Can meatless menus transcend mock meat and salads to enter the culinary mainstream and be accepted as easily as your mod-European bistro or American steakhouse? BT Weekend looks at players trying to change mindsets to elevate vegetarian cuisine to gastronomic levels.
The demand for healthier eating and greener food has grown by leaps and bounds in the last few years, with more requests for it by the day, say restaurateurs who are proponents of the trend. "It's been a sea change since I started with the idea of 'conscious dining' six years ago. Today I'm constantly getting requests from people who want to open restaurants selling vegetarian fare or healthier food," says Rosalind Lim, owner of Onaka at Rochester Park and Alexandra Retail Centre.
Last year, when high-end dining restaurant Saint Pierre held two special 25-course vegetarian degustation dinners, they were quickly sold out, and the restaurant could have easily sold a few more nights of the same, declares Edina Hong, who manages the corporate business of the Emmanuel Stroobant group of restaurants. "We used to get a few requests for vegetarian dishes at the restaurant, but these days, it's easily 50 covers a month," she adds.
It's definitely a viable business option, notes Lee Han Yong of Secret Recipe. The Malaysian chain restaurant launched its chain of meatless restaurants, Beyond Veggie, a year and a half ago, and is seeing a high acceptance rate for it.
Fong Chi Chung, president of Putien Holdings isn't a vegetarian himself, but recognised healthy food and lifestyle as a trend going forward. "Normally, we eat too much meat and seafood in our daily diets, which is a heavy burden on our bodies. I feel it's time for people to realise they can eat healthier to lessen the body's burden," he says. Putien just brought in Taiwan company Wowprime's chain of Sufood restaurants to Singapore and sees the potential for eight to 10 outlets in Singapore in the next five years if demand is strong.
Chefs fronting the green revolution have had their workload doubled in the last few years. Chef Lim gets constant requests to give lessons and consultations for menus - so she teaches at clients' private homes and also at homes catering specifically to the elderly who are recovering from surgery or illness, or children with special diets. She sees demand from a variety of sectors: from other restaurateurs who want to offer vegetarian and vegan food; from a bank which wants to provide healthy food for its staff in its inhouse cafe; to a vending machine company which is keen to develop healthier vending machine food.
"It's changed so much over the last six years, it's quite amazing. While I see the trend of people eating healthier, I also see the trend of growing food intolerance," she notes. Onaka opened a second centre at Alexandra Retail Centre in December 2012, and where she used to see an 80 per cent expatriate and 80 per cent female crowd, she now caters to a good mix of local diners and sometimes, she's seen all-male diners at her outlet. On the personal side, she's writing a cookbook and taking dietitian classes in Traditional Chinese Medicine to see how she can modernise cooking with herbs.
The growing acceptance also means that chefs can now be more experimental and adventurous with the ingredients. At Onaka, a top-seller is their watermelon sashimi, which features tuna-looking slices of compressed watermelon topped with agar-agar pearls flavoured with wasabi. And quinoa is everywhere. "Even normal salad places offer you quinoa these days. Five years ago, it would never have happened. People now are definitely more clued in to healthier eating," says Bjorn Shen, chef-owner of Artichoke.
Chef Shen had even toyed with the idea of turning Artichoke fully vegetarian years ago. "Just because we were having so much fun with the vegetables, and it's a much more direct farm-to-table concept than meats which have to go through several processes before they are served at the table," he says. Artichoke has a strong emphasis on its vegetable dishes, and it just takes more "cognitive ability," Shen says, to elevate vegetables and find ways to cook them interestingly, compared to cooking a piece of meat.
"So we pride ourselves on our vegetable dishes." However, he'll point out that while there's a high incidence of diners ordering vegetable dishes at his restaurant, it's largely to do with its shared-platters format.
Shen himself goes vegetarian once a week, and after all - his restaurant is opposite Fortune Centre, the vegetarian food centre of Singapore. The good thing is that with the higher demand, the supply has also gotten better, with more importers as well. "So supply is less of an issue these days," say the restaurateurs.
With the rise of fitness practices such as yoga and pilates, the anti-fast food trend and increasing knowledge of bad food practices especially concerning meats, the green food revolution looks like it will grow from strength to strength.
'We were having so much fun with the vegetables, and it's much more direct farm-to-table concept than meats.' Bjorn Shen, chef-owner of Artichoke, on having toyed with the idea of turning his restaurant fully vegetarian.