There’s no shortage of options for restaurants looking to incorporate plant-based products into their menus. From veggie burgers that bleed like beef to faux chicken enhanced with sunflower oil for juiciness, alt-meat makers have made significant improvements to gain greater mainstream acceptance from consumers over the past decade.
For all the progress, many chefs still prefer vegetable-forward dishes that utilize whole food ingredients over processed meat analogs. Take Horacio Rivadero as an example. The James Beard-nominated chef received a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin Guide in 2022 for his work at Bloom, a fine-dining restaurant in Chicago that features a completely plant-based menu. Think sushi made with fermented beets and carrots, steak made with lion’s mane mushroom, and dumplings filled with fermented turnips.
Rivadero says the biggest challenge restaurants face when promoting meat-free dishes is “trying to get people to take the first step and taking away the stigma of plant-based.” His advice for aspiring vegan chefs? “Let go of wanting to imitate animal-based products and instead be focused on how to highlight certain ingredients. It’s about understanding your ingredients and techniques and embracing simplicity.”
That’s the approach he’s taking at SoBe Vegan. Rivadero joined the team to help craft a new menu that relies less on store-bought meat alternatives and more on hand-crafted ingredients. He puts a vegan spin on Latin classics at the Florida-based fast casual, swapping ground beef in picadillo for walnuts and using king trumpet mushrooms instead of stewed beef in ropa vieja.
“We can’t compare the texture and contents of animal meat that has more fat and fiber than certain vegan substitutes have, but what we can try to do is create familiar flavors for people to try,” Rivadero says.
SERG Restaurant Group, which operates more than a dozen concepts in South Carolina, has catered to vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diners with both pre-made meat alternatives as well as whole food menu options.
“I think the true vegetable dishes—bean burgers, zucchini noodles, and stuff of that nature—have worked better than the highly-processed products,” says executive chef Chris Carge. “We jumped on the bandwagon with those products, and honestly, we’ve seen a pretty rapid decline there. With a lot of plant-based meat, there’s a weird aftertaste, and when you start digging into the ingredients and reading the fine print, you realize the sodium is quadruple what it should be. I think people are just not that impressed or they’re losing interest.”
That may explain why meat-free menu items under-index at full-service restaurants, where expectations around the quality of the food are higher. Data from the Good Food Institute show the quick-service segment accounts for nearly 40 percent of all pound sales for plant-based proteins. Full-service, in contrast, accounts for just under 20 percent.
That gap could shrink as the plant-based landscape continues evolving. Alt-meat makers are pushing beyond veggie burgers and nuggets with whole-cut analogs that boast cleaner ingredient decks and stronger nutritional profiles. Meati Foods, for example, offers whole-cut steak and chicken alternatives made with mycelium, the root structure of fungi. Chunk Foods offers a vegan steak made with cultured soy and wheat protein. The products match or exceed the protein levels of traditional meat.
This next wave of innovation may have an easier time gaining traction on full-service menus. Chunk Foods’ vegan steak is available at a growing number of restaurants, including Charley’s Steakhouse in Orlando and Insignia Prime Steak & Sushi in Long Island, New York. SERG Restaurant Group recently launched the product at Poseidon, its waterfront seafood joint on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.
“We were getting bored with the same vegetarian dishes—vegetable risotto, simple salads, and stuff like that—and also the redundancy of all the plant-based products,” Carge says. “We wanted something with a higher-end appeal.”
Chunk Foods’ vegan steak is free from additives, thickeners, and binders, and it’s versatile enough for a variety of cooking methods, including grilling, pan-searing, stewing, braising, basting, and smoking. Those attributes piqued SERG Restaurant Group’s curiosity.
From osso buco-style short ribs to grilled kabobs and more, Carge says the possibilities for incorporating the product into menus are “pretty much endless.”
“Once you get going, the ideas just start popping off,” he says. “My chefs and I were picking each other’s brains trying to figure out vegan or vegetarian recipes that we could make with the steak. We came up with a tomato ragu over saffron rice with the Chunk Steak as this awesome buco-style beef.”
They sat down the entire staff at Poseidon and had everyone taste the dish.
“Every single person thought it was real beef,” Carge says. “We have a very in-tune staff that has been with us for a long time, so once we did that, it was a shoe-in for us as a management team to bring it forward. If we impressed ourselves, then I think we’re going to impress the general public if they give it a chance, which I believe they will.”