I am a vegetarian. Wait. Not totally true (two sticks for those who may think truth must be an absolute). Although I love eating meat, I am mostly a vegetarian. Ah, the Latin grasp on truth is a beautiful thing to see, as a Brazilian footballer who awe us with seemingly impossible skills and then dives to crave a penalty.
As you can see, I am at pains to say I am almost vegetarian. Still I occasionally eat fish and less often than once in a week, meat. Although that does not allow me to admit my diet is full vegetarian. It is enough to embarrass myself in front of a pride of lions at dinner.
I am more like the incidental catholic who goes to church in three occasions throughout his lifetime (baptism, confirmation, marriage and funeral – considering the similarity shared by the last two, should we say we go twice for the same reason!)
Sorry, this was not supposed to be funny.
Now you understand why I call myself the hypocrite vegetarian. I wear this self-deprecation as a badge of honour. I wish more of us were hypocrite vegetarians. I mean, you could do one better and be just total vegetarian, but being a hypocrite vegetarian is already a good beginning.
Then I decided to open a vegetarian restaurant
The vegetarianism purists will call me a heretic. The vegans… well the vegans don’t play ball here, when you don’t consider honey vegan because it represents enslavement of animals you would look at vegetarians and meat eaters as alike in their universal cruelty. The last time a vegan called me cruel I made her watch a video of an anaconda eating a dear… and that is real cruelty, for the poor dear as well. Rather than felling more sympathetic toward me, she instead became anti-anacondas. Who would have thought?
Still, I also cater for vegans. Somebody has to feed them some protein and I think I just know how.
So why open a vegetarian restaurant? Why bother when selling bacon patties is more profitable and easier? Because I decided for purely pragmatic reasons to eat less meat, in fact, to avoid eating meat altogether when possible. About the incidental catholic analogy, well I am also an atheist. Told you… the Latin grasp on truth…
I am here because I really believe we should eat less meat and I want to try to contribute to that by throwing out there a few ideas. You see, non-vegetarian people avoid vegetarian food because it is mostly dreadful. Others avoid it because of the lack of protein.
The worse that can happen when someone become vegetarian is stopping consuming protein and start to eat mostly starch. Be it from a potato or from a banana, starch in excess is not good for you. Cows only eat grass and still get fat; that is because animals produce fat. Besides that, in the context of modern humans, we industrialize sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, high omega-6 vegetable oils, all of which contribute more to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity than a grilled steak.
The conscious vegetarian need to be conscious of his diet
Life style is a... harsh mistress (sorry, couldn't write the "b" word, but English isn't my first language and couldn't fathom an alternative one).
The damning truth is: a vegetarian diet badly done can cause you more trouble than good. Information is key here. You don’t need more than 125g of carb a day, especially if you live a sedentary life as most of us do. All the extra carbohydrates in your diet will transform you into a dough ball. The worst kind of carbohydrate is also the most loved by the food industry: starch. Add that to another fact: people who eat less protein end up eating more of anything else. So if you became vegetarian and your diet lack protein and fat, you will ultimately consume more starch just because is more widely available. Moreover without enough calcium your bones density will be greatly compromised alongside other health problems a diet poor in animal content can bring you.
So how to escape this quagmire? Don’t just eat your veggies, choose carefully what to eat and when. Ultimately, all veggies are good if they are not in form of processed food. Some vegetables provide a good replacement to the protein and fat we need to survive that we generally get from farmed animals. You should find out whose vegetables they are and eat them more often.
About that "save the planet" allusion in healthy eating
There is another side to all of this. It is the most relevant and incredibly irritating to talk about or to hear someone talking about: food production. More precisely: meat production. As I said before, I decided to do this for pragmatic reasons only. I see this problem as a simple mathematics equation. If you are not sleeping yet, allow me to bore you a little further with this point. I will isolate two pieces of data that I gathered from the US National Library of Medicine, from a paper produced by Philip K. Thornton titled Livestock Production: recent trends, future prospects. The first information is:
“Total meat production in the developing world tripled between 1980 and 2002, from 45 to 134 million tons (World Bank 2009)”
This data becomes scary when read with this second bit of information:
“Livestock systems occupy about 30% of the planet’s ice-free terrestrial surface area (Steinfeld et al. 2006)”
Now to complete my mission to give you a heart attack or at least cause you depression I will through a third bit of information:
“Retailing through supermarkets is growing at 20 per cent per annum in countries such as China, India and Vietnam, and this will continue over the next few decades as urban consumers demand more (Rosegrant et al. 2009).”
Putting it simply: the world is demanding more meat, which requires more land, meaning more forests and natural environments have to give way to cattle production. We already use 30% of the ice-free land of the planet to livestock production alone. We still have to consider what we already use for production of vegetables and grains for human consumption, plus grains to feed the cattle itself.
Can a hypocrite preach ethical eating?
You must have seen by now where I am trying to get to here, the math doesn’t add up. At some point we will run out of land and this is not an exaggeration. I am from Brazil and I have seen this happening with my own eyes. A big chunk of the Amazon Forrest have been cleared in the last 3 decades to give way to cattle and cattle feed production alone. I was actually born in this very part of Brazil, on the State of Rondônia. My own existence is part of the problem. I am child of the first generation of white people (white to Latin standards, to be clear) to settle in the southern plains of the Amazonian rain-forest. My parents were one those settlers that moved from the European colonies of the very South of the country to the northwest. They were mostly ranchers and miners that went there to explore the land in the 80's and created a new state in what was 10 years before pure jungle. Pay attention on this, Rondônia is the size of England and Wales put together, there are today in Rondônia 10 cows to every inhabitant in the state. If cows there could vote, certainly there would be a bovine government there. Actually... mhmm.... let's leave politics aside.
When added up, an area bigger than France and Spain together disappeared in 30 odd years from the Amazon Forest, the vast majority of this land was cleared to farming, mostly to raise cattle and cattle feed, with them come loggers and village building.
There’s only so much the planet can afford to lose.
The only pragmatic approach our species can take is to reduce the consumption of meat and find alternatives to protein intake in our diet or search for another planet to produce cattle on because Earth’s quota is full.
I took it as a challenge to create dishes that are, healthy and at the same time tasty, entertaining and conscious of the environment we live in which will require protecting so our species may continue to exist.
“Emerson Amélio has a definite talent, and ohmigod what a work ethic… with his genial, seemingly devoted staff”
Fay Maschler, Evening Standard
“adventurous and imaginative combinations throughout the menu”
Adrian Seal, Restaurant Reviewer
Food has always been a passion of mine and during my adulthood it has been my main occupation. We come from a family of country folks attached to the soil and long established culinary traditions. From growing up in a small community in the southern plans of the Amazon Forrest to the hectic life of a chef in London town has been quiet an odyssey. But only lately in life I came to understand the importance of a flexible and healthy diet.
The greatest challenge that a chef faces when cooking vegetarian food is to make it interesting to non-vegetarians. We want to make eating healthy fun, delicious and a reason to sit around the table. And about the organic thingy… If you will spend your money and time going to a restaurant to eat, you might as well do it right.