Fine Dining, Vegan Style
Mount Nelson executive chef Rudi Liebenberg has a vegan epicurean option to suit every occasion. His plant-based posh-nosh treats include vegan breakfast buffets, vegan high tea, vegan bar snacks, vegan fine dining menus at the Lord Nelson restaurant and vegan chef’s table tasting menus.
Liebenberg says he has seen “a huge increase in requests for vegan food. Such requests have been rising steadily for about a decade but in the last year I would say that they have tripled”.
He points out that: “It is important not to think of vegans as homogenous. Motivations differ and I find increasing subdivisions within that broad grouping. As the vegan movement matures people are becoming better informed.
“For instance, if a vegan dessert made with almond milk is on the menu people now know to ask about provenance. They are concerned about reports of child labour on almond farms. It is not just about no meat any more – they want to be sure that as a chef I have done my due diligence for all aspects of the ethics of my ingredients.”
He is reluctant to put vegans into a gourmet ghetto. “My primary function as a chef is to create great tastes,” Liebenberg says. “There is no excuse for the vegan options to be less delicious than anything else I put out elsewhere on the menu. I want the vegan options to succeed on the same terms as non-vegan dishes. Good tastes are good and bad tastes are bad. There must be no get-out-of-jail-free card that says vegan food doesn’t have to be of the same standard. I want my vegan menu items to be so good that each one is appealing to vegans and non-vegans alike. All sorts of people should order the dish with the little ‘v’ in the margin because it is intriguing and exquisite.”
Liebenberg says the vegan movement has had an impact on eating habits across the carnivory curve too.
“Everyone is more conscious of the amount of protein they put on their plates and how that protein is created. The balance of plates is changing. People might not notice it but vegans have changed even the most committed meat eater.”
Some chefs find cooking for vegans limiting, but not Liebenberg. “I feel inspired, not thwarted, by the challenge,” he says. “I have always liked thinking outside the box – that is just my personality – so it is invigorating to take what could be a limitation and set it free. It is all about understanding the building blocks of taste and texture. It is the anatomy of a dish. Exploring alternative ways to create culinary art is invigorating. Vegan cooking keeps me on my toes and allows me to keep learning constantly – for instance, fermenting offers a distinct way of creating umami savoury flavours that is completely divorced from animal products.”
The chef smiles as he says: “Really, I am grateful for the challenge because the vegan experience has given me a whole new set of products and skills to play with. It is wonderful to be driven to find new ways of thinking about food.”
Anyone who has ever enjoyed the simple abundance of the Lord Nelson’s spring vegetable risotto with lemon and pea salad, the magnificent marinated pineapple carpaccio with vegan meringues at the kitchen-side chef’s table or brinjal biltong at the bar will be so glad the chef likes a challenge.