Picture curtesy of http://www.gauthiersoho.co.uk/home.php
For most people, including many chefs, fine dining is synonymous with a nice cut of meat. However, at Gauthier Soho, with its focus on vegetables and a completely vegan tasting menu, this concept has been turned on its head. This is reflective of Chef Alexis Gauthier himself, who has been vegan since 2016, making him a rarity in the world of Michelin-starred chefs. I met him at his restaurant to chat to him about his decision to become vegan: what it is like to be vegan in the meat-based world of fine dining, and his “mission” to spread veganism.
Being vegetarian (mostly vegan, actually) myself, I asked him the question we all get asked: why did he decide to become vegan? Apparently, it all started with a French book called Antispéciste:
“It challenged the idea that we will be anything other than one big specimen this planet; and that there is no reason why we should be able to survive and thrive by stopping the life of another living person on this planet, whether it’s an animal. And when I finished the book I said ‘Wow, what have I been doing for the last 40 years of my life? I never really thought about that.’ [...] It’s supported by some really rational reasons, studies and especially the 2012 Cambridge Declaration of consciousness. That there is proof that animals have cognitive facilities and they have feelings, they feel fear, love, compassion, struggle, they get hungry, they get happy. And now we are sure of that it will be crazy for us to continue eating animals without any guilt.”
From the moment he put down the book, Alexis never touched an animal product again. “Never. Never ever, ever ever ever.” While he now believes that his is the natural human diet, there was a time when he looked at meat as a way to express his creativity as a chef: “It was like using the correct knife, using the correct cut of meat.”
When I press him on this, asking if his diet limits him, he emphatically argues that for him, it was actually the opposite, liking his transition to veganism to “discovering another planet”. It has allowed him to apply traditional methods of French cooking to plants, which is “wonderful, halfway through your professional career to be able to reinvent the way you think”.
When I asked him if he has any recommendations for anyone attempting their own vegan cooking, he recommends “a lot of different spices. This is something I wasn’t aware of before; spices and anything that bring acidity and sweetness [...] will be the most important basic ingredients. After that, just bring seasonal vegetables into the mix and try to be creative around that”.
Nevertheless, Alexis also acknowledges that the kind of cooking he does at Gauthier would not have been possible ten years ago, as customers would have considered a fine dining experience without meat bad value for money, especially in a meat-heavy society such as England, where Alexis believes that since the Industrial Revolution, food is regarded predominantly as fuel, rather than an expression of someone’s creativity. Alexis sees this as a challenge “to create something delicious and that people want to come back to”.
At Gauthier, customers pay for his ingenuity, which is restricted to plants as Alexis doe not “allow any creativity around meat or fish” in his kitchen. Taking things even further, he is actually planning on making his restaurant fully vegan in the next 12-16 months.
Yet, even in his own kitchen, Alexis is still an oddity, stating that he is the only one that is fully vegan. His staff might think, eat, and cook vegan, but only while in the restaurant. Not surprising, perhaps, considering that when I ask him how fellow chefs cooking at his level reacted to his diet change. They were a little perplexed, he says, “why someone like [him] would have turned vegan. It’s almost unthinkable.” While they listen to him when he speaks about veganism, he does not think they are willing to take the risk of introducing more vegan dishes to their menus and are worried they might lose business.
However, Alexis thinks the opposite would happen, and feels that he was the first to jump onto a business opportunity he considers the future. There are not many vegan fine dining options, and he fully intends to stay one.
As much as he would like to see more fine dining establishments follow his lead, Alexis actually thinks that fast food giants such as McDonald’s could make the biggest impact in reducing meat consumption: “When was the last time you went to McDonald’s for the quality of their meat? [...] I can tell you that they are just waiting; [...] they would change their production system overnight [to meat substitute burgers]. Because it will taste as good, but there will be no meat and it will be so much cheaper. It would be so much better for the planet.” That is not to say that Alexis thinks meat is inherently bad, he does acknowledge that a lot of farmers are very concerned about animal welfare. Yet he does think that large-scale meat production is a problem that could be avoided with meat alternatives, which, according to him, taste better than cheap meats like you would be served in fast food chains.
For those concerned about their protein intake should they move to a vegan diet, he says not to worry: “You know the animals get their protein from plants so you really only get second-hand protein.” Legumes such as chickpeas for example, are very high in protein.
Alexis sees a transformation coming. To him, it is not about a radical change, but about making people consider vegan options in their everyday life, like switching to dairy-free milk. Many of his customers say they now only eat meat occasionally, maybe once a week. “Every day more changes are happening and we are just a little part of that in our gastronomic tower.” He is already seeing a change in places like Los Angeles, where “the new, [trendy] restaurants are plant-based, all of them”. Many of his customers come in with a partner or friend that is vegan, “so they just go with the flow” and opt for the vegan menu too. The usual reaction is one of surprise, with people realising “oh wow, I can live on that”. For Alexis, this is “Mission accomplished”.
If you are thinking of becoming vegan, he recommends to “find a book or something that will make you realise it’s not natural to feed off death. Once you come to that conclusion, you can succeed. Just [think] about the fact that you are eating a piece of flesh. A living being.” Alexis is not trying to shame anyone about their diet, he is simply very passionate about his diet and mission to spread veganism. He is convinced that everyone will eventually come to the same conclusion he has: veganism is the best way to live, it is the future, and “the future is bright [...]. Really, really bright.”
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova