By Megan Stacey

Burgers, crab cakes and French onion soup were among the 60 recipes transformed into vegan dishes at a two-day culinary training hosted by Western this week.

Turns out, they don’t need meat, fish or dairy to be delicious, at least according to eager eaters who tucked into the food prepared by chefs from Western’s hospitality division and their peers from dining services at University of Guelph, McMaster University and University of Windsor.

Twenty-four culinary experts used Friends of Humane Society International’s Forward Food program to learn to make egg salad sandwiches and French toast without the eggs; trim the meat from traditional beef, pork and chicken offerings and create meals solely using plants – without sacrificing flavour.

It’s a sign of what’s to come at Western. The university has pledged to make 40 per cent of its dining hall menus plant-based by the start of 2024.

“This is a case of meeting the demand from our student population, in terms of widening the variety on our menu, but also responding to what aligns with our values. What is our responsibility when it comes to being good custodians of the world, and when it comes to climate change?” said Colin Porter, director of hospitality services at Western.

Sustainability is a top priority at Western, which was ranked first in Canada and third in the world as part of the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings in 2022. It’s an overarching goal in the university’s strategic plan, Towards Western at 150, and its annual budgets.

“We’re owning this as our responsibility, but also getting excited about the food,” Porter said.

“It has to be plant-based offerings that appeal to all, not just the vegan members of our community.” – Colin Porter, director of hospitality services.

Chef Amy Symington, Forward Food’s culinary specialist, wants to banish the thought of dry veggie burgers, plain tofu or bland sandwiches as vegan dining hall options.

“They need to be easy, they need to be cost-effective, and of course they need to be tasty,” the nutrition professor and published cookbook author said.

“We’ve talked to the universities about what they need, and what’s popular – you can change those popular dishes and make them plant-based. I like the challenge; It’s not just salad bar and burgers anymore.”

She stays away from ultra-processed options – think fake ground beef or boxes of processed vegan “chicken” – in favour of whole foods like lentils, mushrooms and tempeh accented with rich spice blends, bright acids and unique seasoning.

“Cooking good, healthy, tasty, sustainable food for the masses is where it’s at,” she said.

Symington developed the recipes used this week by teams at Saugeen-Maitland residence dining hall, from a tofu Banh Mi to creamy corn chowder to a flavourful black bean and seitan burger.

Forward Food chef Amy Symington prepares pancakes on the left. On the right, a display of breakfast dishes is shown.

Twelve Western chefs joined 12 outside chefs, four each from the visiting schools.

Those experienced food professionals already know how to create incredible dishes. Introducing vegan options is just about adding a few tools and ideas, Symington said.

“It’s all the skills they already have.”

Forward Food – an initiative from Friends of Humane Society International to help campuses, hospitals, restaurants and other food providers “put plants at the centre of the plate” and increase their vegan food options – has educated 350 chefs over the last six years through its culinary training program, and thousands more with webinars and workshops. The event with Western marked the first time chefs from multiple universities have gathered to learn together.

“A lot of our chefs come from the more traditional culinary world, so sometimes we default to the simpler options for our plant-based or vegan offerings. This gives us an opportunity to be more creative, to learn new techniques, and allow us to be able to develop the skillset – some culinary muscle – to expand on our existing menu options,” Kristian Crossen, Western hospitality’s executive chef, said.

The shift helps the bottom line, too.

“When we turn to a plant-based menu, costs come down significantly,” Porter said. He eats plant-based meals a few times a week.

Forward Food says developing more plant-forward menus – meaning the majority of those dishes do not include meat, dairy or eggs – has saved its partners up to 93 per cent in food costs.

Friends of HSI calls it a “win-win-win-win.” There are advantages for the environment, health, and animal welfare, not to mention cost savings and an answer to calls from the next generation.

“There are benefits for just making meals more accessible to people. You may have an allergy, or follow a particular religion or culture where you don’t eat certain products at certain times or prepared in certain ways. Younger people, especially, are looking for more diverse protein options,” said Riana Topan, senior campaign manager with Friends of Humane Society International.

“For us, it’s about making sure people have the tools and the resources within the food services industry, and within these large institutions, to provide really delicious options so people can enjoy things that are better for their bodies, better for the planet, without giving anything up. It’s just really good food.”

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