Bruno Loubet: Foraging, Zen Buddhist monks and redefining beauty

Jacqueline Culleton interviews the great plant-based pioneer Bruno Loubet, whose restaurant, The Grain Store, led the way for many other chefs who were interested in a different way of cooking

In your opinion, what are the biggest issues that will impact the way we cook/eat in the future?

People don’t want to accept that meat is a huge problem. It’s easy to miss now, but if you look for it, you will see that it is one of the biggest problems of humankind. In the future it will be even worse and more well-known.

The problem is — everyone grew up with it. Everyone loves meat; men in general think it’s good for protein and muscle mass. Children grow up with this way of thinking. We have huge corporations pushing the meat industry — the amount of money and power that is behind it is massive.

Plant protein is processed much quicker by the human body and is much more effective.

That’s why I said from day one that at the Grain Store we would build dishes that look and taste great where you can get protein in different ways.

When it comes to the subject of protein specifically, what do you find to be the most compelling case for changing the way we think about meat/dairy?

Meat damages everything — our health, the planet….there are so many issues attached — water usage, deforestation, transportation of the meat, ethics…the list goes on.

And it’s so cheap for the damage it causes — I don’t understand how a kilo of beef can be £9 when you need 15,000 litres of water to produce it and who knows how much petrol to transport it across the world! It should be a luxury, eaten every two weeks and bought from a fantastic farmer who makes a fair wage from it so doesn’t need to produce lots of low quality meat.

Health is a really big one. You see people in Japan who are over 100 years old and are eating a plant-based diet. I know a monk who is 65 years old who looks no older than 35 — he’s eaten plants all of his life. It’s just better for us. For a big part of my life I ate meat. I’ve managed to slow the ageing process at least!

We also need to rethink our idea of beauty. A simple carrot on a plate can be beautiful; not meat, which died to be there.

What do you think the role of a chef is in changing the food habits of the public?

I think it is huge. In my profession, you can eat meat every day. Working in top restaurants, you get the best produce from all around the world. You learn so much about meat and the techniques used to cook it.

I saw vegetables as playing second to meat. Think of the amount of restaurants that have a big hunk of meat, maybe two different kinds of sauce and then one tiny little carrot to garnish!

When I decided to start the Grain Store, I did a lot of obsessive research, looking at every kind of cooking from around the world for inspiration. I started to think about fermentation; the spices used with kimchi; the fact that they wrap food in leaves in New Zealand and cook them in the ground for moisture. I took an experimental approach to my food and learnt so much.

I realised that even with the best classical training, I knew nothing. I started realising that eating meat was a big problem, and that the way that I had eaten as a child was far better than how I was eating now! I realised that everything was going in the wrong direction, and I wanted to make a change.

At the beginning of the Grain Store, when plant-based cooking was more niche, people were often dragged to the restaurant by their vegetarian other-halves, thinking the food was going to be rubbish. Then they would eat it, love it, and book a table for the next week.

The Grain Store attracted a lot of vegans, vegetarians, and people with allergies, but our customer base was very diverse because we have showed people that you can eat less meat on a plate and more plants and not compromise on taste, texture or appearance.

We need to get past the misperception that vegetables are cheap and not worth a main meal. It takes a lot more work and care to get a vegetable dish tasting really delicious, and good vegetables cost more. Meat should be more expensive than it currently is; it’s been artificially made cheaper by the food industry than it should be.

Which chefs do you look to for inspiration? Specifically when it comes to great plant-based cooking, who inspires you?

My love of plant-based cooking was a gradual realisation — I think it had always been with me but I just didn’t know. My childhood had a lot to do with it, and I do think that educating children about food is so important. If chefs manage to convince parents, then that trickles down to children.

I was always interested in gardening and farming; when I was growing up, we grew or foraged all of our vegetables. If we wanted mushrooms, we went to go pick them. If we wanted wild salad, we went to the vineyard. Everything we needed was provided by our surroundings.

Our meals would be quite varied and based around what was available that day. We would sit down to many little bowls filled with things like wild fennel tops, mushrooms, a few eggs, crusty bread. It was poor people food, but I now realise it was very good for us!

Nowadays, children (and the adults they are growing into) have very little connection to their food and the natural world, so they then have very little interest in what is going on in their plate.

Stephanie Alexander, the Australian chef, really inspires me. She founded the Kitchen Garden Programme in Melbourne where they go into primary schools and teach children about food. If you see how things grow you have a completely different approach to it — much more respect.

We all need to work more seriously on making plant-based dishes more interesting and tasty. We really did a lot at the Grain Store; take our Chilli con veggie. We stewed the vegetables with ground mushrooms and spices for hours, and added a little chocolate at the end. We used to have people complaining that there was meat in it! It was so rich in flavour, and in many people’s minds that is not possible without meat. But it is.

Dan Barber is a great role model too; his whole business is connected to the land it is situated in and is about making sure it reaches its full potential, not harming it. Wasted, the pop-up in London, is a fantastic idea. We are told that the green part of leeks is not good — the reality is it just doesn’t fit into supermarket packaging, and it could be seen as the most flavourful part! Same goes for broccoli stalks, the bottom of the lettuce….there’s all sorts of things you can do with these to make them delicious.

Simon Rogan is doing a lot to make vegetables as exciting as meat at top restaurants, thinking about the colour, texture and flavour.

Then there is a Zen Buddhist monk who is based near south Korea, Jeong Kwan. She cooks the most beautiful food you’ve ever seen, all plant-based. She starts from a completely different place from us, showing us that it’s the way you see life that then shapes your food choices. We can change the way that we view the world, and eat food, and it can be very enlightening.

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