For years, restaurants have known they need to appeal to diners seeking plant-based options. However, today, chefs aren’t just catering to vegetarians and vegans with meat-free offerings. According to a 2019 Hartman Group report, only 12 percent of consumers who purchase plant-based foods consider themselves vegetarians, while 41 percent consider themselves omnivores.
This growing demographic of meat eaters who want to eat less meat don’t want to give up their favorite meat-based foods. They instead want restaurants to provide meat-alternatives. But these health-conscious consumers are often skeptical of lab-grown substances proliferating the industry today; they prefer natural plant-based proteins that offer health benefits, such as walnuts.
“Our guests want clean plant-based alternatives to substitute meat-based proteins that are natural and not synthetic,” says Andrew Arndt, executive chef for Marriott Hotels in Newport Beach, California. “Personally, I’m not a big fan of some of the meat-alternative products on the market due to the alarming amount of chemicals and foreign ingredients they contain. California walnuts are a wholesome real food that I can get behind.”
Pictured above: Low-Carb Walnut and Veggie Shepherds Pie. Find the recipe here.
Not only are walnuts a natural, plant-based food diners are already familiar with, but they also feature a savoriness that makes them a natural fit for traditionally meat-based dishes, says Juliet Greene, consulting innovation chef for California Walnuts.
“California walnuts are a flavorful meat alternative that will please vegetarians and omnivores alike,” Greene says. “Walnuts’ subtle nuttiness and exceptional texture mimics ground beef in tacos, hamburgers, and even ravioli without excess ingredients and fillers. It’s impressive how versatile they are. As a meat alternative, walnuts can be used in a variety of cuisines and foods—from Mexican and Italian to American and beyond.”
Greene also thinks the texture is another reason walnuts make for a great meat substitute. “Walnuts have the perfect texture. They are not too hard or too soft, making them a great choice for plant-based meat alternatives, like sausage crumbles or burgers,” she says. “The pliable texture makes walnuts a great vehicle for a variety of seasoning and cuisine styles.”
Pictured above: Walnut Omega Burger. Find the recipe here.
Consumers also appreciate seeing walnuts on menus because of the health benefits they provide. In a 2019 Consumer Survey, taste was cited as the number one reason for consuming walnuts, but 90 percent of consumers also recognize walnuts as a healthy food. In addition, 73 percent said the health benefits positively impacted their purchase decision.
“Since walnuts are the only tree-nut with an excellent source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, providing 2.5 grams per ounce, they are a great option for alternative proteins,” Greene says. “Walnuts also deliver both health and indulgence and are easily incorporated into countless foods. With an ingredient like walnuts, chefs don’t have to choose between nutrition and indulgence—they can have both.”
Greene suggests restaurants can combine walnuts with other plant-based proteins and pulses, like beans, lentils, quinoa, or chia, to further increase the amount of omega-3s for diners.
Pictured above: Walnut, Lentil, and Mushroom Pâté. Find the recipe here.
Another big plus for walnuts is that they don’t increase the operational complexity for kitchen staff, since they are available in different sizes, flavor combinations, and more.
“Walnuts can be ordered in different sizes ranging from whole pieces to walnut meal to make it easy for back-of-house use,” Arndt says. “We source both whole California walnuts and walnut halves, and we recently started requesting smaller walnut pieces from our supplier for the walnut milk we make in house.”
On a per-pound basis, walnuts are also more economical than many meat alternatives on the market, especially when they are mixed with low-cost black beans or garbanzo beans into a pulse to make a bulk crumble that can be used across the menu.
Additionally, Greene says culinary protein kits made from California walnuts, such as Azar Nuts’ “it’s nature” Walnut Crumbles can help chefs maintain back-of-house efficiency with a variety of taste profiles. “The kits include chopped and seasoned walnuts available in two amazing flavors: Chorizo and Italian,” she says. “These are an easy option for tacos, burgers, meatballs, chili, pasta sauces, breakfast scrambles, nachos, and more.”
Pictured above: Walnut "Chorizo" Crumble. Find the recipe here.
Due to their versatility, chefs can find many places to serve walnuts on the menu. One prime use is as a replacement for meat toppings on classic dishes, like pizza, for example.
“I use a walnut crumble as a pizza topping in place of sausage,” Greene says. “Simply pulse two parts raw walnuts and one part bean, such as cannellini or garbanzo, with Italian spices in a robot coupe until a loose crumble forms.”
Pictured above: Pizza with Walnut Sausage Crumble. Find the recipe here.
But walnuts are not simply toppings—they can be utilized to take on a starring role as a meat alternative on almost any type of restaurant menu. In fact, restaurants that already use walnuts to top dishes like salads, baked goods, or oatmeal can easily repurpose their stock into main dishes. This allows kitchens to introduce more menu variety without increasing SKU counts.
“The flavor profiles are endless with walnuts, from sweet to savory, breakfast through dinner,” Arndt says. “Walnuts add a wonderful contrast and texture to most dishes that our guests appreciate. Our go-to walnut recipes include walnut pesto, toasted walnut hummus, walnut and vegetable burgers, as well as walnut milk for our coffee bars. Our California walnut plant-based chorizo breakfast tacos are very popular. We also use a walnut crumble on our power bars, and we substitute walnuts for meat in our veggie meatball for passed appetizers and outside grill stations.”
Pictured above: Roasted Walnut and Cauliflower Tacos. Find the recipe here.
Like Arndt, Greene also suggests using walnuts as an alternative to dairy.
“Walnuts take a starring role providing great flavor and a significant source of omega-3 ALA in walnut milk,” Greene says. “Walnut milk can be used for a variety of menu items from breakfast to dinner and as an inclusion for dairy-free desserts or simply added to coffee. A few products of note include Walnut Milk by Mariani and Milked Walnuts by Elmhurst.”
Greene even recommends using a house-made walnut cream as an easy-to-make dairy alternative in dishes. “Take one part water to two parts raw California walnuts and blend together until a light white cream forms,” she says. “This wholesome walnut cream can be used in a variety of recipes from soups, sauces, and spreads to keep dishes dairy-free and gluten-free by replacing roux to help thicken. The cream can be kept in cold storage for up to seven days, allowing for operational ease.”
Pictured above: Walnut Lavender Milk. Find the recipe here.
Though walnuts do bring many kitchen efficiencies, it’s important for chefs to remember they need proper storage to maintain the qualities that make them such a great ingredient.
“Being the only tree-nut with a significant source of ALA, the plant-based form of omega-3, walnuts should always be stored in the freezer or refrigerator,” Greene says. “Most chefs I talk to keep them in dry storage, which is not recommended. Walnuts can become rancid if not stored correctly. Those awesome healthy fats walnuts provide need to be kept cool to keep the fresh nutty flavor intact.”
In a crowded industry, restaurants have stiff competition. Strategically planning how to appeal to plant-based diners can help them quickly become fan favorites.
“My recommendation is to experiment with walnuts in different blends, formats, and flavor pairings to best suit a chefs’ operation,” Greene says. “Don’t be scared to play with walnuts, they are a great, wholesome plant-based food.”
By educating diners on the taste and health benefits of walnuts, restaurants can help them expand their own definitions of what plant-based eating entails.
“The menu items on property with California walnuts have been very well received,” Arndt says. “Our guest’s comments have been positive. They say the dishes we provide have really opened their eyes to a more robust plant-based diet, helping them understand that walnuts can also be used as a main component in entrees, not just as a topping, to keep dishes plant-based and clean.”
Pictured above: Walnut Cream Alfredo Sauce. Find the recipe here.