Over the last few years, there has been a significant shift in eating habits as more and more of us move towards a plant-based diet. Right now, the sector is one of the fastest-growing within the food industry; according to Mintel, in the UK alone, sales of meat-free products increased by 40 per cent between 2014 and 2019 and are set to reach £1.1bn by 2024. Analysts report that this rise in demand is down to consumer belief that plant-based foods are a healthier option. Focusing on plant-based ingredients is also a major part of the Chefs’ Manifesto, set up in 2017 to address the issues our food system faces and drive positive change. We discuss conscious cooking with founding member Chantelle Nicholson, chef owner of two sustainable restaurants in London and author of the vegan recipe book ‘Planted’.
‘I often get asked why I wrote a plant-based cookbook,’ says Chantelle. ‘It was borne out of the fact that when I wanted to put plant-based dishes on the menu at Tredwells, my restaurant in Covent Garden, I couldn’t find a resource. I created all these recipes and I wanted to share them.’ The menu at Tredwells – which is over 50 per cent plant-based – includes staples such as miso roasted cabbage with miso aioli and crispy kale, followed by warm peanut butter, peanut caramel and dark chocolate. ‘It became important that my cooking showcases what’s seasonal. Rather than preach, I’m trying to subconsciously educate people through delicious plant-based dishes that stand up and have a place in their own right’.
Growing up on New Zealand’s North Island, seasonality was something that Chantelle took for granted. ‘I didn’t realise how lucky I was until a long way down the line, but I grew up being able to go out into the garden and snip some salad leaves for dinner. We ate seasonally, we had to; asparagus was only available when it was in season so we would really look forward to eating it,’ she recalls. ‘I also had family with a stone fruit orchard so I was exposed to how amazing things can taste when they are grown well, picked as they are super ripe, and eaten straight off the tree.’ She would often bake treats, such as blueberry muffins, for her school lunchbox but it wasn’t until she was at university studying law and commerce that she got a weekend job in a local cafe and started cooking for real.
Although she loved being in the kitchen, her parents encouraged her to give law a try; so, she got a job and passed her bar exams. Eighteen months later, she decided on a whim to enter Chef Search, a two-day amateur cooking competition run by Gordon Ramsay. She made it through to the final – and it changed her life. One of the judges was Josh Emett, head chef at The Savoy Grill by Marcus Wareing, who offered her a job. ‘I handed in my notice the next day, got a visa and moved to London,’ she says. ‘Looking back to my first lunch service as a commis chef, I’m very thankful that I was as naive as I was. I started on pastry prep, but I felt like a fish out of water; grouse was on the menu and I didn’t even know what it was.’
Two years later, she was asked to join Petrus, Marcus Wareing’s two Michelin-star restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel (now called Marcus). ‘At The Savoy Grill, everyone on the team was quite close, but Petrus was a very different kitchen,’ she continues diplomatically. So, she took off her chef whites and began to work on the operational side of the business, as well as co-writing six of Marcus’s cookbooks. She went on to open The Gilbert Scott restaurant in the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel as general manager, before becoming Group Operations Director. Her final step towards sustainable cooking came in 2013, when she suggested a new restaurant to Marcus on a vacant site she had spotted in Covent Garden. That went on to become Tredwells, which she took sole ownership of in late 2017.
Her plant-based approach partly came from a desire to cater for diners with dietary requirements. ‘I wanted those dishes to be on the menu, rather than an afterthought that somebody had to ask for,’ she explains, circling back to seasonality as another key factor. ‘When I moved to London, I remember being excited because for the first time, I could get pretty much any fresh produce all year round. Then gradually I realised that this means there can be a lack of understanding about where things come from, and when. It just muddles everything up.’ For her, ultimately, it’s about being aware of what we are putting into our bodies and how that affects the planet. ‘If we look at it from a nutritional point of view, there are huge benefits to eating plants but also to be able to support the produce we grow in the UK is important.’
Consciously thinking about what we eat is also behind this month’s Quintet x Capture Veggie Lunch Challenge. The Capture app (often labelled the ‘FitBit for carbon reduction’) helps individuals track, reduce and offset their carbon footprint. As part of this, Capture for Teams, allows companies to understand the average emissions of their workforce, as well as providing leaderboards to help colleagues compete to be the most environmentally friendly. For the Quintet-wide challenge, employees are encouraged to eat one vegetarian meal per day and log it in the app. The logic goes that reducing the quantity of meat in our diet also reduces personal carbon emissions, due to the heavy carbon footprint of animal agriculture. Each vegetarian meal is logged in the app, making is possible to calculate the total carbon savings made by Quintet staff throughout April.
Chantelle’s own food concept is pushed even further at All’s Well, a pop-up hyper-seasonal, zero-waste restaurant in Hackney that opened last October, just before the second lockdown. ‘It’s a passion project in some ways,’ she says of the space which is smaller than Tredwells and feels like part of a community. ‘I had a team of people that I wanted to provide for and it was a way of focusing on something positive. We put it together in two weeks, without the need for everything to be perfect.’ The imaginative menu includes dishes such as a snack of crispy potato skins and ‘scallopolata’ - a creamy taramasalata-style dip made from scallop roe that would otherwise be thrown away. It’s been such a success (in between UK lockdowns) that she has extended the lease and plans to re-open in May 2021.
The premise of both restaurants falls naturally in sync with the Chefs’ Manifesto. Now a community of over 700 chefs from 77 countries, it is a framework that outlines how individuals can contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals through simple, practical actions in their kitchens. ‘I wanted to be a part of the Manifesto because everything in it I believe in and was doing anyway,’ says Chantelle. ‘It has connected chefs from around the world who face different challenges. We can discuss them, and bounce ideas off each other.’
For Chantelle, a Richer Life is a joyful one – whether that comes through food, people, work or family. And her sustainable vision isn’t just focused on the food system. She is also a board member of ReLondon which aims to improve waste management and transform the city into a low-carbon circular economy. ‘Sometimes issues around climate change can feel like a minefield but I think every little helps. Being conscious of food waste and how much you throw away – for instance, if you don’t use the leaf on a cauliflower, why not? As well as repairing and repurposing things we own, can all make a big difference.’
Read more about Chantelle Nicholson at www.chantellenicholson.com