photographed for Observer Food Monthly Short frill wrap dress, PS180, Ganni, at libertylondon.com Vintage pearl earrings, PS88, and vintage chain bangle PS88, both Gillian Horsup gillianhorsup.com Styling: Hope Lawrie Hair and makeup: Juliana Sergot using Lancome and Tigi Photograph: Lee Strickland for the Observer
Eating plant-based constructs really no impact on my career as a eatery critic. I see this as my special ability as a critic , not a obstacle. I still won reviewer of the year at the London Restaurant Festival awardings last year, regardless. Restaurants do not live and die by the rareness of their bavette steak or the crispness of their pork crackling- and thank God, as many establishments can’t pull that off. And if I was a nightmare to restaurant management before , nowadays I’m worse. I won’t be blindsided by tedious table-side speeches about the 12 -year-old Galician cow you’ve imported, and the pretty Highland knoll where the stag was stalked. None of this builds up for a cold room, claustrophobic tables downwind of the loo, a dire ambience, begrudging service and, worst of all, a sleepy menu of chops and scallops that I’ve seen 10,000 periods before.
Nowadays, I want to see imagination and a willingness to cater to modern British diners of differing faiths and cultures. I want cooks to get off their arses and learn how to titivate tofu and barbecue and shred jackfruit. I want Tredwells chef Chantelle Nicholson’s spring pea and broad bean gnudi with tempura spring onions. I want Ravinder Bhogal‘s cauliflower popcorn with Thai basil. I want Marianna Leivaditaki’s delicate, polenta-crusted aubergine in a slick of date molasses at Morito, Hackney Road. Give me the poached salsify and parsnip puree at Aiden Byrne’s 20 Stories.
When I sit on that table of gargoyles on MasterChef waiting to judge whoever comes through the door, I’m simply not that impressed by another plate of barely dead roe deer avec pommes noisettes all lying in a puddle of Bambi’s blood. So when on a recent MasterChef: the Professionals Matt Campbell served Gregg Wallace a raw, vegan cacao delice encased in a jerusalem artichoke rosti tuile, I knew this was a chef with a certain level of swagger. Chefs such as Campbell are brave and exciting to me because to even pepper a menu with the term “vegan” is to bang up against decades of culinary prejudice. This is a word synonymous with worthy, difficult diners and glee-free abstinence. Basically, it’s the Puritan aunt and uncle in Blackadder II who turn up demanding a raw parsnip for dinner and a spike to sit on. But the crowds at By Chloe, Farm Girl, CookDaily or at the Vevolution events aren’t like this at all. They are young, beautiful, vibrant, popular on Instagram, always out at dinner and, by and large, strictly vegan.
I don’t decide myself up as a saint. My very rough ethos is: if I have to taste a forkful of flesh as there’s really no option then it isn’t kryptonite. It won’t kill me. I only do my very best, in that moment. And, besides, when I’m reviewing for newspapers there’s always, always someone at my table ordering the lamb chop who will use their rudimentary critical skills to communicate ” this is delicious “. Anyone can describe a lamb chop. TripAdvisor is teeming with people two-finger typing” the lamb melted in my mouth” or worse still” the lamb was cooked to perfection” into the comment box, sure they are the next Jay Rayner. Almost any idiot can add flame to a chop and make it taste half decent. That’s why summer gardens are full of men poking at barbecues while feeling like Marco Pierre White.
Eating this style transformed and revolutionised my dining landscape. Instead of the usual hyped launchings and cliquey events, I find myself in anarchist vegan cafes, Hare Krishna centres, Jain buffets and foraging-based cookery class. I eat in painfully cool millennial “wellness” workspaces and Ghanaian-community-favoured local dormitories. I’m up to speed on “bleeding” fake meat, aquafaba no-egg meringues, my very best genres of Cornish sea kelp and the ins and out of crunchy, although vile-sounding, cheesy nutritional yeast.
All talk, of course, of living plant-based will inevitably turn to weight, health and fitness, which I’ve always shied away from discussing. I don’t want to be a role model or life lesson to anyone gazing down at the bathroom scales of a morning. Personal weight gain and loss is complex and, for almost everyone, a very ongoing tale. God forbid I ever stand sideways, beaming, in a pair of big trousers, one thumb in the baggy waistband, claiming I have the secret to being skinny. However, being principally vegan over the past five or so years has certainly led to me having more energy, starting to run, catching fewer bugs and colds, and maintaining my weight steady without “dieting”.
Of course, some days it feels like I am never more than five metres away from an debate about protein inadequacy, the perils of missing vitamin B12 or how soya harvesting is the actual blight wrecking the planet. Like most people living my lifestyle, I have read up on nutrition furiously and make sure to balance things in a nerdy way with an array of vitamins, pea protein and sometimes pill supplements. It’s a great irony that the sort of people who niggle on at me about B12 and protein inadequacy are generally the types who live on tinned Heinz spag bol and cans of craft brew, and can no longer ensure their own feet. But hey, you guys keep on being you. I wish you well. I sleep eight hours a night and feel healthier than I did aged 20. Argue as much as you like, I’ve really got no beef.
Grace Dent is the Guardian’s eatery critic