Veganism has taken London by storm. Encouraged by a flock of fresh, new, plant-based menus and the Michelin-starred chefs behind them, growing numbers of discerning foodies are hopping aboard the holistic lifestyle. What started off as grassroots counterculture has gone mainstream, cultivating a social landscape that increasingly values ethics and wellness. Here, we take a look at why being vegan is trending in London, and what the capital’s top chefs and fine-dining establishments are doing, not just keep up, but to pave the way ahead.
The rise of veganism in London
Inventive vegan dishes star on the menus of the most coveted tables in town, including the restaurants in our London Hotels. Take a stroll through the city and refuel with a sugar-dipped selection at Crosstown Doughnuts, whose Vegan Sourdough Doughnut is absolutely sublime, or pause for a pint at the capital’s first fully vegan pub, the Spread Eagle in trendy Hackney. But why has veganism gained so much traction in the English capital? The answer is a combination of factors, including London’s trail-blazing gastronomic scene, and an increasing desire for fresh, health-boosting, culinary innovations.
London is the food capital of the world. Only in the British capital does a centuries-old gastropub nudge up against a world-renowned flagship patisserie on one side and a lively Michelin-starred tapas bar on the other. The capital’s residents are bold in their tastes, and relish global cuisines and novel flavours, as well as ingenious combinations that challenge the status quo—hello, ice-cream burgers. The question at every mealtime, in a city replete with such broad gastronomic diversity, is always what to try next. In lieu of the traditional stalwarts, food producers and chefs are consistently challenged to get ever more creative in their bid to meet London’s call for variety and innovation.
Treating familiar favourites such as hot dogs and the full English breakfast to a vegan makeover is an easy way to usher in the plant-based trend. Enjoy brunch at an Instagram café—so-called because of the influencers and celebrities endorsing it on the social media platform—with tofu ‘scrambled eggs’, tempeh ‘bacon’, and vegetarian sausages. Stylish haunt Stem + Glory and British reality TV duo Lucy and Tiffany Watson’s Tell Your Friends are two 100 per cent-vegan examples.
“Social media plays a big part in driving the awareness and popularity of vegan food in London,” says Ben Kelliher, Head Chef at The English Grill. “Celebrity chefs and television programmes exploring veganism also bring it into the mainstream. Supermarkets are offering a lot of vegan options and new vegan restaurants are opening all the time.”
The explosion of the Veganuary campaign, in which curious omnivores and vegetarians adopt a vegan lifestyle for a month, demonstrates just how fast veganism is growing. When the event launched in 2014, 3,300 people signed up. In 2018, 168,000 took the Veganuary Pledge. At the start of 2019, a record high of 250,000 joined the cause. What’s more, the organisers report six in 10 participants saying they plan to stay vegan after the experience ends. It’s important to consider these figures in the context of current demand for sustainability and healthier eating habits. Many go vegan for health, to be positively associated with consuming less fats and eating ‘clean’, while others opt for plant-based for moral reasons.
The ascent of the educated consumer goes hand in hand with the growing popularity of veganism. Provocative documentaries on entertainment sites such as Netflix have lifted the lid on the brutalities of the meat, dairy and poultry industries, as well as the harmful environmental effects of livestock farming. Morally minded campaigners and influencers have shared the deplorable issues raised by poignant films, including 2014’s Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, fuelling an already accelerating desire to boycott animal products. Accordingly, actress Natalie Portman has fashioned a range of vegan footwear, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z encourage their fans to join them in a vegan lifestyle. They are not alone. A ground-breaking, meaningful shift in attitudes is underway—and this is why veganism is here to stay.
Who are the pioneers leading the way?
Veganism didn’t arrive at London’s more illustrious establishments and mainstream culinary hangouts overnight. It travelled from the ground up, from specialist street stalls to vegan food festivals, from supermarket ‘free-from’ aisles to centre stage. The English capital drew inspiration from Los Angeles’ brightly polished health collective and Berlin’s clued-up consumers, and it hasn’t looked back.
“Restaurants in London need to offer more choice and cater for all dietary requirements. As more people change to a vegan lifestyle, it’s important that we follow suit,” Ben Kelliher notes. Forward-thinking and on-trend with its menu, The English Grill at The Rubens at the Palace presents a delicious Vegan Dish of the Day. From miso aubergine one day to English asparagus the next, lemon and thyme courgettes to baby artichokes, vegan specialities are cooked to plant-based perfection in the restaurant’s charcoal-fired Josper grill.
“We have just launched our vegan breakfast and afternoon tea. Now we are working on our lunch and dinner menus,” Kelliher adds. There’s a degree of irony here: a traditional English grill serving alternatives to meat. But the concept reflects London’s dynamic food scene and offers something new, with cauliflower steak with truffle and walnut pesto already proving a hit among guests. Meanwhile, Executive Head Chef Nathan Hindmarsh has just launched a plant-based menu at The Chesterfield Mayfair. So far, his vegan dahl with coriander, green chilli and wild black rice has proved a winning combination. Save a little room for desert, where wholesome oat crumble, a tart strawberry and basil sorbet, and creamy coconut yoghurt are delicious contenders. An alumni from Paris’ prestigious Restaurant L’audacieux, Hindmarsh enjoys cooking with wasabi from Hampshire and asparagus from Wye Valley, now that he is firmly grounded on English soil and has been for the past four years. His favourite spot for picking up the day’s fresh fruit and vegetables in London is from the colourful variety at New Covent Garden Market.
While some kitchens have made the leap to completely vegan, others serve specialist vegan menus that appeal to omnivores and herbivores alike. Jason Atherton at his Michelin-starred Pollen Street Social offers a vibrant vegan menu and vegan tasting menu, designed to be paired with sophisticated organic, vegan wines. Highlights include salted baked beetroot tartare and mushroom pearl barley with Périgord truffle. Brett Graham’s twice-Michelin-starred The Ledbury presents an upmarket vegetarian tasting menu, too, currently commencing with a toasted walnut and artichoke salad. Farm-to-fork seasonal menus are very of-the-moment, with many wanting to eliminate not just meat but all ingredients that have not been sourced sustainably.
Red Carnation Hotels’ London hotels draw on suppliers based as nearby as possible, and many cultivate their own edible ingredients. The Montague on the Gardens nurtures mulberry bushes, for instance, and regularly infuses its fruity harvest into fragrant cocktails and homemade preserves.
It isn’t just restaurateurs who are embracing sustainable practices. The capital’s drinks scene is undergoing a green revolution. Plastic straws are cast aside, a campaign that The Red Carnation Hotel Collection strongly supports, and ingredients that need to be shipped in from abroad are used less frequently. Cocktail bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana–AKA Mr Lyan–is a frontrunner. His first bar, White Lyan, which opened in 2013, was the first bar in the world to say no to all forms of perishables. Radically, he eliminated both fruit and ice from the cocktail equation. In collaboration with zero waste pioneer and chef Doug McMaster of Silo, master mixologist Arielle Johnson from MIT and Krug Champagne, the businessman’s newest venture has taken his concept to new heights. Cocktail bar and restaurant Cub is both deliciously luxurious and sustainable.
London has been ripping up the rule book for some time now. No longer does a particular course or one type of food come with a set of preconditioned ideas. Mains can be anything from a seitan burger stacked with cashew cheese and vegan bacon to a colourful rainbow salad, and desserts can be holistic. London’s chefs are embracing plant-based recipes and sourcing new cooking and presentation techniques. Amid today’s social media whirlwind, artfully plated, photogenic dishes are the future. Skilful presentation that delivers an aesthetic feast for the eyes and sates the taste buds has made vegan food more popular than ever.
Modern British outfits have been keen to bring skilled vegan dishes into their repertoires. Similar to Pollen Street Social and The Ledbury, The Clove Club has established itself as a vegan and vegetarian go-to, serving smart dishes like bobby beans salad with peach, fresh almond and Manjimup Truffle. But even global cuisines traditionally associated with meats and cheeses are undergoing plant-based revolutions. Take the Galvin brothers’ modern French vegan tasting menu at Galvin La Chapelle and Bradleys’ French-accented vegetarian and vegan à la carte curations. Elsewhere, Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson brings a Scandinavian slant to vegan cooking in London. Michelin-starred Texture is where to find his multi-coloured vegan tasting menu, which consists of seven impeccably plated courses. Chakra offers vegans an upmarket taste of India. The restaurant’s deluxe vegan menu features aromatic naans, spice-infused rice dishes and curries, with a tangy raspberry sorbet for dessert. Vegan and vegetarian food has been the chosen diet in India for centuries. Now, the surge in demand for flavoursome plant-based cooking means chefs are drawing on both old-world traditions and new-wave thinking to whip up a fuss. The Egerton House Hotel’s award-winning Vegan and Vegetarian Afternoon Tea delivers this with aplomb. Vegan diners can expect delectable finger sandwiches filled with grilled vegetables and guacamole, coronation chickpea and tomato and olive tapenade. Freshly baked vegan scones and homemade cakes complete the experience.
Moving forward, attractive, exciting and sustainably sourced vegan cuisine is the goal. Flexitarians and fair-weathered plant-based foodies are increasingly gravitating towards vegan choices, because these are the most stimulating right now and benefit the planet, too. Chefs and restauranteurs seeking to stay ahead need to provide food that ticks all the boxes.
“I think London’s vegan food scene is just going to evolve more and more. There needs to be more choices for vegan guests in the future, from breakfast, through to lunch and dinner, and chefs need to get more creative,” Ben Kelliher concludes.
Enjoy a varied selection of vegetarian and vegan fare at The Red Carnation Hotel Collections’ London Hotels.