Three chefs on veganism in London

Three Hackney-based chefs discuss ingredients, misconceptions and how plant-based cuisine is taking over the capital — starting in the eastWednesday, May 22

By Nicola Trup
King Cook of CookDaily

King Cook, chef-owner of casual international restaurant CookDaily

How easy is it to be creative with vegan cooking?
When you’re creating vegan dishes, you have to understand the science of cooking. Extracting flavours from veggies isn’t like meat, where you can burn the fat (and, let’s be honest, that’s where the flavour really is); it’s all about understanding what you’re working with. At the moment, I’m making crisp vegan bacon from coconut flakes, which I’m marinating in tamari, paprika and maple syrup for that balance of sweetness, stickiness, savouriness and saltiness. Without my previous experience [in non-vegan kitchens], it would be difficult to create the menu I have today.

What do you think about London’s vegan scene?
Being a vegan chef in London is still quite rare — but then, they’re calling East London the mecca of veganism in England. When I first opened CookDaily in 2015, there were only a handful of restaurants around. Now, in East London alone, we’re talking up to 25 restaurants dotted around near us. I believe we kicked down the doors and made it more accessible for people to actually say ‘I’m going to open a vegan fried chicken place’ or ‘I’m going to start a burger place and we’re not going to call it plant-based, we’re going to call it vegan.’

What’s your typical clientele like?
It includes everyone. The younger generation [particularly] love what we’re doing, but we’re also feeding locals, office workers, families, vegans and non-vegans alike. A lot of people come through who aren’t vegan and, for me, that’s part of the connection, as that can lead on towards something else. I would say we feed everyone, we really do.

Do you hope you might inspire people to change their lifestyle?
A hundred percent — that’s what I’m here for. I started a vegan restaurant for this. And four years on, it’s been an amazing journey.

What misconceptions about veganism would you like to correct?
Things have changed; this is a new vegan London. It’s not just lasagne, stodgy risottos and pasta bakes anymore. We have exciting things like vegan fried chicken shops, a classic Italian, and then you have Cook Daily, which is international, plus vegan burger joints and loads of markets — so it really is an interesting place to explore vegan food, especially in East London. It’s different now; it’s no more hippy guys with dreadlocks.

If you could open a vegan restaurant anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
I really want to take CookDaily worldwide. America is my first choice, without a doubt, and the second would be southeast Asia — probably Thailand or somewhere like that. cookdaily.co.uk

Chef Kirk

Kirk Haworth, co-founder & executive chef of food studio and restaurant Plates

What motivated you to start your business?
My sister Keeley [my business partner] and I have both had a lifelong obsession with food, a love of nature and a passion for sustainability and creativity. We wanted to combine these things to create something completely innovative in food and drink — something that shows a wider audience how amazing plant-based creativity can be. We’ve built a multipurpose studio for food development, studies, collaborations, special events and content creation, all rooted in food expression. 

What are the challenges of vegan fine dining?
There are fewer ingredients to work with, and to create incredible dishes from vegetables, fruit and plants takes time and dedication. You have to master delivering richness without dairy, depth of flavour without meat stocks and strike the balance of being refined, but with substance. We create more challenges for ourselves though, as our desserts are also made without refined sugar. These challenges have forced us to find alternatives and led us down a new and exciting path.

What are you most proud of? 
Firstly, of creating a style of food that’s unique to Plates. We have a different way of creating and presenting plant-based food, delivering flavour profiles that are refined and interesting. I’m also proud we don’t use refined sugar. Our ethos follows my personal journey in food; I don’t eat any sugar apart from what naturally occurs in fruit. I really believe eating desserts with only naturally occurring sugars is an exciting area of exploration. It also addresses the issue of refined sugar being at the core of so much of our food, while being so damaging to our long-term health.

What’s currently most popular?
Our gluten-free liquorice bread. It’s got a great crust on the outside and is aerated and light in the middle. It’s very moreish and quite different to any other gluten-free breads I’ve tried. We serve it with organic olive oil and a blitzed, slow-roasted carrot and hemp seed dip. It’s a wonderful combination. 

If you could run a vegan restaurant anywhere else, where would that be?
Somewhere surrounded by nature, such as the Peak District or a spot on the English coastline; somewhere we could grow all our own organic produce.

What would you like to share with people who might be sceptical about vegan cuisine?
That it can be rich, filling and delicious for all palates. There are always good and bad experiences to be had when trying new things, so it’s important to not be put off by presumptions or past experiences. With so many people pushing the boundaries and refining their creations, it really is an exciting time for plant-based cooking. plates-london.com

Meriel Armitage

Meriel Armitage, co-founder of vegan pub The Spread Eagle

What are the challenges of creating vegan pub food?
We set out to challenge the idea that vegan food is just for hippies and hipsters — all about chickpeas and chia seeds — and we knew some people would be sceptical about us opening. Luckily, our fantastic team share our vision of showing that veganism is for everyone and can be every bit as fun and flavourful as non-vegan offerings.

What are your favourite ingredients?
We were one of the first to pioneer pulled jackfruit in London — it’s got such a meaty texture and is so versatile. We serve it from the griddle in burritos and roasted in carnitas (‘little meat’ tacos). Plus, we make sticky barbecue ‘ribs’ with our secret recipe glaze. 

What’s most popular?
Our beer-battered tofish taco. It’s inspired by the Baja California region of northern Mexico, and also pays homage to battered cod from your traditional British chippy. We wrap flaky tofu in nori to give it the flavour of the sea, then pair it with zingy pickled cabbage, salsa verde and sour cream. 

Where else would you like to open a restaurant?
LA, baby! To be among our heroes. thespreadeaglelondon.co.uk

Published in Issue 5 of National Geographic Traveller Food. Read the cover story here.

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