“Vegan and vegetarian cuisine is getting better and better,” enthuses chef Matt Nutter, owner of Stockport-based award-winning vegan restaurant The Allotment. “There is no rule book or recipe book for what we do. We are creating new classics every day.”
Nutter set up The Allotment two years ago, following success with a series of local pop-ups. “When we did these [pop-ups], we gave ourselves four weeks to sell out Saturday nights and we sold out within a week. So, by the time we opened The Allotment, we knew we’d be successful.”
With veganism and vegetarianism currently on-trend, Nutter hopes that this is not simply a flash in the lifestyle pan, but acknowledges it is difficult to assess whether the trend is temporary or an important way of life for a growing number of people.
“Paleo has come and gone. The Carnivore diet, the same thing,” he says. “There has to be a health balance for people. If everyone were to try veganism once a week – for example, meat-free Mondays – it would be good for the environment. I hope it’s not just a huge fad.
“In my experience, people either get enthralled by veganism and really want to make a difference. Or, they pursue it and see a huge difference in their health and their bodies. Others will try it and find out it’s not for them. But there are more and more new vegan products out on the shelves now.”
‘A passion about cooking’
Nutter’s own route into veganism was a gradual evolution, initially inspired by his vegetarian mother, who instilled in him “a passion about cooking”. At 19 and unemployed, he started out working in a local Harvester restaurant, but quickly decided it was not for him. “I wanted real cooking,” he says.
For four years, he had a summer job in France cooking at a summer camp. “We were cooking for 200 people at a time, but it was really fresh produce. Then, back in the UK, I trained as a commis chef, chef de partie and a sous chef, and worked in many places.”
The vegan pattern was set following a trip to India with two vegan friends and gradually increasing consumption of vegan food. On return to the UK, he simply had “no money to eat meat”, he says.
This, coupled with conversations with some ultramarathon runners who were eating plant-based food and told him it meant they could run within an hour of eating, brought a realisation of the health benefits of a vegan diet – and the die was cast.
In terms of veganism and vegetarianism, Nutter is keen to stamp his own mark, as he acknowledges that both the image of being a vegan and some of the food generated in the past were not necessarily translated into a positive message for the sector.
“There has been a bit of a stigma about vegetarianism, with people associating it with the hippy image of someone like Neil from [1980s TV series] The Young Ones. But food is changing so fast at the moment.
‘Difficult to go back to meat’
“We’re getting away from pasta in a cream sauce and there is so much more to veg than we think. I’d find it really difficult to go back to meat. When you cook a steak, you cook a steak, but with vegetables, it’s all about the possibility of what that mushroom or that onion could be.”
While admitting there can be a variety of technical challenges with vegetables, Nutter believes this is where The Allotment comes into its own. “That is one of the problems with plant-based food – making sure it’s not just mush on the inside and getting good, solid textures out of vegetables.”
He is approaching veganism as a fine-dining experience, influenced by French cuisine, creating dishes such as oyster mushrooms, pan-fried with ginger, garlic and a touch of ghost chilli, accompanied by a fresh raw carrot and apple salad with mint. Desserts can include a beetroot-based number, which he says resembles a sticky toffee pudding, or a hibiscus meringue, using hibiscus tea for example.
While Nutter says some of his favourite cuisines are Indian and Thai, there is an increasing French influence to his dishes. “I am trying to move away from just the concept of a ‘curry’. I try to make my dishes as different as possible and get as much flavour as possible from the vegetables themselves rather than just use spices.”
Four-fifths of the produce he uses is local and he says this is important to extract maximum flavours. As such, he is stopping short of using plant-based burgers from the likes of Beyond Meat, which he feels are more for the mainstream market than his fine-dining experience.
Manchester Food and Drink Awards
The Allotment’s success has been vindicated by Nutter winning Chef of the Year at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards last year, followed by CityLife Awards naming it the 2018 Restaurant of the Year. He says these accolades have given the restaurant “a massive kick in the right direction”.
“I would love to see more vegan restaurants taking root across the UK, but done by professional chefs,” he adds, but does not have plans to launch any more venues himself. “I don’t like the idea of opening 10 restaurants and finding that other chefs running them don’t turn out to be up to your standards.”
In the chef world, he believes there is a need to acknowledge the demand for veganism and vegetarianism, and respond accordingly. “The message to young chefs is you can always transfer your skills … put away your morals regarding meat and just learn … there is so much you can learn from the basics.
“There are not many plant-based cooking schools, but in 10 years’ time, I believe there will be a huge number of vegan and vegetarian places to eat. For young chefs who don’t plan to cook vegan food … well, they need to rethink, as it’s going to be a must – like having a couple of years on a pastry section.”
An Authentic frozen range
Matt Nutter is working with family-owned frozen food firm The Authentic Food Company (TAFC) to help it develop a frozen vegan food range.
The chef is working with the firm as a consultant, with the original target of launching the range into grocery and foodservice this summer.
“We are still at the development stage, but we’re cracking on,” says Nutter. “We’ve got a few things that are popular in the restaurant, such as Cauliflower Hot Wings or Beetroot Meatballs. When TAFC approached me, I was very excited, as I had wanted to start getting into ready meals for friends and family.”
TAFC supplies major supermarkets and thousands of restaurants across the UK and Europe. Managing director Nik Basran says: “Many customers come to us with requests for free-from or vegan products, as health is high on the agenda and there is a growing demand to meet.
“This partnership marks the first step on our vegan journey, which we anticipate will continue to grow for years.”