April 6, 2011

Natural Foodie: Vegan food goes mainstream in Portland

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

When the swanky Grace Restaurant opened almost two years ago in Portland, its menu was populated by meat and seafood-based entrees. But six months ago, the popular eatery did something unusual in Portland's top-tier restaurant scene: It added a vegan entree to its regular menu.

click image to enlarge

Responding to customer requests for plant-based foods, Whole Foods Market in Portland added this salad bar featuring vegan and macrobiotic dishes. Numerous eateries in Portland are puting vegan dishes on their menus as demand for this style of food grows.

Avery Yale Kamila/Staff Writer

"Why we have the dish started with demand," general manager Kate Tozier said. "We saw more and more people requesting vegan."

Right now, the $18 vegan entree is mushroom mac and peas featuring cauliflower puree, wild mushrooms, black truffles and snow peas.

Tozier said the 120-seat restaurant sells about a dozen of the vegan entrees each night.

Grace is not alone in fielding a growing number of requests for plant-based meals.

"The trend is there to be vegan," said Mary Paine, who owns the Pepperclub in Portland with Eddie Fitzpatrick. "A lot of young people who come in are newly vegan, and then we get older customers who've always been vegan."

During its 22-year history, the Pepperclub has been a go-to spot for vegetarians. But in recent years, the restaurant has taken the dairy and eggs out of many of the dishes on the vegetarian side of its menu to accommodate the growing number of vegan diners.

"Our menu has evolved so much," Paine said. "We've become more vegan. It really does come from our customers."

Whole Foods Market in Portland is also responding to increased customer requests for information about plant-based meals. In February, the store held its first Vegan Fest, featuring tastings and expert advice.

"It was incredibly popular," said Barbara Gulino, marketing team leader for the store. "It was a huge turnout. People I spoke to were anywhere from being a vegan their whole life to people dabbling in it. I spoke to a number of people who'd been doing it for a year or were recent converts."

In the summer of 2009, the Portland Whole Foods store responded to shopper requests and devoted one of its salad bars to vegan and macrobiotic items. The offerings change daily and feature an assortment of nuts, seeds, beans and cut vegetables, plus prepared salads with ingredients such as quinoa, kale and avocado.

Six months ago, the store hired Tanja Kunz as its heathy eating specialist. It's Kunz's job to help guide customers to more healthful food choices under the banner of Whole Foods' Health Starts Here program.

The dietary program has four pillars: eat whole, unprocessed foods; eat a colorful variety of plants; eat healthy fats; and eat nutrient-dense foods.

While the program doesn't necessarily promote a vegan diet, Kunz said "it really talks about reconfiguring your plate to include more fruits, vegetables and whole grains."

Portland now has three restaurants that offer vegan pizza on their menus.

In addition to Silly's and Flatbread Company, the family-owned Leonardo's, which has locations in Portland, Burlington, Vt., and South Burlington, Vt., sells an all-vegan pizza.

Called the Vegan Salvation, the pie comes topped with olive oil garlic sauce, vegan soy cheese, chopped spinach, red onions, white mushrooms, plum tomatoes and black olives.

"A couple years ago, we decided to make our whole wheat dough organic," said Kelly Byers, Leonardo's director of operations and son-in-law of founder Phil George. "When we started doing that, one of our employees in Burlington said that there are a lot of people who are vegan."

The employee, who isn't a vegan, suggested that the company add a vegan pizza, and about a year ago it became a permanent menu feature.

The consumer research firm Mintel, which maintains a database of menus from hundreds of chain restaurants in the United States, reports that between 2008 and 2010, these eateries increased by 26 percent the number of menu items marked vegetarian or vegan.

As the mountain of peer-reviewed research showing that people who eat a diet centered on plants have better health grows, more people in Maine and across the nation are looking to incorporate foods made without animal products into their dining habits.

On the national stage, the increased focus on plant-based diets and vegan foods is hard to miss.

Rory Freedman's and Kim Barnouin's plainspoken "Skinny Bitch" vegan diet book, published in 2005, has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list. Currently, Kathy Freston's "Veganist" cookbook is a top seller on Amazon.com.

Oprah Winfrey has devoted several shows to the topic, most recently recruiting 378 of her staffers to go vegan for a week.

While Winfrey often promotes vegan foods, she doesn't follow this style of eating exclusively. In contrast, fellow talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres is a vegan, and often brings this up on her show.

Television personality Montel Williams can now be seen in a talk show-style infomercial called "Living Well with Montel," which promotes the health and weight-loss benefits of drinking raw, vegan juices.

Even America's domestic diva, Martha Stewart, hosted an all-vegan show last week.

But likely one of the biggest boosts to the vegan trend came last fall, when former President Clinton told CNN's Wolf Blitzer he'd adopted a plant-based diet.

"I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits; I drink a protein supplement every morning," Clinton told Blitzer. "No dairy. I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder, so I get the protein for the day when I start the day out. And it changed my whole metabolism, and I lost 24 pounds and got back to basically what I weighed in high school."

Clinton, who's undergone quadruple bypass surgery and had two coronary stents implanted, went on to say the weight loss was a welcome side benefit but not what motivated him to change what he eats.

"I did all this research," Clinton continued, "and I saw that 82 percent of the people since 1986 who've gone on a plant-based, no dairy, no meat of any kind, no chicken, turkey -- I eat very little fish. Once in a while, I'll have a little fish, not often. If you can do it, 82 percent of the people who've done that have begun to heal themselves. Their arterial blockage cleans up. The calcium deposit around their heart breaks up."

Such a solid endorsement of a plant-centered diet from a leader whose fondness for hamburgers was legendary can't help but have an impact on others facing similar health challenges. Not to mention those who want to avoid heart disease altogether.

Here in food-conscious Portland, where national culinary trends intersect with Maine's strong locavore movement, you don't need to be a clairvoyant to realize we're bound to see more vegan dishes on restaurant menus in the future.

There can no longer be any doubt: vegan food has officially gone mainstream.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: akamila@pressherald.com

Follow her on Twitter at: Twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila

 

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