My life as an (almost) vegan restaurant critic

Its time to talk about vegetables with the same reverence usually reserved for nose-to-tail eating

In my game, as a restaurant critic, it would be more acceptable to come clean as a roaring alcoholic, a snob or a tax evader than reveal my actual clandestine secret. But here goes: my name is Grace Dent and I eat mainly vegan. By that I mean the guts of my diet are plants and veg. Im perpetually throwing back handfuls of nuts and seeds. A bit like a giant hamster, possibly, but with a better bra and lipstick. I say mainly as there are caveats and slip-ups. Plant-based is closer. Flexitarian is a word people use for me (as well as much ruder things when I appear in their restaurant, Im sure). But announcing youre flexitarian is a bit like coming out as bisexual. You wont get any prizes for picking your team and everyone on all sides will resent you for having your cake and eating it. Or having your egg-free raw cacao nib brownie in this case.

And I dont feel I fit any of these labels. Im just a woman who carries oat milk in my handbag, can tell you 10 good ways to scramble tofu and whose favourite primo in many fancy Italian restaurants is two or three contorni wedged together. I merely adore vegetarian food and have always preferred to eat things that didnt ever have a face. During the 80s, I was a militant vegetarian, fuelled by the Smiths Meat Is Murder and a deep affinity with the household cat, Sooty. Eighties vegetarians were a lonely, much maligned breed, exposed to frozen pub-lunch veggie lasagnes, prototype soy milk that floated on tea like a tanker spillage, and the pain of buying almost all edible items via postal order from Holland & Barrett. By the 90s, Id crept back to eating chicken. I mean, chickens are stupid, arent they, Id reason. They probably dont even notice theyre being killed. Then mince, then more. Convenience and laziness rather than an actual hankering for flesh brings about, for many of us, a heavy cognitive dissonance. But over the last decade, a thousand chefs have droned on at me about respectful nose-to-tail eating, happy pigs and all the other cloud-cuckoo-land phrases of modern farming, and it has began to irk me more.

Quick guide

Veganism in numbers

350%

Rise in the number of vegans in Britain from 2006-2016; 542,000 people said they were vegans in 2016.

168,000

Veganuary 2018 participants, of which 60% were under 35, up from 3,300 on its 2014 launch.

185%

Increase in vegan products launched in the UK between 2012 and 2016.

1944

The year the term vegan was coined by woodwork teacher Donald Watson. Rejected words include dairyban, vitan and benevore.

20%

Percentage of under-35s who have tried a vegan diet.

The truth is I love animals more than I love most humans. And, as I plod around the Lake District where I was raised, its been harder to meet my four-legged neighbours gaze in the fields where theyre being fattened. The packs of mischievous lambs scampering joyously. The curious cows who peer at me in my walking Lycra. There will be a moment when I betray them. Those damn cats I share a home with who wake me at 5am with a slapped paw to the face wanting company and an early breakfast. These dumb animals quite clearly have machiavellian needs, a dry sense of humour and evident thought processes. Dont even start me on my dogs. We do not as a planet deserve their greatness. So footage of Chinas Yulin dog meat festival ruins my week.

One can feel less conspiratorial in a thousand uncomfortable things scared animals in trucks, the Glorious Twelfth, slaughterhouse practices, veal and foie gras methodry when you simply start seeking out the vegetarian or vegan option more often. And start speaking up against it more. Swap some dairy out of your diet for Sheese, soy milk or silken tofu. Avoid dead things and choose the dish with morels, cep or charred broccoli. Stop believing that the vegetables on your plate have to be pointing at something brown and recently cognisant. Stop being so bloody British, Methodist and shut-minded about what is dinner.

photographed
photographed for Observer Food Monthly Short frill wrap dress, 180, Ganni, at libertylondon.com Vintage pearl earrings, 88, and vintage chain bracelet 88, both Gillian Horsup gillianhorsup.com Styling: Hope Lawrie Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Lancme and Tigi Photograph: Lee Strickland for the Observer

Eating plant-based makes really no impact on my career as a restaurant critic. I see this as my special skill as a critic, not a hindrance. I still won reviewer of the year at the London Restaurant Festival awards last year, regardless. Restaurants do not live and die by the rareness of their bavette steak or the crispness of their pork crackling and thank God, as many establishments cant pull that off. And if I was a nightmare to restaurant management before, nowadays Im worse. I wont be blindsided by tedious table-side speeches about the 12-year-old Galician cow youve imported, and the pretty Highland knoll where the stag was stalked. None of this makes up for a cold room, claustrophobic tables downwind of the loo, a dire ambience, begrudging service and, worst of all, a sleepy menu of chops and scallops that Ive seen 10,000 times before.

Nowadays, I want to see imagination and a willingness to cater to modern British diners of varying beliefs and cultures. I want chefs to get off their arses and learn how to titivate tofu and barbecue and shred jackfruit. I want Tredwells chef Chantelle Nicholsons spring pea and broad bean gnudi with tempura spring onions. I want Ravinder Bhogals cauliflower popcorn with Thai basil. I want Marianna Leivaditakis delicate, polenta-crusted aubergine in a slick of date molasses at Morito, Hackney Road. Give me the poached salsify and parsnip puree at Aiden Byrnes 20 Stories.

When I sit on that table of gargoyles on MasterChef waiting to judge whoever comes through the door, Im simply not that impressed by another plate of barely dead roe deer avec pommes noisettes all lying in a puddle of Bambis blood. So when on a recent MasterChef: the Professionals Matt Campbell served Gregg Wallace a raw, vegan cacao delice encased in a jerusalem artichoke rosti tuile, I knew this was a chef with a certain level of swagger. Chefs such as Campbell are brave and exciting to me because to even pepper a menu with the term vegan is to bang up against decades of culinary prejudice. This is a word synonymous with worthy, difficult diners and glee-free abstinence. Basically, its the Puritan aunt and uncle in Blackadder II who turn up demanding a raw parsnip for dinner and a spike to sit on. But the crowds at By Chloe, Farm Girl, CookDaily or at the Vevolution events arent like this at all. They are young, beautiful, vibrant, popular on Instagram, always out at dinner and, by and large, strictly vegan.

I dont set myself up as a saint. My very rough ethos is: if I have to taste a forkful of flesh as theres really no option then it isnt kryptonite. It wont kill me. I just do my very best, in that moment. And, besides, when Im reviewing for newspapers theres always, always someone at my table ordering the lamb chop who will use their rudimentary critical skills to communicate this is delicious. Anyone can describe a lamb chop. TripAdvisor is teeming with people two-finger typing the lamb melted in my mouth or worse still the lamb was cooked to perfection into the comment box, sure they are the next Jay Rayner. Almost any idiot can add flame to a chop and make it taste half decent. Thats why summer gardens are full of men poking at barbecues while feeling like Marco Pierre White.

Eating this way transformed and revolutionised my dining landscape. Instead of the usual hyped launches and cliquey events, I find myself in anarchist vegan cafes, Hare Krishna centres, Jain buffets and foraging-based cookery classes. I eat in painfully cool millennial wellness workspaces and Ghanaian-community-favoured local halls. Im up to speed on bleeding fake meats, aquafaba no-egg meringues, the best genres of Cornish sea kelp and the ins and out of crunchy, although vile-sounding, cheesy nutritional yeast.

All talk, of course, of living plant-based will inevitably turn to weight, health and fitness, which Ive always shied away from discussing. I dont want to be a role model or life lesson to anyone staring down at the bathroom scales of a morning. Personal weight gain and loss is complex and, for almost everyone, a very ongoing story. God forbid I ever stand sideways, beaming, in a pair of large trousers, one thumb in the baggy waistband, claiming I have the secret to being skinny. However, being mainly vegan over the past five or so years has certainly led to me having more energy, starting to run, catching fewer bugs and colds, and keeping my weight steady without dieting.

Of course, some days it feels like I am never more than five metres away from an argument about protein deficiency, the perils of missing vitamin B12 or how soya harvesting is the actual blight wrecking the planet. Like most people living my lifestyle, I have read up on nutrition furiously and make sure to balance things in a nerdy manner with an array of vitamins, pea protein and sometimes pill supplements. Its a great irony that the sort of people who niggle on at me about B12 and protein deficiency are generally the types who live on tinned Heinz spag bol and cans of craft beer, and can no longer see their own feet. But hey, you guys keep on being you. I wish you well. I sleep eight hours a night and feel healthier than I did aged 20. Argue as much as you like, Ive really got no beef.
Grace Dent is the Guardians restaurant critic

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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