Long before eco-conscious plant-based cuisine became popular among ethical diners, chef Peggy Chan was already advocating vegetarianism and veganism in Hong Kong. Her first restaurant, Grassroots Pantry, opened in 2012 in a small space in Sai Ying Pun. But news of her delicious and nutritious meat-free dishes quickly made Grassroots Pantry the place to be if you cared about animals and the environment. Grassroots Pantry eventually moved to a much larger space on 108 Hollywood Road.
Seven years on, Chef Chan has transitioned Grassroots Pantry into Nectar, a high-end dining restaurant featuring progressive dishes that use locally-sourced and sustainable ingredients. The all-vegan menu designed to promote conscious eating habits includes her rendition of bak kut teh made with truffle wontons instead of pork ribs, as well as her stew of mushrooms, annatto seeds, saffron and eggplant that together mimic the taste and texture of lobster bisque.
Chef Chan is convinced we need to move away from our meat-eating habits if we want to help reduce carbon emissions and reverse global warming. Livestock production is responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane and nitrous oxide. To date, Chef Chan been singled out by the United Nations Development Programme, the Basque Culinary World Prize 2019, the prestigious Global Wellness Summit and other authoritative organisations for her commitment to sustainability in F&B.
Why should we stop eating meat – or at least reduce our consumption of it? What are the statistics you’d like us to know?
I don’t preach it by telling people what to do. I’d rather do it through opening a restaurant and getting people to understand how creative and delicious vegetarian food can be… However, if you’d like to me go into statistics, over 10 years ago, the World Health Organization announced that livestock production causes 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – more than any other kind of activity in the world. You may hear some statistics saying it’s 15 percent – but 15 percent is the carbon emission rate and the rest are other types of gases such as methane, which is many times more potent than carbon. So that’s one big reason why we should move away from consuming livestock. Besides that, meat consumption has been linked to heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses. So it affects not just the health of the planet but also our health. Hence, for various societal, economical and political issues, we should reduce or stop our consumption of meat altogether.
You’re asking for quite a big sacrifice on the part of foodies who love all kinds of food.
I should say that it’s no longer a sacrifice now. Food tech companies and kitchens like mine have figured out how to use plant-based ingredients to put together dishes that taste just as good as meat dishes and have high levels of nutrition. People are worried when they’re asked to change their diets. They ask: How can I live without meat? It’s so delicious. Can a vegetarian meal give me all the nutrients I need? But those assumptions are false. At Nectar, we use raw food techniques, which help to maintain the nutrients within the ingredients. We put together dishes like tuna tamaki, which is a tomato tuna handroll which tastes just like the real thing. By cooking tomatoes through a 16-hour process, we’re able to extract the chemical that mimics the taste of tuna and satisfy fish lovers… Another dish is foie gras, which is a popular delicacy even though the production of it is not humane whatsoever. So we propose an alternative by creating ‘faux gras’ which tastes just like the real thing but doesn’t involve force-feeding animals to fatten them up. It’s really just kitchen knowledge and understanding how to combine food flavours. We have these technologies now that can make burger patties using pea proteins. And if we can get McDonald’s or KFC to replace meat with this ingredient, imagine how much lower our greenhouse gas emissions could be.
But in terms of nutrients, could these new substitutes offer as much protein as meat?
You have to understand that firstly, the meat alternatives have a lot of protein – not as much as meat itself – but enough to make up a significant percentage of a person’s daily required intake. Secondly, there’s a misconception about how much protein you actually need. You don’t need a lot of it unless you’re an athlete. As it is, we consume too much protein – much more than what we really need. But the reason why we think we need a lot of protein is because the meat and dairy industries have lobbied this type of talk. And we believed them…We’ve worked with a crossfit gym before to create a protein-dense bowl, which is like a rice bowl made up of lots of leafy greens, beans and superfoods that add up to 47 grams of proteins, to convince gym-goers they can get their proteins from meat-free sources.
Are most of your customers non-vegans and non-vegetarians?
When we started in 2012, over 80 percent of our customers were not vegetarian or vegans. They only came because they trusted in the food that we sourced and the consistency of how we delivered it. For me, I’m proud of The Collective’s Table initiative, in which I invite various chefs to participate in creating plant-based tasting menus. Today these chefs have included their meat-free creations in the menus of their own restaurants. And there are many more establishments in Hong Kong that include vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu to promote plant-based dining… I trained in Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa and have worked in L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Hong Kong and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, among other places. And I think the problem with a lot of chef training is that they’re not taught nutrition. (The people who are actually taught to cook healthy and nutritious food are the ones who work in hospitals, and hospital food generally doesn’t taste good.) Restaurant chefs need to be taught how to combine ingredients creatively to make healthier meals with balanced nutrients for their customers.
What do you imagine food would look like 50 years from now?
You’re seeing a lot of changes now and I can only say that these changes will become the norm in the next 50 years. Some of the largest food companies such as Nestle, Cargill and General Mills are realising that consumers are becoming more concerned with sustainability and they are rushing to create meat alternatives. I started to reduce my consumption of meat some 20 years when I was 16 because I hated the violence involved in livestock production, and back then it was not easy finding the research on what was going on. But today because of the Internet, everyone knows what goes on in slaughterhouses and they don’t want to be part of the violence. And so we’re seeing the emergence of food tech companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Food because of this growing consciousness. And I would say it’s only a matter a time before the giant food companies switch out their inventory to healthier and more sustainable food products.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.