Why Peggy Chan Believes The Future Of Plant-Based Cuisine Is Normalisation
Being a herbivore is in vogue. Everywhere you look on social media, someone is touting the health, environmental and social benefits of a plant-based diet. This is, of course, a good thing. We've never needed to change how and what we eat more and adopting a plant-based diet is key to reducing your carbon footprint. The UN's August 2019 climate report urged world leaders to push for a global reduction in meat consumption to safeguard planetary resources. Yet despite the growing evidence supporting these claims, Hongkongers are now eating more meat and dairy than ever.
According to research done by Green Monday, Hong Kong's ratio of vegetarian restaurants to omni ones is low. The city has over 15,000 restaurants but fewer than 300 are vegetarian or vegan—a mere 2 percent. When it comes to practicing plant-based chefs, you'd be hard pressed to find more than a handful. This makes Peggy Chan a unique figure in Hong Kong's gastronomic scene.
Ever since the opening of Grassroots Pantry in a tiny cul de sac in Sai Ying Pun, and now with her new haute cuisine-leaning Nectar on Hollywood Road, Chan has been flying the sustainable, plant-based dining flag almost on her own for over seven years and since day one, she has used her role as founder-chef to tell a story about organic agriculture, sustainable food systems and zero waste cooking .
I recently sat down with Peggy to talk about the future of plant-based dining, where her culinary inspiration comes from and who inspires her.
Though at first reluctant to talk about the future, Chan believes in the coming years, the plant-based movement will become far less niche. "My mind is not into thinking about what's the next big thing," she says. “But what I do think about is normalising plant-based in the dining arena, whether it's a fast casual restaurant or a fine dining restaurant, or being able to say that 70% of the menu is completely plant-based."
This normalising requires a huge effort from chefs, who are the forefront of the food conversation as the first point of contact with consumers. But are up and coming chefs up to the task?
Chan is vocal about the lack of education and training when it comes to solving the major issues in our global food system today, from soil depletion to food waste to broader concerns around climate change and food security. "[Culinary school] curriculums are not up to date to reflect the current situation in the world. How do we get the next generation to solve certain issues that we're facing if they don't even know about the reality?"
Nutrition also matters to Chan, who is adamant that a key part of sustainability is that food should be nutritious, something that is often lacking in most restaurant food. "When you go to culinary school, they don't teach you about nutrition.They don't tell you that it is your job as a chef to feed people with good, nutritious food."
Her inspiration for creating Nectar's boundary-pushing dishes is rooted firmly in the ground. Chan is a tireless advocate for a produce-led food philosophy and feels duty-bound towards creative sustainability. "The farmers are my inspiration, they come to me with rare ingredients and new produce and items they can't sell." Her Zero Waste Banana Flour Cake, for example, was the result of a recent overabundance of local bananas, which the farmer then air-dried (peels and all) under the sun and milled into flour. "We're the first people to use it," she enthuses, and it's clear that working with unusual ingredients to tell her patrons a (sustainable) story is her gastronomic raison d'être.
When it comes to chefs she is inspired by, Chan has a definitive type, namely unpretentious women who are focused on championing and educating others. "My ultimate idol is Alice Waters," says Chan. The Berkeley-based Chez Panisse chef is an organic food pioneer, and through her Edible School Yard initiative, introduces sustainable food principles to students across the US. More regionally, she is a fan of Manila-based chef Margarita Fores, who Chan describes as "a great role model for female chefs," in large part because of "her humility and and her focus on building the next generation of sustainable chefs."
I ask Chan what she cooks on her own time and she tells me she does not cook much at home these days. "There's no time," she says—Chan works 18 hours a day. On the rare occasion that she makes herself a meal, it's dahl and rice. And what about dining out? During work hours, she mostly eats at the restaurant but when she can sneak out, her go-to comfort food is pasta from Posto Pubblico. And, with that, she's off to grab a warm bowl of penne at the veteran farm-to-table eatery before Nectar's lunch service.