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Toronto Restaurateurs are taking the leap of faith – they’re going vegan

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Restaurateurs are taking the leap of faith – they're going vegan

As Toronto diners embrace plant-based food trends, more and more formerly carnivorous chefs are redesigning their palates, as well

Vegans becoming restaurateurs is an old story, often told as a joke. As in, did you hear about the Marxist who tried capitalism?

What's new is restaurateurs going vegan, and their faith that the market will bear it.

Scrolling through the adventurous menu for Planta, Toronto's newest vegan restaurant, you'll find a few cheeky acknowledgments of the authors' inspirations.

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"Habibi" (Arabic for "beloved") is a nod to the chef's mother, who helped create the dish, a mix of finely chopped cauliflower, split pea fritters, parsley and mint. "The Italian Job" pizza, enriched with cashew mozzarella and fennel sausage, pays tribute to the 1969 Michael Caine film. And the "18 Carrot Dog" is of course a reference to the solid-gold balls that executive chef David Lee and owner Steven Salm must have in order to charge $17 for a carrot in a hot dog bun.

The Habibi Salad is seen at Planta restaurant in Toronto.

JENNIFER ROBERTS for the Globe and Mail

That veggie dog, a carrot smoked before being fried on a plancha grill, served with mustard, sauerkraut and pickles on a house-baked bun, is a signpost of change, evidenced by the unambiguous strategy spelled out on Planta's website – "to fill a void in the market of upscale, full service, plant-based dining options" – based on an assumption that guests are willing to pay good money for non-animal food.

We are moving beyond the long-held and false perception that, because meat is expensive, vegetables should be cheap. That's never been true. The current price of pecans is more than steak. Planta's move into this market is the signal that customers are ready to value it.

"I don't necessarily think that's about a value for vegetables," Mr. Salm says. "I think that's about a value for our own health and performance. The days are gone when people think that going for lunch on Thursday means that's their day to indulge."

For many diners, giving up sugar, fat and meat may be the path to the movie-star bodies we're taught to covet. Mr. Salm, however, is a true believer.

This veggie dog features a carrot smoked before being fried on a plancha grill.

JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Near the end of 2015, he went down the rabbit hole of books, articles and documentaries (more specifically Cowspiracy) about animal agriculture and its cost to the environment, the outrageous use of water and fuel needed to raise cattle for beef. By January of 2016, he had gone vegan.

"I've adopted a plant-based diet for close to 11 months now," Mr. Salm says, avoiding the word "vegan" the way one steps over dog poop on the sidewalk, "and my performance across the board has increased. I'm thinking clearer. I'm sleeping better."

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Don't take his word for it. Ask celebrity vegan spokespeople Bill Clinton, Jessica Chastain or The RZA.

Mr. Salm is hardly the first person to launch a vegetarian or vegan business following a moral awakening. However, unlike the owners of other popular Toronto vegetarian restaurants – Fresh, Kupfert & Kim – this one makes a living selling steak and shrimp.

As president of Chase Hospitality Group, Salm oversees The Chase (a financial area rooftop restaurant dedicated to luxurious but sustainable seafood), Colette (a bright room next to the Thompson Hotel, serving classic French fare such as escargot persillade and duck confit) and Kasa Moto (a Japanese Yorkville spot with $125 American Wagyu striploins). Since making his personal change in January, he has also evolved the menus of all these restaurants, from having a few vegetarian options (often bolstered by dairy products) to being 25-per-cent free of animal products.

Planta’s Italian Job Pizza, referencing the 1969 Michael Caine film, is topped with cashew mozzarella and fennel sausage.

JENNIFER ROBERTS for the Globe and Mail

This move comes at a time when we are divesting ourselves of old attitudes towards vegans and how to cater to that clientele. And some of that adjustment seems to be focused on the word "vegan" itself and what it has come to connote.

"The word 'vegan' comes with a lot of good, ethical choices," chef Nathan Isberg says, "that often get subsumed into a religious fervour and a myopic perspective on why one might do these things. It does more to shut down thought than it does to engage."

Mr. Isberg is no stranger to radicalism. In various stages of his former restaurant The Atlantic, he cooked crickets, eliminated alcohol and allowed customers to pay what they thought the meal was worth.

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Returning to Toronto after travels in Peru and the Arctic, he's launching a new restaurant, Awai. While also avoiding the word, it will be vegan.

"The more I focus on cooking vegetables, the more I enjoy cooking in general," says Mr. Isberg, a lifelong on-and-off vegan who has run out of excuses to eat and cook animal products.

"The name Awai, I read in a book on Shinto temple cooking, is basically the opposite of umami, this flavour that doesn't have an analogy in English. Graceful and delicate. To a certain degree, it's a response to what I see as this almost nihilistic drive, the idea that consumption for pleasure's sake necessitates an overbearing approach to the world."

Chef David Lee of Planta restaurant serves inspired plant-based dishes from which diners don’t even notice the meat is missing.

jENNIFER ROBERTS for the globe and mail

Statistics Canada doesn't collect data on veganism or vegetarianism. But it seems as if we are all trying to eat less meat.

Look at the reaction to the Impossible Burger in the States. The patty, made of a plant-based substitute that mimics beef so closely it "bleeds," has gone on the menus at carnivorous U.S. restaurants Jardiniere, Cockscomb and Momofuku Nishi, earning unlimited free press and lineups from meat-eaters.

Mainstays of vegetarian dining in Toronto – Café 668, Udupi Palace – are still with us. And you can find quotation-mark comfort foods – "chick-un nuggets" at Grasshopper, "vegan Mac Daddy" at Doomie's, "phish 'n chips" at Hogtown Vegan – all over town.

More important, the industry has been adapting to vegetarians who don't want to be segregated into claustrophobic restaurants where a section of the menu titled "Bowls" lists random whole grains and vegetables thrown together too quickly to be named. And meat-eaters also want to eat out without feeling bloated and gross. This has given rise to the trend of non-vegetarian restaurants serving the best vegetarian food.

Woodlot offers diners two menus, one meat and one vegetarian. I have had meals at Momofuku Daisho where we ordered only the vegetable dishes and felt we were missing nothing.

Dandylion chef/owner Jay Carter approaches meat as a garnish.

"We love to season with animals," Mr. Carter says. "Like we might take a beautifully honey-roasted squash, grind up some beef jerky and use that as the salt."

But it's not enough to serve more of one thing and less of another. Diners, even when they're trying to eat lighter, or to eat less meat, still want to go for food that feels indulgent.

"If you take half of a squash and juice it through a vegetable juicer, then cook that vegetable back in its own juice, it helps to amplify the flavours," Mr. Carter says. "You lose absolutely nothing. To me, that's what makes things delicious and decadent."

Chefs finding creative ways to make vegetables feel rich and indulgent is a welcome change. But unless you're wealthy enough to have servants in your home, just going out to eat is still an indulgence. And on the ethical supply side, veganism doesn't mean no one suffers. You can eat a diet of vegetables grown exclusively on organic Ontario farms, and still be exploiting the "temporary foreign workers" who harvest the crops.

But we're making progress, at least away from the holy trinity of salt, sugar and fat. That the once universal sign of wealth, ordering a big steak, can be replaced by an equal sign of ostentation, a $17 carrot, means the needle is moving.

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