Meat has traditionally enjoyed cultural status as a symbol of wealth at dining tables across the globe. Now with intensive farming practices making it cheaper and more abundant than ever, its devasting effect on the climate has left a sour taste in the mouths of environmentally conscious delegates.
With recent reports from the Committee on Climate Change stating the UK must cut the amount of beef, lamb and dairy it consumes by a fifth to meet the government’s 2050 netzero target, the need for the event industry to play its part in changing the nation’s eating habits is undeniable. February’s Oscars was the most recent prolific event to go vegan for 2020, with Hollywood stars offered an entirely plant-based catering menu. However, despite the trend, is there truly an appetite among hungry delegates to ditch the meat and dairy?
Rupert Worden and Lisa Hinze recently hosted the very first plant-based supper club at Chester Racecourse. Despite the fad-like feel of popular events such as Meat-free Mondays and Veganuary, the Cheshire-based food consultants are adamant plant-based catering is more than just a trend: “We personally don’t consider being vegan a choice, it is a necessity. Going vegan isn’t easy but there are a plethora of meat and dairy alternatives out there now with a lot of big brands throwing their name in the hat, so many restaurants, event companies and caterers are turning their eye to plant-based options.”
As our appetite for plant-based cuisine grows, so does the range of products available, this year’s Veganuary seeing high street brands jumping on the meat-free bandwagon, with Greggs’ vegan ‘steak bake’, to KFC’s vegan ‘chicken burger’ making the meat-substitute Quorn mainstream. Lab-grown ‘meat’ is a burgeoning industry which threatens to disrupt the conventional meat market, with reports suggesting 60% of our ‘meat’ intake will be from artificial sources by 2040. With taste-testers saying they can’t tell the difference – does this mean we can simply remove meat from our menus?
Harriet Boatwright, Sales and Marketing Manager at MEETinLEEDS believes the answer is a balancing act between offering choice, while proactively nudging delegates towards vegan options: “We’re fully motivated to be working towards a more sustainable future by reducing meat consumption and expanding our plant-based range for our visiting delegates at the University of Leeds. As a catering service with choice at the heart of it, while meat isn’t off the menu, we’re consciously marketing both vegan and vegetarian options.”
Pressured by event planners and delegates to prioritise vegan alternatives, venues such as University of Leeds are increasingly shouldering the responsibility of being a driver of change in the industry.
Tom Beauchamp, Development Chef at Sodexo, which caters venues including Emerald Headingley Stadium, St. James’ Park Newcastle and Everton Football Club puts this pressure down to a vocal millennial clientele, yet doesn’t believe this to be reflective of wider tastes: “There is definitely a growing demand for plant-based menus across business events, especially among younger generations. We could make menus completely plant-based, and while there is obviously a much larger proportion of guests nowadays who want these options, the overall majority of our guests want a choice of food that spans protein-based, plant-forward (70% plant-based or more) and fully vegan.”
He also makes the case for plant-based catering not always being the most environmentally-friendly option: “We consume a huge amount of avocados in the UK, though these are often intensively farmed under powerful lights and then flown across the world to the British diner. It is far more important to understand how the food you eat is produced. There are lots of UK farmers now using sustainable methods for livestock and this has to be taken into account.”
If approached with the same level of care and creativity as non-vegan dishes, Tom believes plant-based menus have the potential to satisfy delegates looking for maximum flavour with minimal environmental impact: “The challenge here is giving chefs the knowledge and freedom to experiment with the abundant plant-based ingredients at our fingertips.
“Whether this involves creating dishes with fruit and vegetables or meat and dairy substitutes – focus on enhanced texture and flavour. Dishes that have proved really successful for us range from a brilliant plant-based chicken-style burger in a vegan brioche bun with dairy-free ‘Gouda’, pickles and Veganaise, to a typical comfort-style dish like crispy fried jackfruit with honey and mustard sauce.”
However, Mark Ralph, Head of Food at Warwick Conferences doesn’t believe that delegates have lost their appetite for meat, seeing sustainable sourcing as the answer: “While we have seen a small increase in the popularity of vegetarian and vegan dishes, we haven’t seen a drop in requests for meat. For us, sustainability is key – purchasing from local suppliers ensures emissions from transporting the product are kept to a minimum.”
Veganism is a trend that clearly isn’t going away, the question is, can plant-based catering prove a delicious event menu solution to an overwhelming problem?