U of T chefs serve up new menu of plant-based dishes

·4 min read

Students living on two University of Toronto campuses will have more vegetarian and vegan options to choose from when school starts up again next month.

Tofu, tempeh and seitan took the place of animal protein in a two-day, in-person training program offered to chefs, sous chefs and cooks by the Humane Society International Canada this week. And in return, the university’s St. George and Mississauga campuses have promised to make 20 per cent more of their overall menu plant-based.

If the move leads the industrial kitchens scattered across residences and affiliated accommodation to use less meat and other animal products, it could help the university towards its goal of becoming carbon positive by 2050, meaning it will absorb more carbon than it emits.

“We cook for a living, so it's just elevating what we do to include different options,” explained Olivia Boutilier, who had just made tofu with homemade barbecue sauce and vegan ranch. Boutilier was in the process of making a butternut squash cake and spelt pasta when she spoke with Canada’s National Observer.

The executive sous chef at the 89 Chestnut residence downtown, one of the university's largest with nearly 1,000 students, said the Food Forward menu caters to a growing interest in plant-based options.

“People are trying to make more conscious decisions and eat healthier, so there's definitely more of a demand than in years past,” she said.

Chefs Amy Symington and François Murphy from HSI led Boutilier and the roughly two dozen other participants through an 84-page recipe book that produced a full buffet of appetizers, sides, salads, mains and desserts that did not include any animal products.

“It doesn't have to be boring now, there's so many different options,” said Symington, who has been vegetarian for 18 years and vegan for 12, and has noted a spike in interest in the last two years. “It doesn't have to be bland, it doesn't have to be pasta primavera, it can be black bean seitan, it can be waffles, pancakes, french toast. Anything and everything you can make plant-based.”

The menu they ran through and shared notes on this week, for example, included a sweet and smoky tempeh kale salad, chickpea omelette with hollandaise sauce, bechamel with spelt pasta and fresh herbs, Kung Pao chickpeas with sesame fried millet and mushroom lentil stroganoff with roasted potatoes and cabbage.

Symington said avoiding animal products helps the environment, a person’s health and animal welfare and that simple substitutions — such as chickpeas instead of tuna or chicken in a salad sandwich — can also help economically.

Around 7,500 students on the downtown campus have either an all-you-can-eat or pay-as-you-go meal plan, said Jaco Lokker, the university’s director of culinary operations.

“We’re a full house this year because students really want to be active and on campus,” he said.

Lokker couldn’t provide an exact figure on how much of the current menu is meat-free, but said it sought to align with Canada Food Guide principles that encourage people to eat mostly fruit and vegetables with grains and proteins that can include meat and eggs but also legumes, nuts and tofu.

A lack of knowledge about what ingredients can replace animal options is an obstacle to broader adoption of plant-based food, said Riana Topan, a campaign manager with HSI Canada, while sourcing can also be a challenge for large-scale buyers in a developing plant-based market.

People typically look at taste, affordability and convenience when making food choices, and so meat-free and plant-based options have to tick those boxes, she said.

It needs to be that “people are going to enjoy them and not feel like they're sacrificing anything by choosing them,” she said.

At Campus One, a U of T-affiliated apartment complex on College Street that houses 800 to 900 students, a policy of charging by weight means students can try plant-based options without getting stuck with a plate they don’t like, said Colin Wright, its executive sous chef.

He said the Food Forward training was going to be helpful in his kitchen.

“In years gone by, we used a lot of tofu, right?” he said. “But now we use more tempeh, seitan, and (we are) doing the dishes in a lot more fun way that students love.”

Morgan Sharp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer