Gary Steel talks to the Heritage executive chef, Jinu Abrahams, about the hotel’s bold excursion into vegan fine diningGary – How does it feel being the go-to guy for vegan dining? Do you ever get to the end of the day and think ‘my goodness, I could kill a rare steak?’
Jinu – Vegan is a choice. We wanted to give diners that option, as a menu. We’ve got the meat, which you’ll find in every other place [hotel restaurant] around the world, but we’ve also got a vegan menu in the hotel, and in the room service, so that was the big challenge to get through to everybody. We’re not trying to convert anybody, it’s a choice. It feels good.
It was a very slow start, a lot of research and development and a lot of trials with a lot of people, internal, external, so it has been quite rewarding in that sense. So if I look back three and a half, four years… three and a half years it started kicking into motion. I did some research and travelled around New Zealand a lot, driving around, trying to find… It was more about trying to find sustainable products. We wanted to be sustainable as a hotel, and my point was food… I wanted to find out what was available in New Zealand. I’m not a New Zealander so I needed to do that. So again, we found out that a lot of people are producers, artisan cheeses and so forth. And then I looked at the seasons. And then we started looking at the vegan part. We had trials again. We had the stir-fries, Asian, tofu, rice. That was the starting point for us, simple stuff like bok choi. That was literally learning the ABCs and the do’s and don’ts. We started with something like honey and realised that it’s actually not vegan, it’s actually an animal product. And we went into finding different kind of sugar substitutes, for health. Sustainability, local produce, health and wellbeing. So we don’t use honey, we don’t use refined sugar.
Gary – So there was a real evolution over that period.
Jinu – Yes, it evolved. Again during that time my cooking also evolved. I realised this is not an Asian restaurant. Then we started again, more research and development. I travelled a little bit into the wider world and saw what people were doing, talked to a lot of chefs who were overseas. New York and London have got quite a few restaurants [with vegan menus].
Gary – Fine dining restaurants?
Jinu – Yes. And I started looking at cookbooks, and home cooks were doing a lot of interesting stuff, although you can’t always trust the internet to give you the right content. We’ve got to be sure of what our recipes are… it’s the boys and girls who are in the kitchen who are actually doing it, so we have to have standardised recipes. We have base recipes and those have to be set, so that is again another evolution that happens in any kitchen. We don’t just work on little portions, we work on bases and put it all together.
There are vegans who want to come and dine, but it’s a choice for non-vegans or the meat eaters who wanted to have a choice of lifestyle, once a week or once a month they wanted to have something vegetarian. We didn’t just want to give them a leaf tossed with something and fried rice, so… And another realisation was that meat eaters get that umami taste from meats – you grill, salt and pepper, you don’t need to add much to that. But the same person, when they eat vegan, they need to be convinced. We wanted to convince them that this food is as good taste-wise and texture-wise as meat. This is good and that is good. Choice. That was where I thought about the food meeting the needs of the meat eater, and vegans… so we wanted to get that broad spectrum, vegetarian, someone who’s on a diet like gluten free, meat free, dairy free. Then we realised that we needed to have separate ingredients and separate utensils to make vegan. They don’t like anything being mixed. The kitchen had to be changed.
Gary – That’s a huge concern of vegans and vegetarians – the potential for cross contamination in kitchens.
Jinu – So we have different plans, different sections. Where the vegan stuff is it’s all separated, different chopping boards and tongs. And the other thing is that it’s ingrained into them. Because it’s a show kitchen, they have to be creative not only in that part but when they’re putting things on the plate… people are seeing what you’re putting on the plate. So you can’t put the same tong from the meat. And we went to the modern European from Asian and tweaked different ideas. It’s a very limited area that we can work within, because it has to be sustainable, and as much as possible local produce, and cut out the meat, the dairy, the eggs, the milk… you’re cutting out a lot of the things that chefs work with. So we had to create a pantry list.
For as much as possible all of it is natural ingredients. For example, if the recipe says egg, we use egg substitutes. It’s not always the same results, so we have to tweak our recipe ratio up and down. It started off with just a couple of items in the dinner menu, very simple stuff, and then we put it to four entrees, four mains and four desserts, and realised that our repertoire was growing with the number of menu items that we could get. Then we said ‘how about breakfast?’ We don’t do vegan breakfasts but we have a salad section, we have quite a few vegan items, but it’s not separated. But then we separated the lobby bar, which is completely vegan, and you can have breakfast there. There are five items, and it’s basic stuff but it is an option for vegans. We made that particular place completely vegan. And then we have lunch, sandwich, and tapas evening. We also have the vegan high tea over there. We did a lot of research. People still need to recognise it as high tea. So it has to be lamingtons, it has to be scones. So a lot of trials and research and development into that. Evening tapas again is completely vegan – again, take off the meats and there’s not a lot to work with, so again that was a lot of trial and tests, and we came up with some good dishes. But again you cannot substitute a meat. If people are eating meat, you can’t compare. If you do… we do have fries and veges and all that, but other than that we have stuff that’s really good to have a bite with a drink. And the last thing we’ve done is room service went into vegan, and the final bit is banquets… We’ve rolled it out into banquets, so we’ve had a few vegan plated breakfasts. We have a special menu for plated vegan banquets, if someone wants that exclusiveness we can always do that.
So broad spectrum is what we did in the past three and a half years, and there’s been a good uptake for vegans, but also quite a few people as a family, the gentleman likes to have meat, but the lady doesn’t, for medical reasons, or just feels like it. I’ve met quite a few, although they’re a couple, one person likes to have meat, and another person likes to have vegan. But they don’t want to go to a vegan restaurant, because the gentleman doesn’t get the meat. So here is the place where you can sit at the same table, and do what you wish. That was something we were not prepared for – families that do both. But it was convincing for us that we did the right thing. A lot of people came and told us.
Gary – Why did you choose vegan as opposed to vegetarian?
Jinu – Vegetarian is well practiced, but veganism is actually not well practiced. One of our directors is a practicing vegan and has been a vegan for a number of years. We did a lot of food for her when she was here from Singapore, so we started doing that and as time evolved we wanted to have something… She stays in the hotel, and would ask ‘can I have something vegan?’, and the chefs would have to make, it was not something on the menu, and we would run and scramble. She and her husband are both vegans and there are times she’d come from Singapore without any notice and we’d be scrambling. So I decided we would have a set menu when she was here. And then the questions were asked ‘can we formalise this in a restaurant point of view?’ She said ‘yes, that’s a brilliant idea’, so that’s how it took off, and then we thought we’d let the wider world know that we did vegan. That set the ball rolling.
Gary – Is this the only hotel you’re aware of that does this?
Jinu – Absolutely.
Gary – Anywhere in the world?
Jinu – Now a lot of people are doing vegetarian degustations, but not vegan degustations.
Gary – Do you call your food degustation?
Jinu – No. Fine dining. What we have here is upmarket bistro. What some people mean by fine dining is table cloths, aprons, ties… but fine dining in other words is saying to people that look, the food is absolutely brilliant, it’s served in nice sized portions.
Gary – More like nouvelle cuisine, big plate, nice design.
Jinu – Yeah. But we don’t go that small. You can call it fine dining, but we don’t do degustations. It’s simply because of the scale of what we do. At some point, maybe, but not at the moment.
Gary – One thing I wondered about when you were talking about sourcing quality ingredients is that a lot of vegans eat fake meat stuff. I’ve quizzed those people about where the fake meat comes from and it’s a lot of soy stuff from America and China and they don’t know if it’s genetically modified…
Jinu – When we started with the Asian influence I actually started using the mock meats. Over a period of time I started reading about these mock meats and what it has and what it doesn’t have and started quizzing myself. Because all the food here is something that I love to eat, it has to pass through me. I’m a meat eater, I’m at least two days a week vegetarian, because of health reasons – as a chef we gobble up too much sweets. I’ve got a sweet tooth and I love meat, so it’s more a medical or a health reason. So, if I have to have my food here and charge $28 or $29 it had to be satisfying to my palate, I could not do some rice paper roulade with some chutney… it doesn’t work for me. It has to work for me in terms of nutritional balance, and it has to look great on a plate. It has to have the starch, the protein and the fibre. Fibre is easy, protein’s the difficult part. That’s where the mock meats came in. But then as I read through it and went to Blissful and went to a few Asian restaurants in Auckland who do mock meats in stir-fries, I started reading about it and took it off the menu. That was a good six months I did that; after that it was in the bin, thrown out, never again. You want to be healthy and good and… you end up using all this modified stuff that is heavily processed. Didn’t want that, so probably the only produce we use that could be called processed is chocolate. We have a single origin chocolate. It has to look good, and if I get quizzed, I have to be able to stand there and say I’ve done the research, I could be wrong but I know that xxx things are not used.
Gary – So if you’re not using that soy stuff, how are you getting the protein?
Jinu – Proteins can be synthesized very easily within 48 hours from a wide range of food. What I started doing was using nuts and seeds in different ways, started dehydrating, soaking, making a flour out of it, so basically doing a bit of raw vegan cooking, and then making something. We also use some tofu, which is the organic tofu. But again processed into nice and tasty, not just bland. We chop it up finely and sautéed with mushroom, spring onion, garlic, give it some flavour, and then stuff it into potato or something we have on the current menu with a bit of peas and legumes. In totality, when we have something on our menu, we smoke the tomato and onions and give a bit of a twist to it. We have herbs and dressings and that in totality brings out the protein content in that. And we’ve got a cashew nut salad, cashew cheese; again it’s soaked, we make it sour, use some probiotics. Cheese is a reference point; we use a lot of things as a reference point in veganism. It’s a mince cashew on the plate, people don’t understand; if I say a cashew cheese they understand from a reference point of view. On the plate it looks like goat cheese, but they already know it’s cashew.
Gary – So it’s not trying to be exactly cheese but it’s kind of got a texture or a look.
Jinu – A lot of people when I’ve done my demos, they will scoff, ‘how can you call it a cheese?’, and I say please, cheese is a reference point. You can’t call a cheesecake – there are two types of cheesecake, the baked and the non-baked – but then you have the raw vegans who don’t heat anything above 40 degrees Celsius to preserve the enzymes, that’s what we’re getting into next, high raw produce. But if you give it to an expert and say that’s macadamia cheese put in a shell and soaked in quinoa, they’re going to say ‘I’m not going to try it’, but if you say the same thing, the reference point, being a cheesecake, looks like a cheesecake, might not taste like a New York baked cheesecake, but your mind and your… it’s a comfort for the person, a reference point. But I as the chef need to make sure that they taste similar, so at least people will say that’s a good flavour, but different, not ‘it doesn’t taste like a cheesecake’. So it’s a lot of nuts, seeds, legumes, tofu in its totality, it’s all natural, a lot of research, and talking to nutritionists. Asking them what do you mean by protein. Meat eaters like myself, we ingest a lot more protein than a body needs. We don’t need an overkill. You don’t need that protein. So again, that’s how we try to make it a complete food, except for desserts where you can’t always win over the protein, fibre or starch.
Gary – You mentioned umami, how do you replicate that flavour? My wife’s Japanese and she’s done a lot of research at home at how to convert the Japanese flavours to vegan. She thinks of umami being more like a mushroom type of flavour than meat, more seaweed and mushrooms.
Jinu – Absolutely. Seaweed, nori, bakame, these are things that we use, and mushroom, you’ll find this on every meat-eating restaurant which has a vegetarian component, always mushroom because it tastes a little bit meaty. We also do it with olives, dehydrated olives, we have something called earl grey wakame salad, a dehydrated product which is blended, which gives it an umami – we’re not trying to replicate, just trying to add in that flavour. Even if bean curd is used, you can add and subtract flavours, whereas with meat you can’t. Good vegetable stocks, we make the vegetable stocks, avocado oil, hempseed oil. Extra virgin olive oil to a nice salad. Red wine, which has to be vegan. But if you really want those umami flavours you can do it with three or four items, we play with a lot of items, ingredients to get that taste in our mouth which our senses call umami, or that fifth taste. Whenever we say ‘wow!’, it’s all our senses telling us that the texture is brilliant, the salt and pepper and everything is in harmony. That’s what we’re trying to get. Sometimes I just add, let’s say avocados… it’s nice in season, that buttery taste, add a bit of dehydrated olives, a touch of it and it’s mind-blowing. Japanese cuisine is really about that balance, sometimes putting in a little bit more and taking a little bit out, to the right level, and saying anything more would be bad, anything less would be bland. A lot of influence in my cooking is Japanese. I’ve never been trained in Japanese, but one of my favourites is Soto, the chef from there is a good friend of mine and now he’s started Kokoro.
A lot of new techniques have been used. Molecular gastronomy, very simple stuff like agar agar, irish mosh, seaweed, xantham gum. So we use natural stuff, nothing processed as such, very minimalistic. These are expensive to get, and not conventional to use them. We use small effects so that people go ‘wow, that’s something we can’t cook at home’. We’ve got to do things you can’t easily make at home, that’s why you come here. We use things like freeze-dried products, not as a way of preserving something, but you don’t lose any flavour, you just lose the water which can be reconstituted, you don’t lose the shape, it doesn’t go brown, it’s a very quick process, and it’s brilliant for us because it gives that crunch in the mouth; I use it basically for that texture. And it’s that sweetness of the fruit, you haven’t added a single thing to it. All these are not modern techniques, but… We use compression, things like melons, bananas, in the vacuum packer that we have. Again we’re not cooking it, we’re just putting a little bit of sugar syrup in and compressing in the vac pack bag, compressing under high pressure so that sugar syrup is penetrating in and drawing the water in the cells out, so we’re infusing flavour into the food without cooking or anything. These are new techniques. It takes a matter of a minute to do something like that; we’re not cooking or destroying anything.
Gary – It’s technology but it’s not processing or depleting anything.
Jinu – We have the cashew salad and we were blanching or cooking in margarine or oil. Heat and eat. We vacuum chamber pack the little petite vegetables, add some extra virgin olive oil and a bay leaf, compress it, and because the cells are not as weak as melons and bananas, you can eat it straight away, we compress it and use very little olive oil and one bay leaf, you don’t need to use so many ingredients to make it, and then we put it in an oven and cook it at 85 degrees for 20 minutes; we don’t even take it up to 100 degrees which kills some vitamins. So we control that process and take it out, chill it, and keep it in the bag, and when we want to use it we take it out. It’s fresh and much more tasty and nutrition-wise superb. Again, technology helps us. So that’s how we evolved and what we’re trying to do.
Gary – Your background is Indian?
Jinu – Yes.
Gary – You don’t seem to use Indian influences.
Jinu – I’ve not been trained in Indian cooking as such. I started out in India in an Italian restaurant, and then in hotels. And then I came here, in 2003.
Gary – You’ve never been interested in pursuing Indian food at all?
Jinu – No-no, I do like the flavours, the subtle flavour of cardamoms, the subtle spices, but I’m not particularly interested in cooking curries and all that. There’s a lot more to it than just curries. I use ideas… like poppadums, you can do the same thing with a spring roll wrapper, you can stuff it with something then fry it and it puffs up like a poppadum. It’s not a poppadum because there are no spices but… Food is universal I think, you can take an idea and tweak it to what you’ve been taught in your broad spectrum. I do love Indian food. Cardamom is a beautiful flavour, and vanilla. Cinnamon. But even in that cuisine you have to get the right ingredients. Back home I’ve seen spices just left outside. Again, it’s taking any ingredient and using it properly. You can have prepackaged spices, but the real flavour is not in that, it’s how the person has treated the grower, like fine teas, people who know how to use that and produce that and what the end product is. I’ve always studied that. Where I was learning was a hotel. Those are the lessons I got from these chefs who are at the top of their game. It’s about these guys who know their spices; they don’t buy those prepackaged, they blend theirs, roast theirs and keep it vacuum bagged and only use it when required, make small batches, use it for only a week, and that’s the flavour in the food that really is different. You can overdo an Indian marination easily. To be honest, Indian cooking is not nutritious in a broad spectrum. You have naan and potato and a few curries, it might be called vegetarian, but it’s too much cooking, it tastes brilliant, but…
Gary – It’s kind of like meat. You’ve got those heavy proteins from things like lentils and beans but very little fresh stuff.
Jinu – Although if you look into the Indian cooking there is so much fresh stuff which people don’t really eat and it’s not famous because…
Gary – I LOVE Indian food and it’s taken me a long time to get used to the more mild, balanced food. That’s where Japanese cooking is coming from and as you said, that’s where you’re coming from as well. Whereas Indian food tends to really hit you over the head.
Jinu – I’ve been to a lot of Indian takeaways here but none of them appeals to me, because it’s either over the top or just… sometimes you don’t even get the flavours. Sometimes they use too much cream; in India you don’t need to use so much cream, we have cashew, there are different gravies, and continental cooking you’ve got base sauces. Similarly in India, sauces from thousands of years, but you’ve got to get those right, and here they just mix and match.
Gary – You’re from New Delhi?
Jinu – Yes. And trained in New Delhi.
Gary – Is it going well?
Jinu – It has definitely worked well for us. To the wider audience when you’re pitching it’s not just vegan but also meat eaters. Five percent of New Zealand’s population is vegetarian, but only two percent are vegans, so we’re speaking to a very small community. We’ve been working with the vegetarian society because we needed to get our facts right. All I’m concerned is how ethical we are and whether we’re doing the right thing or not. It’s picked up over time and we’re getting more response. I’ve done cooking demos at Taste which is a predominantly meat oriented, restaurant association thing in May, and it was a packed house and they want a repeat of that one. It was the first time someone did a vegan cooking demo and people loved what they ate. Most of them come here for dinners and lunches but make it more a place for the experience. They don’t do it regularly. We’ve had the vegan dinners in the evenings, a sold out crowd a few times. They’ve made it as a destination. It’s been a good uptake from where we started to what we are now.
• To celebrate World Vegan Month (November), Heritage Auckland is offering a two-for-one vegan high tea in the hotel’s lobby café for $32. Bookings 09 9797434. www.heritagehotels.co.nz