Those first, testing meat-free months were significantly cushioned by two things: faux meat supermarket products (thank you, Linda McCartney) and carbs, particularly of the potato kind. These substitutes made losing a part of my diet I had lived with for more than twenty years more palatable.
As I transitioned into life as a vegetarian, unsure if it would last or end in a meat-relapse, I started broadening my horizons in a bid to get excited about plant-based foods. I discovered cashew cheese as a vegan pizza topping at an organic arts café, lentil shepherd’s pie and kofta balls via the Hare Krishnas, and a special hangover-friendly vegan takeaway shop that proved you absolutely do not need meat or dairy to enjoy a cheeseburger.
While I can stick to my moral guns when it comes to avoiding meat, encouraging millions of individuals to embrace a plant-based diet is a mammoth undertaking. Finding appetising replacements for meat is one of the biggest barriers preventing vegetarian and vegan cuisine from being mainstream. Thankfully, creative chefs are rising to the challenge, showing the possibilities of delicious food without meat.
Atlanta-based restaurateur Aisha “Pinky” Cole spent the last two years turning plant-based foods into a cuisine that would have even the most meat-devout salivating. Frustrated by the lack of vegan options available at fast-food restaurants where she lived, Cole launched Slutty Vegan in 2018, a vegan burger chain that started out in a shared kitchen and grew into two food trucks and three restaurants.
Using plant-based products from Impossible Foods and a novel approach to meat-free eating, Cole has successfully kicked her Black-owned business into the mainstream, ensuring Slutty Vegan is accessible to all members of the community. Speaking to Forbes in 2019, Cole says “the decision to open our flagship location in the West End Atlanta area was a no-brainer. The first mission of Slutty Vegan has been to change the narrative on vegan foods, especially in under-informed communities.”
A playful name and menu (featuring burgers like the One Night Stand, Fussy Hussy and Super Slut) combined with a fun, in-house experience has helped Slutty Vegan gain a loyal following and accelerate the brand’s success. They’ve even been organically endorsed by a number of high-profile celebrities, backing Cole’s mission to build community and open conversations around plant-based eating.
On the other end of the spectrum are individuals proving vegan food has a place in high-end establishments, like self-taught French chef Claire Vallée. When Vallée first attempted to apply for a loan to open her restaurant, she was turned down because of her inexperience and the banks’ notion of risk, that a vegan eatery in a small coastal town wouldn’t succeed. So she crowdfunded the money instead, establishing ONA five years ago, which recently became the first vegan restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin star.
That’s an extraordinary feat considering ONA’s home, a town close to Bordeaux, is a place renowned for meat-heavy classics like boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin, not to mention French culture’s general relationship with cheese. In an interview, Vallée said: “I make this [vegan] food because I love it, and I want to show people you can eat differently and still enjoy it.” Vallée experiments with combinations of grains, spices and plants that can be experimented with to create truly indulgent meat-free meals.
Vallée and Cole are two women who used their creativity and passion for vegan eating to challenge the mainstream food culture of their communities and make vegan food more accessible. Both have enjoyed enormous success. Why? Because they took ordinary expectations of vegan eating, surpassed them, and poured their energy into making plant-based food with mass appeal.
The success of their approach also comes down to an understanding that individuals arrive at a decision to make a habit change from different places. Rather than finger wagging people into action, we can actually excite them into it. The rationale for doing something good, in this case eating less meat for the future of the planet, can be an added bonus to discovering and enjoying plant-based food. And, if there’s one thing we should be able to agree on in the year 2021, it’s that vegan food is far from a restrictive diet choice.