Breaking Down Plant-Based Food Trends and Culture

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

When chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in NYC announced he would reopen with a vegan menu, the food industry perked up. Voted World’s Best Restaurant in 2017, Humm’s commitment will be closely watched by industry insiders as well as the broader food community.

Why should anyone care about a restaurant few can get a reservation to, let alone afford if they could?

What happens in the kitchens of the world’s best restaurants influences food trends for years after the first innovations are served to the privileged few. Similar to high fashion runway shows, the color trends, fabrics, techniques and cultural influences shown in Paris, Milan or New York fashion weeks get reinterpreted for seasons to follow.

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For example, “the cerulean top” scene from The Devil Wears Prada captures this waterfall of influence best when fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, schools intern Andy Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, on the cerulean blue sweater she is wearing. Explaining brilliantly how the color was first introduced by Oscar de la Renta in ‘02 in Paris, then picked up by Yves Saint Laurent, followed by eight other designers that year. Over time, it made its way through the department stores until it showed up on the discount racks where Andy Sachs found it on sale.

The same journey can be found in food. The long-tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park is like Humm’s “spring collection.” Throughout the journey, one might experience the beginnings of a food trend. It might be a new mushroom or algae dish, dairy reimagined beyond what we currently see on the Whole Foods shelves or the perfection of the very best asparagus at peak season with the intrigue of a new technique, flavor or texture.

Humm is not the first or the only one to join this movement. Rene Redzepi of Noma served a plant-based tasting menu in the summer season of 2018. (Where I’ve had arguably the best meal I have ever experienced.) And in LA, the humble turnip was celebrated by the late Jonathan Gold in a 2016 LA Times article, putting the modest root in the limelight. It was a celebration of an often-overlooked root that resulted in dozens of creative variations across the produce-centric city.

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In this culinary revolution, fast food is taking notes and introducing its versions. Burger King was an early adopter of the Impossible Burger, showing competitors that it was willing to make a big strategic bet on consumer trends toward plant-based options at a premium. It seems now a week doesn’t go by without an announcement of a new plant-based item or concept being tested by the big food brands.

Fake leather has been around for decades and lab-grown diamonds can be found in just about any jewelry store. But the concept of “lab-grown” is a relatively new phenomenon in the food industry. Pioneering brands like Upside Foods, formerly Memphis Meats, pushed the theoretical potential of no-kill animal protein years ago. Singapore became the first market to approve the commercial sale of cultured meat by the U.S. food brand Eat Just. The cultured chicken nuggets will go on sale soon with food tech investors and advocates watching closely.

On a larger scale, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and Harvard have been collaborating on a plant-forward shift in food systems for some years now, advocating for a flip in the food pyramid with plants representing most of the consumption. CIA is one of the leading educational institutions for chefs in the U.S. Harvard, believing chefs as the curators of culinary culture, has the power to shift American food preferences through their hyper-engaged audiences, broader media channels and influence through deliciousness. The movement has sparked collaborations with chefs with the aim of healthier outcomes for the planet, people and food culture overall.

These early indicators of future plant-based demand serve as an invitation to chefs, food tech entrepreneurs, farmers and CPG brands to lean into the broad potential of plants. While many are looking to mimic meat by bending plant chemistry into less natural forms, I believe there is open space for the most creative culinary figures to draw upon the diversity of flavor, texture and regional interest that plants offer. For those looking to embrace food as a means of lifestyle wellness, the medicinal values and benefits of various plants are well documented.

I am not a vegan or vegetarian, but as a chef and food activist, I love the emphasis on plant-forward cooking. It is good for the environment, great for human health and absolutely delicious under the guidance of a skilled cook. If you have yet to explore the brave new world of plants, take a moment and grab a seat. You might be surprised.

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