To be one of the world’s leading references in vegan cuisine, the speech of the North American chef Matthew Kenney is quite conciliatory with those of us who enjoy a good roast or grilled trout. When referring to the benefits of plant-based gastronomy – as he calls it – he uses terms such as “art”, “pleasure” or “enjoyment”, and far from seeking to indoctrinate or criticize those who do not enroll in the veggie world, invites you to consider a 100% vegetable dish as an option in your daily diet: “I don’t want to push anyone to do anything,” says this 57-year-old chef, creator of more than 50 restaurants, including Mudrá and Oleada in Buenos Aires. For me as a consumer, what it’s all about is enjoying a tasty meal that makes me feel good. It’s a matter of trying it, maybe once a week, and paying attention to how you feel. It is about experimenting and listening to our body.”
–How did you approach plant-based gastronomy?
-It was a very gradual process that started from having a very traditional training as a chef of French cuisine. I have two passions: culinary art (food and wine), and health and wellness. And a few years ago I realized that I could make these two passions coexist. I first approached it from the perspective of being a chef, and found something very creative, artistic and versatile, where the food was much more exciting and vibrant than what I had been making. From the professional level it was quite a challenge, but it started from the belief that this gastronomy is going to be the one that dominates the dishes in the future. And from a personal point of view it was tremendous, since from the beginning I noticed the change, in terms of having more energy, greater clarity, feeling lighter, sleeping better. My overall health improved significantly.
-Your change in the kitchen was reflected on a personal level…
–It was really getting my two passions together. My passion for wellness and longevity, and being much more excited about cooking with vegetables and plants, inspired me as a chef. It was a kind of alignment for me.
How long have you been without eating animal protein?
I haven’t eaten meat or chicken in about 20 years. I have occasionally eaten some fish, but have been more of a plant based consumer over the last 20 years.
–Is there a difference between vegan gastronomy and plant-based gastronomy?
Well, there isn’t really a difference. We started using the term plant based because we wanted to highlight the fact that we are cooking with whole foods, with plants. And vegan sometimes just means that it doesn’t include animal products, but can have a lot of processed ingredients and chemicals. So for me plant based means a cleaner diet based on whole plant products.
–What about plant based attracts people? The philosophical, the ecology?
–In the past it was about things related to health or philosophy, like sustainability or animal protection, but these days plant-based cuisine is the most exciting cuisine, and many of the best restaurants in the world are doing focus on plant-based tasting menus. Today I believe that it is fashion and it is art, but that it also serves a purpose of conservationism and sustainability.
–Do the rankings and cooking competitions take plant-based gastronomy into account?
– Yes, in fact, Eleven Madison Park, in New York, which became number one on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, today is completely plant based; Geranium and Noma, in Copenhagen, which are also among the top, are now becoming plant based. Many of the best restaurants in the world are making plant-based options. Today this gastronomy represents a majority part of the culinary scene.
-There are many celebrities who collaborated with that, right?
Yes, it is a very long list. From actors like Woody Harrelson or Alicia Silverstone to athletes like Lewis Hamilton or Serena Williams; and even in fashion, there are many who have stopped using animal products. Today plant based crosses all industries and all markets.
– Is there something generational about this way of eating?
-That is very interesting, because at first it was an audience of 25 to 34 years that was dominant, and 80% were women. Now, it is changing: the most dominant age group is 35 to 44, which are those who were younger before, but at the same time younger age groups are added, there are new generations that are embracing this diet. Since I’ve been involved in this I see that each year it expands.
–You opened many restaurants in Latin America, and even in Argentina. Was it difficult to enter with your proposal in a region with a culture so related to the consumption of meat?
-Not at all. When we opened in Brazil, in the first two days we expected no more than 300 diners and more than 1,000 came. And Brazil is the largest exporter of meat in the world. I see that Latin America is very receptive to plant-based gastronomy, and that is why today we have more restaurants in this region than in Europe. What happens is that in most of its big cities, even if their gastronomic culture is known for meat, there is a huge audience for plant-based food. In every city with millions of inhabitants, there are hundreds of thousands of people interested in plant-based eating, just as they are interested in focusing on wellness and health. In a way, cities like Buenos Aires are the perfect environment to open a plant-based restaurant, because there is an important audience and there are not many options for it.
-Do you think that the current drop in meat consumption is a phenomenon that, far from being reversed, will continue to deepen?
–Yes, but I want to clarify that the majority of our guests in our restaurants are not vegan. They just approach plant based as an option, like they might do the same with Japanese food or Italian food. But the fact that plant based is becoming a mainstream option contributes to reducing the global consumption of products of animal origin. Now, at the same time, I think that our planet will always consume animal products, and I understand that, but based on population growth and the scarcity of water and food, plant-based responds to the need for everyone to have healthy food. and fresh available. In addition, it is an enjoyable and pleasant meal.
–Is it a way of cooking that is easy to transfer to everyday life in homes?
–It is very easy, because today there are so many options for legumes, fruits and seasonal vegetables. I am very busy and I don’t have time to cook at home, but in 10 minutes I can make something that is easy to cook, tasty and comfortable.