There are some restaurants in the world that few people will ever visit, that could be because they think they are pretentious and pointless, because they can not afford to or simply don't want to spend huge amounts of money on a meal, or because it's virtually impossible to get a booking. These places, like Noma, El Celler de Can Roca, or The Fat Duck, are restaurants that hold three Michelin stars and top the 'World's best' list.
You might not have heard of New York based Eleven Madison Park, to be honest I hadn't until a few days ago, but it has it's place on that list, and it has just announced that on it's post-Covid reopening the entire menu will be plant based.
We've written more than once recently about why meat, and beef in particular, is so much less environmentally sustainable than plant based foods, and it seems like there is a real change happening in the world as people choose to, or are led to, eat less of it. Just last week one of the biggest recipe websites in the world announced that they were not publishing any new recipes including beef, more and more well known fast food chains are introducing meat-free options, and now a $330 dollar menu restaurant is going plant based.
Some people might be tempted to dismiss this as a marketing ploy, as a way to stand out and be more noticed, rather than a genuine change of philosophy, but these excerpts from the personal letter from Chef Daniel Humm that currently dominates the restaurant's website and explains the thinking behind the change of direction really doesn't make it feel that way:
"In the midst of last year, when we began to imagine what EMP would be like after the pandemic – when we started to think about food in creative ways again – we realized that not only has the world changed, but that we have changed as well. We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways.
We use food to express ourselves as richly and authentically as our craft allows – and our creativity has always been tied to a specific moment in time. In this way, the restaurant is a personal expression in dialogue with our guests. [...] With that in mind, I’m excited to share that we’ve made the decision to serve a plant-based menu in which we do not use any animal products — every dish is made from vegetables, both from the earth and the sea, as well as fruits, legumes, fungi, grains, and so much more."
"I find myself most moved and inspired by dishes that center impeccably-prepared vegetables, and have naturally gravitated towards a more plant-based diet. This decision was inspired by the challenge to get to know our ingredients more deeply, and to push ourselves creatively. It wasn’t clear from the onset where we would end up. We promised ourselves that we would only change direction if the experience would be as memorable as before."
"It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community. A restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate. We are thrilled to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine while deepening our connection to our homes: both our city and our planet."
I think that the decision and direction that Humm and his team are taking is based on the desire to set a genuine example about how high end food can be more sustainable. Even if it isn't though, what difference does it make anyway, the food that many of us will dismiss as wasteful or pretentious, or might only dream of being able to experience, trickles down and diffuses. In much the same way as Formula 1 race engineering influences future road cars, or runway fashion informs the following seasons high street shops, so it is with food, what these kind of restaurants do will affect the mid-range, and fast-food sectors too.
More sustainable food choices being in the public eye, and on restaurant plates at any level, has to be a good thing for all of us.
Oh, and in just case you noticed that I've repeatedly using the term 'plant based' but never vegan, it's only because the restaurant will still be serving honey and milk with coffee and tea.