Grab-and-go just got virtuous. Emma Bartley heads out in New York, London and Berlin to see how good it can get
Deep-fried in a crunchy, seasoned batter and served with skinny fries, coleslaw or mac ’n’ cheese, it looks like the perfect fried chicken. Since Temple of Seitan opened its doors in July, Londoners have been literally lining up for it. But no animals were harmed in the making of London’s hottest fast food: the menu here is tasty, indulgent and entirely vegan.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before vegan food got dirty. An estimated one million Americans and 500,000 Brits are now eating a solely plant-based diet, and Soho House venues around the world are responding to demand. “Our club menus should always have one vegan starter, one vegan main course and one vegan salad or pasta dish, plus one vegan dessert,” says UK director Tom Collins.
Something that our chefs are learning from vegan chefs like Amy Chaplin, who is working with the team in New York, is that vegan doesn’t have to mean raw. It doesn’t even have to be virtuous, says Patrick O’Shea, who set up Temple of Seitan with his wife, Rebecca McGuinness. “Vegans do miss things like fried chicken, and crave it as a treat,” he says. “My wife’s been vegan for 10 years but before that she was a chicken fiend. She even worked in KFC as a teenager.”
The team mixes seitan with tofu and herbs for ‘chicken’ and paprika and salt for ‘bacon’. But this meat-textured wheat protein needs to be rinsed endlessly and rested for several hours, making it process-heavy. As a result, Patrick is struggling to keep up with demand. “At the moment we’re selling out most days. It’s been unbelievable.”
Even more of a phenomenon is by CHLOE, a grab-and-go concept with branches in New York and LA, dreamt up by the vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli (who talked about vegan treats for a Soho Beach House Miami event in February). Here, the bestseller is the guac burger, a patty made with sweet potato, quinoa and black beans, topped with smashed avocado, salad, chipotle aioli and jalapeño corn salsa.
Samantha Wasser is by CHLOE’s co-founder and president. “The key to our success has been that we don’t make vegan food for vegan people; we make delicious dishes that are made fresh and also happen to be vegan,” she says. “We don’t try to mimic flavours with fake products but instead use ingredients such as beans, legumes and nuts to create satisfying burger patties, nut cheeses and sauces.”
US chefs in particular seem to be warming to the creative challenge posed by indulgent vegan treats. Take the recent Baltimore Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown, where everything from almond milk to pumpkin and sweet potato were used to try to get vegan mac ’n’ cheese tasting, and feeling, exactly right.
For Manuel Trevino, executive chef of by CHLOE, the holy grail is creating a passable vegan frankfurter. “I’d love to find the best way to do a vegan hot dog,” he says. “Finding the right ingredients instead of automatically going for a meat substitute – we’ll get there!” And when he does, we’ll eat it.