The evolution of plant-forward

By Chef Adam Busby 

Some time ago, at the CIA’s annual Menus of Change conference, we began tinkering with the idea of the “flip” concept; where a finished dish of food features animal protein used as a flavor enhancer rather than as the main ingredient. There were many successful dishes and a new strategy for foodservice evolved as a result of the work. Of the many knock-on effects of this innovation, one was the idea of blending animal proteins with plants to increase the healthful attributes of dishes we love; let’s use hamburger patties for example. We had some real successes during taste tests in which ground sautéed mushrooms were mixed in increasing proportions with ground beef. Each burger patty was cooked the same and then distributed in a triangle blind test to a calibrated tasting panel for qualitative and quantitative taste tests (in a triangle blind test two samples are the same and the 3rd sample is different, making this far more difficult to guess, and requires a taster to commit to memory the flavor of the first two samples when comparing to the 3rd).

Almost without exception the results demonstrated that the hamburger patty with the highest proportion of mushroom was identified as having the best flavor and texture. The predominant reason for this effect is the concentrated glutamic acid content of the sautéed ground mushrooms that were added to the ground beef simply increased the glutamic acid content of the beef patty resulting in a heightened “umami” experience. To most this is simply an unidentifiable “deliciousness”; the blended patty tastes better than straight ground beef alone and has a more rounded feeling on the palate. If you need convincing, I’m going to suggest you try it at home sometime; it’s quite a revelation. We’ve come a long way since those simple tests and the idea is no longer novel; plant-forward has gone mainstream.

Plant-forward. A style of cooking and eating that emphasizes and embraces but is not limited to plant-based foods and reflects evidence-based principles of health and sustainability.

While many Americans choose animal products as their main source of protein, we would be wise to remember that much of our planet consumes a plant-forward diet and always has. Nearly two thirds of the world’s population enjoy a diet based in wheat, rice and maize with whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds providing rich plant-based sources of protein. Let’s also remember how delicious and craveable those cuisines can be! The fact that healthy and sustainable plant-forward eating can transform our palates and create disruptive innovation is now becoming more than an idea as evidenced in the fast food marketplace embracing plant-based burger patties. I predict this is just the tip of the spear in what will likely be the most compelling phase-shift in all dining sectors for many years to come. Early adopters will be rewarded from seed companies through supply chains and restaurants across our nation.

The implication for NAFEM members will be an increasing demand and requests for equipment tailored to plant-forward cooking. Some examples: In batch-cooking how will we prepare perfectly sized and evenly caramelized nuggets of cauliflower for a “flipped” Bolognese sauce? What tool will allow us to nicely brown plant protein meat crumbles without them sticking to the cooking surface they are on? Can we create a mixer that is gentle enough to fold cooked beans and legumes into ground meat without crushing them while simultaneously preventing the mix from falling apart?

There will certainly be plenty of questions in the evolution of consumer-driven demand for plant-forward foods.  For now, I’m enjoying being part of a trend that not only tastes great but is of paramount importance for the health and wellness of our bodies and our planet.  Where we go next is left to be seen, but I would place my last dollar on a bet that plant-forward is here to stay.