By Susie McKinley – Editor of Florida Restaurant & Lodging Magazine

The plant-based-food movement is gaining momentum as more and more people are choosing meatless and dairy-free options both at home and when dining in restaurants. In fact, results from the National Restaurant Association’s 2022 What’s Hot Chef ’s Survey in Culinary Trends indicated that plant-based foods are one of the top five restaurant food trends for the year. Many restaurants have chosen to offer plant-based foods to round out menu options for guests that prefer vegan foods or guests that make a point of eating plant-based foods with regular cadence.

Dan Follese is a chef and culinary consultant as well as the founder of Food Trend Translator. With over 30 years of experience, he is a classically trained chef who focuses on “unleashing your products potential.” He is an expert in consulting and marketing the new food trends. He is helping to further the plant-based food market by supporting food manufacturers who create and market quality food items that are offered in restaurants as unique and tasty vegan food offerings.

Susie McKinley, editor of Florida Restaurant & Lodging Magazine recently spoke with Dan about this trend.

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk with FR&L Magazine. It’s no surprise that plant-based foods are finally becoming mainstream, but it has taken some time. Can you explain what plant-based foods, also known as vegan foods, are and what makes them unique?

A: Susie, this is a loaded question and one that causes a lot of confusion. Plant-based and vegan are not exactly the same thing. Vegan is much stricter in that it cannot have any animal product in its ingredients and plant-based tries to adhere to this, but often they will slip in a functional ingredient that is not plant based to help complete their product. Items like whey isolate from dairy or certain amino acids like L-cysteine used to soften breads can often go unnoticed by a plant-based eater but a vegan will have nothing to do with this item.

Q: Can you share some of the reasons that folks are interested in plant-based foods? Is it health? Is it allergies?

A: Initially these foods were looked down upon by chefs, consumers and just about everyone until science caught up with the ability to mimic flavor, texture and even the heme from plants to deliver the expectation of eating an alternative meat. The visual of tearing open a plant-based “chicken breast” can actually look like whole muscle or exactly like an animal version nugget. Flash forward to today and the majority of consumers are in what’s called the flexitarian category, people that typically consume traditional animal-based foods but are interested in something new. The vegan group is statistically small, but they are outspoken and hold tightly onto the animal-free way of eating. Today chefs are creating plant-based in their own kitchens, capitalizing on the trend that is not going away and flexing their capabilities to explore and create a new type of cuisine.

Q: Is there a particular profile of foods best suited to the plant-based food translation from those with meat?

A: Ground animal protein has been at the forefront of this transition as it seems to translate better than whole muscle. Although they were not the first to deliver an animal-free burger patty, the Impossible brand broke through and created the most success by launching with Burger King over five years ago. Something McDonald’s has been challenged with; however, they are working on it.

Q: Can you discuss some of the misconceptions about plant-based foods?

A: The biggest misconception is healthy, there is a false health halo over these foods. Read the ingredients, compare them to traditional items and then taste it side by side with your current offering to see if it stands up to your testing. Today’s consumer is more focused on ingredients than in the past. Panera and Whole Foods have literally created the bible of “no, no ingredients” that many operators and manufacturers strive to reach.

Q: What is vegan cheese comprised of? Are the textures and tastes similar to animal-based cheeses?

A: This is often a blend of a starch-like tapioca, arrowroot, potato and blended with plant milk like coconut or soy. This is a category of great frustration for many as natural cheese like Cheddar and Mozzarella is hard to create with plants. Mouthfeel is often gummy and sticks to your mouth or leaves an oily residue of flavor on your tongue. Plus, the essential pull you get from cheese is due to the molecular structure that naturally happens with dairy and not with plant-based cheese — not yet.

Q: Can you tell readers about any hot new products that you’ve seen?

A: There are many cool alternatives happening, perhaps the freakiest idea is cellgenerated animal proteins. This is created when a culture of a live animal is used to “test tube” grow and deliver parts of the animal. This has been successful in chickens already but not yet scaled up for production.

Q: Can you explain to readers about your business and your food tours?

A: My pleasure. Our business is about unleashing the power of your product’s potential. So, from an operator perspective, it’s simply how can we create multiple uses for the least amount of ingredients. Space is limited in the cooler and freezer and most teams are challenged with staffing, so optimizing in-house pantries to create limited time offers or streamline a menu for operational ease is one way we can help. Our food tours have been created to bring innovation and inspiration. Having been a part of many tours I find the missing element is in capitalizing on what you experienced. We help by bringing these moments together, create concepts with your goals in mind to drive craveability with purchase intent.