith food philosophy. “They’re super important, especially for people who are trying to reduce their meat intake or looking into eventually swapping over to veganism. These substitutes come into play because you can cook the same way you always have, and the textures are still similar in the way a rib-eye compared to a lentil dhal just can’t be.”
The meatier end of the market is doing it too
Even establishments renowned as meat specialists are getting behind plant-based menu options. Take St Kilda gastro-pub icon the Grosvenor, which goes vegan for a night during this year’s Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, with a full five-course degustation. Plus, it caters for the plant-based inclined on an everyday basis with a few menu staples. “There’s so much on social media about veganism and people staying away from meat for a variety of reasons, and if you’re a big pub like us you get all sorts coming through—families, young and old, and you need to be able to cover all bases,” says head chef Simon Moss.
That said, Moss isn’t a huge fan of the substitutes that approximate meat, preferring instead to incorporate other plant-based options into the menu. “I don’t really see the point,” he says. “It wasn’t difficult to create the menu for the degustation, for instance. The main thing for me is to create true vegan food and not just put veggies on a plate, which is matter of taking time out to research recipes, while sticking to what we do—we’re an Italian-inspired gastro pub, so it still has to fit that theme.”
While Gastevski, Martinez and Moss have differing approaches to meat substitutes, they’re united in their belief that the call for plant-based cuisine will only increase. “It’s going to be more prevalent and you’ve just got to be ready for it,” Moss concludes.
Plus, if food technology and innovation continue to keep up with demand, the reasons not to swap to plant-based substitutes become less compelling. Gastevski sums it up pithily.
“If we can find a way to enjoy meat we’ve grown to love, but not have to utilise an animal—through science releasing the burden of cost and inefficiency—and most importantly preserve our planet, why wouldn’t we?”