Grace Dent

the Guardian’s restaurant critic

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 can’t pull that off. And if I was a nightmare to restaurant management before, nowadays I’m worse. 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 Nicholson’s spring pea and broad bean gnudi with tempura spring onions. I want Ravinder Bhogal’s cauliflower popcorn with Thai basil. I want Marianna Leivaditaki’s delicate, polenta-crusted aubergine in a slick of date molasses at Morito, Hackney Road. Give me the poached salsify and parsnip puree at Aiden Byrne’s 20 Stories.

When I sit on that table of gargoyles on MasterChef waiting to judge whoever comes through the door, I’m simply not that impressed by another plate of barely dead roe deer avec pommes noisettes all lying in a puddle of Bambi’s 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, it’s 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 aren’t like this at all. They are young, beautiful, vibrant, popular on Instagram, always out at dinner and, by and large, strictly vegan.

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. I’m 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. 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. It’s 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, I’ve really got no beef.

This is part of an article titled ‘My life as an (almost) vegan restaurant critic’, written by Grace Dent and appearing in the Guardian on Sun 22 Apr 2018 11.00 BST .