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Hi and welcome to the first of the UCFF 2020 blogs.

This year we have decided to pick one of the topics that appear around the UCFF tree each month and focus on it, providing insight and opinion on said topic.

But before we start I guess we may need to explain the significance of the different headings. When Billie, John, Lee and I first sat down and had a long, hard, (sometimes emotional) talk about what the UCFF was all about. We decided that every event and content should focus on core values which we felt were relevant to our industry and today's chefs and foodservice professionals, whether they be Front of House, buyers, suppliers, producers, farmers, fisherman et al. Basically all the people we wanted to come to the festival and who played a part in our industry.

The topics we came up with were Development, Farming, Learning, Provenance, Sustainability, Trends, Taste and Seasonality. We then put those around our tree (which grows an apple for every year we hold the festival) to keep us focused.

Every year when we build the programme we check to make sure we’re ‘ticking the boxes’ in order to keep the festival as varied and relevant as it can be. I hope you agree that to date that’s exactly what we have done.

So to this month’s topic which is Trends, and being Veganuary it simply had to be one of the biggest trends to hit our industry in years, vegan and plant based food.

Now I cannot claim to be a vegan in any way shape or form and I am a confirmed, card carrying meat eater. However, working in Food Development for many years I can honestly say that I have never seen such a major trend and re-focusing of how we cook, prepare and think about food in years. The nearest thing I personally can liken it to (and I’m going to show my age here) is the rise of ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ which in my opinion was a defining moment in world cuisine, forcing many of us ‘old school’ chefs to re-think how we presented our food and more importantly how we prepared it, losing many of the classic, heavy roux and cream based sauces in favour of lighter ones, broths, reductions, oils and dressings. And adopting a more delicate approach to how we treated meat, fish and vegetables as well as the balance regarding the meat to veg ratio. ‘Meat and 2 veg’ piled high on plates became a thing of the past.

So what’s driving the free from animal product food movement? Is it animal welfare issues, health reasons, ethical or sustainable motives? I don’t think we can pin it down to one specific reason, I personally believe it’s all of the above plus the incredible reach of social media these days (incidentally another topic we will be covering at this year’s UCFF), whereby the trend has ‘gone viral’ and images of ‘dirty vegan’ street food, faux burgers and beautiful plant based creations can be found all over Instagram on a daily basis.

This is obviously a Macro Trend that isn’t going away anytime soon, when KFC and Burger King launch a ‘vegan’ option that has to tell you that it’s gone mainstream. Although Burger King have been heavily criticised for cooking the plant based Impossible Burger on the same griddle as the meat based ones. This in turn opens up another ethical debate. Should it be called vegan food or plant based food? Can a dish be classified as vegan if it is served from a kitchen which routinely use animal products? after all veganism is a way of life not just related to the food we eat. The definition of veganism from the vegan society is "A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."

Whatever your view on the ethics I personally as a chef have found the plant based phenomenon incredibly exciting. Having spent the last 10 years working in food development with fresh produce I was pretty well used to bringing out the best I could from fresh fruit and vegetables and making it a mission to get them centre of plate. But the range of ingredients and innovation coming through over the last 3 years has been incredible (and I have even learned to like tofu which for me was always the food of the devil!). Yes many of the core ingredients have been around for centuries such as tempeh, tofu and seitan, and would probably be no surprise to people who have been following a vegan diet for years, but in the west these are relatively new ingredients for most chefs to play with. I am ashamed to admit that I had never even heard of jack fruit until 3 years ago! but now features pretty regularly on food shows and workshops for customers along with tofu, banana blossom and nutritional yeast. So the wave of ‘new’ ingredients has been really interesting to work with and a learning curve for me (old dog, new tricks springs to mind) but always with the prime focus being on fresh, in season produce. We have a wealth of great fruit and vegetables, much of it home grown, available to us and, in my opinion, we shouldn’t lose sight of what is truly plant based cookery. Bringing the best out of a king oyster or shi-take mushroom will always be more preferable than relying on a readymade vegan steak to me.

Outside of commercial kitchens Food manufacturers have really taken the initiative, producing plant burgers that bleed, ‘fish’ fingers made from soya or gluten and ‘chicken’ nuggets that would pass the taste test of any 6 year old. Some reports are quoting that the global ‘meat substitutes’ market will be worth $6.3bn by 2023. For me though this really does enforce that the trend is being driven by the ‘flexitarian’ market, I would suspect that a true vegan wouldn’t want to eat a product that looked, smelt and tasted of meat? But I may be wrong.

UCFF is no stranger to the plant based diet and have, over the years, featured some great exponents of plant based cuisine such as Andrea Waters from Redemption Bars, Andrew Dargue from one of the original London vegetarian restaurants Vanilla Black and Eddie Sheppard from the Walled Garden, combined with some great producers and growers of fresh produce . I’ve no doubt we’ll be revisiting this topic in the future.

So whatever your view on plant based, vegan, flexitarian call it what you will, this trend represents an opportunity for us as chefs to continue to learn new techniques, adapt old ones and continually discover ingredients we aren’t necessarily familiar with. We never stop learning, we should never stop creating.

Book your tickets for UCFF 2020 here.

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