With its focus on sustainability and organic produce, Peggy’s hip Sheung Wan restaurant embodies the essence of the vegetarian lifestyle in 2018. In the six years she has been running it, Peggy has not only made Grassroots Pantry one of Hong Kong’s most imaginative vegetarian eateries, but also expanded its role to that of a workshop for plant-based experimentation.
“This is one of the most pivotal places to have put vegetarianism in Hong Kong on the map,” says David. “Peggy has really been a game changer.”
See also: Less Is More With Peggy Chan
So has he. David is the founder of Green Monday, a social venture that addresses animal welfare, environmental issues, health and climate change through a number of innovative projects, including working with restaurants and schools to help them to incorporate green options into their menus.
In 2015, he opened the world’s first plant-based eatery and retail chain, Green Common, which is now one of Hong Kong’s most popular grocery chains (and eateries, too).
He’s also a distributor for American vegetarian and vegan brands seeking to break into the Asian market. A few months ago, hot on the heels of the launch of meat alternatives such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, he delivered the faux-pork option Omnipork, specifically conceived for the local market. It is now served in a growing number of hotels in Hong Kong, with plans to scale up distribution in the next few months.
In the two hours I spent with these enthusiastic promoters of plant-based living, they won me over to their conviction that the world is in the midst of a systemic change in the way we approach food and feeding ourselves. Here they discuss their passion for plant-based living and vision for a more sustainable future:
Peggy: I remember very clearly the day I decided to go vegetarian. I was 16 and had an awakening of sorts. I began thinking, “Why do we allow such a disconnect between the food we eat and where it comes from?” I cut out beef first, then gradually all other meat and fish. I’ve never looked back.
It wasn’t easy. The Hong Kong of the early 2000s hadn’t quite grasped the terms vegetarian and vegan, nor were there many plant-based dining options other than a few Buddhist restaurants. But the situation has changed immensely over the past two decades. We were part of it with the first Grassroots Pantry and Prune in Sai Ying Pun, and now here. It’s been a real journey.
David: I have been vegetarian for 17 years. I started at Chinese New Year in 2001. At the time it was very simple—I just didn’t want to cause any suffering to animals for my personal enjoyment of food.
Soon after that, I started reading anything I could on the topic and it became more about the health and sustainability aspects. That’s when it really surprised and stunned me—how the animal agriculture industry could do so much damage to the planet, which is damage to us, basically.
See also: Less Is More With David Yeung
Peggy: The way I see Grassroots Pantry is as a place where everyone can come and have a plant-based meal. I’m not catering only to vegetarians. People are changing their attitudes towards vegetarianism; they no longer think it’s just about lettuce. I want to offer a positive platform for them to experiment, and to show the culinary heights vegetables can attain.
Changes are happening. I want Grassroots to help pave the way. Running businesses like mine and David’s is not easy, which is why we watch out for and support each other. There’s a real sense of collectivity when it comes to sustainable, green, vegetarian ventures in Hong Kong. The general vibe is “collaborate,” not “compete.” It’s great to be a part of it.
David: Green Common is a concept for everyone. That’s the whole point. We don’t want to be pigeonholed; we want to reach as many people as possible. I don’t see our ventures as merely vegetarian, but rather as the obvious choice for a sustainable future.
Widening the net
Peggy: It’s taken some time, but Hong Kong is definitely catching up to cities like Los Angeles and Melbourne in terms of vegetarian offerings. We’re no longer just serving a niche segment of the market. We are talking to the masses. The city is adapting with incredible speed to the rising demand for more sustainable living.
We’re innovators, so you know amazing things are going to be happening. And not just restaurant-wise. Products are something we’re very much geared to create and to deliver to a wider audience.
David’s Omnipork is a clear example of the many ways we could enter and disrupt the industry to help wean the community off practices that are no longer sustainable.
On the rise
David: Vegetarianism has recently acquired a hipster cache—it’s trendy. But it’s not a trend. It’s here to stay. People have become increasingly more switched on when it comes to food, but also to climate change and animal welfare, and it’s been happening for the past decade.
It was only a matter of time before we entered the mainstream, and that’s what’s happening now. The involvement of celebrities, Silicon Valley and billionaire businessmen with vegetarianism has certainly given the movement a push into the limelight too.
See also: Impossible Burger Taste Test
Peggy: Being vegan or vegetarian is no longer seen as pioneering. Hence the explosion of vegetarian menus, places and concepts. Business-wise, it’s a very smart move. The change in terminology has also helped—the switch to the term “plant-based” makes sense for a lot of people. Who doesn’t understand that plants are good for you? I think there’s been a rebranding of sorts, and that’s been really, really important.
Shaping the future
David: A 2015 study by Euromonitor found Hong Kong residents have the highest per-capita meat and seafood consumption in the world. Try to digest that. We’ve been on one extreme end of the spectrum for so long. But now we are swinging back.
We’re on the cusp of a global shift in the way we think about food. It’s only natural—think of food supply, sustainability, waste and carbon emissions. Vegetarianism is a proposition to approach these issues. It’s a solution to a very real, very looming problem. People simply can’t turn their backs on it any longer.
Innovation is going to play a major role. Food startups, tech and science applied to culinary experimentation: that’s what will increasingly shape our diets. Going plant-based is the next step in human evolution.
Photography: Nic and Bex Gaunt | Styling: Justine Lee | Assistant styling: Rosana Lai | Food styling: Nolan Ledarney | Hair: Vic Lai and Cindy Lai | Make-up: Karen Yiu, Viny Lee and Ball Fong
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