With Vegan November 2019 taking the UK by storm, we grilled nine vegan foodies on the real reasons they chose to adopt a plant-based diet.
It’s official: veganism is here to stay.
With plant-based diets on the rise in both big cities and smaller communities – there are now 600,000 vegans across the whole of Great Britain – the movement can no longer be overlooked.
But what are the real reasons that more and more people are committing to a meat-free lifestyle? Here, we ask nine food professionals about why they chose to commit to veganism…
Rachel Ama, author of Vegan Eats: Tasty Plant-Based Recipes for Every Day
I cut out dairy around 8 years ago which was a lot harder to do back then as there were so few replacements compared to now. But as soon as I saw how meat and fish ended up on my plate, I went vegan the next day. I’ve always loved animals and had pets, I just hadn’t made the association before between the meat I ate, and the animals I called pets until I saw the real journey and it broke my heart. The challenges for me were always social. I didn’t grow up with any vegan or vegetarian friends, so me being vegan made birthday dinners, gatherings and so on a little bit awkward - trying to find a vegan option or explaining why I didn’t want to eat the meat. I used to eat before I went out or make something to bring – eating out as a vegan is a lot easier now.
I travelled around South America, then road-tripped the States for 6 months which created a whole new love for food and cooking as soon as I got back home. Then shortly after I went vegan. I wanted to enjoy all the incredible food I’ve been eating but without meat, fish and dairy, and from there I just kept experimenting and my love of food grew and grew. You’ll find all my favourite recipes in my new book – there are 100 to chose from!
Valentina Fois, founder of Lele’s London
Lele’s London came before my commitment to veganism. I’d been working at Pop Brixton, where I met loads of inspiring young people opening their own cafes and restaurants. Then, very suddenly, my father died, which was an enormous sadness. I became very depressed, but it made reevaluate my life. I decided I had to give my time and attention to the right things. I went home and told my husband that I wanted to start a cafe. That was in July 2016… by October, we were open.
We started out as a vegetarian cafe and made the move to go fully vegan in December 2017. It’s been a real journey and incredibly fulfilling to have the opportunity to make an impact and promote veganism and ethical consumerism. It has been a personal journey of discovery as I’ve felt the need to inform myself better and look into suppliers. I am vegan for the animals and our environment. I liked eating meat but I love animals more, so the meat eating had to give!
Roxy Pope, author of So Vegan in 5
Before I went vegan, I always assumed I was taking the necessary steps to be as environmentally friendly as possible. I’d switch my lightbulbs to eco-friendly ones, cycle to and from work, take short showers, recycle as much as possible and buy second-hand clothes. What more could I do?
But three years ago, after watching countless documentaries and reading an array of articles, my partner and I decided to go vegan. It dawned on me that by far the most effective way to reduce my carbon footprint would be eliminating meat and dairy from my diet. The facts were staring me right in the face, and I couldn’t ignore them any longer. The only thing standing in the way of making this change was me.
At the time our social media feeds were full of overhead recipe videos showing off cheesy and meaty meals, but nobody was showcasing how amazing vegan food can be. So we decided to do it ourselves and show people how easy, fun and delicious vegan food can be. Pretty much overnight, we started testing, developing and filming recipes from our kitchen at home and that was the start of So Vegan.
Since then, I’ve learned so much more about the positive impact veganism has not just on the planet, but to animals and our health. So I’m now more motivated than ever before to spread our plant-powered message.
Rachel Hugh, co-founder of Vurger Co.
Neil (co-founder of Vurger Co.) and I turned Vegan owing to his personal health issues. Working in the city for years, Neil had suffered with chronic stomach problems for over 10 years that no test or doctor could resolve.
Back in 2016, after suffering for so long, we took a long overdue trip to California to celebrate our 30th birthdays. When we were there we couldn’t believe how intrinsic vegetables were to most main dishes – in fact, we were eating vegan the whole time and absolutely feeling better than ever. It was then that we realised you can still have amazing textures, flavours and fulfilling meals without having to include anything meat-related – vegetables can be the main event.
When we returned to London in 2016 and realised that we couldn’t get our favourite meal (a burger) that was completely vegan and celebrated vegetables, we felt compelled to create the business ourselves. From that moment onwards we have both been vegan in our personal lives and have started and grown a 100% vegan burger concept, from market stall to two sites in Shoreditch and Canary Wharf in two years. Our goal is to keep pushing the perceptions of what a vegan burger can be, how innovative we can be with vegetables and push the limits by showcasing how awesome veggies really are.
Clarisse Flon, head chef at Café Forty One
I have always been passionate about food. Patisserie is my favourite because of all the rules, techniques, history and skills required. I encountered a lot of difficulties at the start of my career as I was suffering from an (at the time undiagnosed) chronic digestive system illness. I was in a lot of pain, often fainting, or unable to stand. It made my job really challenging. As doctors couldn’t find a solution, I started doing some research on my own and developed a real fascination for nutrition and everything about food: where it comes from, how it’s made and its impact on our health and the environment.
All the research led me to eliminate a few things out of my diet, including gluten, before I went fully vegan. My health instantly improved and I went off of all medicine. At the time I was still working in patisserie and I noticed that gluten-free or vegan options were close to none. French patisserie to me focuses on highlighting and enhancing one ingredient or flavour and working on finding the right pairing of textures and tastes to let the raw material shine. This is what we do at Café Forty One, and myself and my team have worked hard to develop a vegan offering that would defy the usual stereotype around plant-based food. Our menu is fresh, seasonal and, I believe, different from anywhere else in London.
Aiste Gazdar, co-founder of Wild Food Café
At 19, after many years of asthma, hay fever, yearly bouts of tonsillitis, quarterly flus and many allergies, as well as the typical teenage intoxication, I went from eating junk food to eating organic, to vegetarian, then vegan. I felt better than I ever had. All my senses became clearer and sharper – I went from feeling continually congested to feeling full of life. It seemed like there wasn’t an area of my life that didn’t improve. I have been on the journey of plant-based exploration for the last 20 years and I am living wilder and rawer than ever, and feeling phenomenal.
Being vegan is a win-win situation and a no brainer for me. A significant pillar of my plant-based diet is wild plant food. I would say that going vegan is just a start – there is much more beyond what that word conveys, from empowering ourselves to learning about thriving on earth. Just as there are wilder varieties of animals, there are wilder and more potent characteristics in plant foods.
In my opinion, there isn’t a better way of sharing a more tangible and simple message of heartfelt hospitality than by serving delicious plant-based food. It fosters such an immediate bridge of connection and community, and is an excellent way to share our food vision. After several previous experiments working with culinary projects around the globe, we created our own food and wellbeing project in London. We launched Wild Food Café in Neal’s Yard in 2011, when raw and plant-based cuisine was still very much at the fringes of popular culture. Our dream was to make the café an oasis of delicious plant food and wellbeing in the centre of the city, serving the food that we truly enjoyed eating, but couldn’t really find. We now have two sites that are a dining destination to a broad spectrum of Londoners, omnivores and vegans alike.
Camilla Fayed, founder of Farmacy
I was inspired to turn vegetarian after the birth of my daughter. I then began to follow a fully plant-based diet after the birth of my son a few years later. I had researched that a plant-based diet could lead to increased energy levels, improved digestion and overall wellbeing. And since I’ve began following a 100% plant-based diet I do feel much more energised!
I think the most important thing to do before you move to a plant-based lifestyle is to ensure that you know the difference between ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’. Plant-based eating is a style of veganism. I believe in and promote the ethos that ‘food is medicine’ and therefore think that, separate to following a vegan diet, one should also try to eat as many natural, organic and whole plant-based foods as possible. We adopt this same ethos at Farmacy.
I try to avoid eating ‘junk foods’ that contain any kind of chemical or GMOs, even if they are vegan friendly. These don’t contain the same health benefits as natural foods and so don’t tend to make you feel as great when you eat them. A healthy and nutritious lifestyle does not co-exist with chemicals and pesticides.
Last year we cultivated our very own Farmacy Kitchen Garden, a biodynamic plot of land in Kent, that grows fruit, vegetables and herbs for the restaurant. The garden initiative has been hugely educational for the whole Farmacy team. Having harnessed their understanding of provenance and biodynamics, there are now many ingredients on the menu that have been replaced with more sustainable alternatives.
Environmental concerns and animal welfare are also huge motivational factors for me. I would love to see increasing numbers of plant-based dishes on restaurant menus throughout London to combat the huge amount of environmental waste caused by the global meat industry and spare the lives of millions of animals. I would also like to see a shift back to restaurants using 100% local suppliers for produce.
At Farmacy we are supporters of using education and information to create conversations on wellness, conscious eating, responsible local food growing and sustainability. As such, we work hard to represent good practice not just by creating nourishing and healthy plant-based dishes, but also by making sure that we way in which we create and serve them, is as kind to the planet as possible.
Alicia Cooper, Vibrant Vegan Co’s development chef
I decided to go vegan two years ago. Having trained as a nutritionist at CNM it felt like the right decision for my health, as well as for the environment around me. At that time, vegan recipes and meals weren’t readily available, so I decided to experiment with different plant-based ingredients. I started developing free-from recipes for retailers and restaurants across London. The response was fantastic and inspired me to go totally plant-based in both my personal and working life. I’m now the development chef at Vibrant Vegan Co., where I continue to experiment with new flavours and ingredients to create super delicious and nutritious vegan ready-meals.
Sophia Joannides, co-owner of Bluebell Coffee & Kitchen
I learned a lot about food, health and nutrition while travelling trough Australia in 2014. I met so many wonderful and knowledgeable people that really opened my mind to a whole new culinary world.
By the time I moved back to Swansea I had already begun eating less and less animal products, but I tried going vegan for one month as part of the PETA challenge in September 2015. I carried this on until October and I felt amazing. My head felt clearer, I had so much energy and I felt so much lighter. My skin was clearer and I just felt great.
I started reading an inspiring book called The China Study, which pinpointed the health advantages of sticking to a plant-based diet. The final straw for me was when, on Christmas day, our beloved golden retriever Stella died suddenly from an undetected tumour on her kidney. I was devastated but thought, ‘how can I be so upset about one animal dying when so many are all over the world, for people to eat?’.
I made a decision as of 1 January 2016 that nothing that came from an animal would ever pass my lips. ‘But what about Halloumi?’ my family asked in dismay (being proud Greeks!). But I’ve had my fair share of Halloumi, Camembert and all other cheeses. They wouldn’t add anything to my life, and they weren’t something I wanted anymore.
I didn’t want to cause any pain or suffering to any living thing. This was my personal choice and I feel so much better for making the decision.
Pictures: Provided / Jack Orton / Holly Pickering