Last year a middle-aged banker approached Joe Pagliaro and Grace Watson. The banker’s father had recently died of prostate cancer and he’d come to them, the owners of plant-based fast-food chain Verd, with a business request. “He told us, ‘I wanted to open a butcher, but I'm going plant based. Now I want to open a vegan salad bar.’” Pagliaro says.
The banker, Simon Foale, now owns and runs Verd's new outlet in Manly. His story is a one-off, but it represents something much bigger happening across Sydney. Years ago, people like Foale were more likely to ridicule vegan food than eat it – let alone put their savings into selling the stuff. And few good vegan restaurants were around to fight people’s misconceptions.
Now it’s different. In late 2015 Gigi’s, one of Sydney’s most popular pizzerias, took all animal products off its menu. Shortly after, Randwick’s Soul Burger and Rozelle pub the Red Lion did the same. Last year Bad Hombres and Gelato Blue followed. Meanwhile, everyday restaurants, pubs and cafes have been changing their menus to include vegan options that extend beyond cheese-less risotto and roast cauliflower. And of course, there’s chef Brent Savage and his restaurant Yellow, which re-launched in 2016 offering vegetarian and vegan degustations, but zero meat, aside from the weekend brunch service.
This year, two brand new, 100 per cent vegan entries have lifted the standard even higher. Pagliaro and Watson are two of four partners at Paperbark, a stylish restaurant that wouldn’t look out of place next to Ester or Automata. And US celebrity chef Matthew Kenney touched down in Woolloomooloo to open Alibi, a semi-raw restaurant at the base of the Ovolo hotel.
So, what’s changed? Why is this happening now?
The obvious answer is there are more vegans, but it’s more than that. Pagliaro has seen an increase in meat-eating diners coming to his restaurant, while Savage says more carnivores are ordering plant-based meals at Yellow and at Bentley, Monopole and Cirrus, his three eateries that do serve meat. Gigi owner Marco Matino says business has gone up 30 per cent since the shift (see the lines on a Friday night), though he was worried the opposite would happen.
Heaven Leigh of Bodhi, a three-decade-old vegan yum cha spot, estimates only half her customers are vegan, but just eight years ago it was 85 per cent “die-hard vegans”. Amit Tewari, the owner of Soul Burger, says in-house surveys revealed 85–90 per cent of his customers were non-vegan. “The majority of our customers are [people] who are either reducing their meat intake for health or environmental reasons or are curious about new food,” he says.
This attitude was almost unheard of a decade ago. “There was a feeling that vegetables were bland,” Savage says. He and Pagliaro think early vegan restaurants often missed the mark because the owners and operators weren’t experienced in the industry. They opened those restaurants, not because they could make a banging gnocchi, but because of their vegan philosophies. In short, Savage says, “The problem was the person crafting the vegetables, not the vegetables.”
Even in cases where the food was inspiring, many men had the idea that eating vegetarian or vegan food was emasculating, some still do. That’s why you now hear the phrase plant based, rather than vegan. The vegan-restaurant label represents the old world: green branding, overtly healthy recipes and vaguely Asian menus. Plant-based dining can be any style of food and any cuisine; it can be healthy, or fatty and full of sugar – it just happens to have no animal products in it. “When I hire chefs here I don't hire vegan chefs. Never. All my chefs eat meat,” Leigh says. “I think it gives them a different point of view.”
Chefs and restaurateurs such as Savage, Tewari, Pagliaro and Leigh may have fuelled the interest in plant-based dining locally, but the wider interest in veganism as a lifestyle choice is likely due to international health trends. Pagliaro talks about the influence of What the Health, a popular Netflix documentary about the consumption of meat and dairy products. Savage and Leigh mention the effect mad cow disease had in pushing people towards a plant-based diet.
Before, plant-based dining was almost exclusive to full-time vegans. Now it’s seen more as lifestyle choice anyone can take part in, for health or enjoyment, occasionally, and whatever their views. “It’s in popular culture now,” Pagliaro says. “Beyoncé went vegan for 22 days. It doesn't have this dark veil over it anymore.”
This story originally appeared in Sydney print issue 15.