By Regina Baraban
With more than 20 years of leadership experience in the kitchen, award-winning Chef Tom Luu is committed to environmental sustainability. Chefs, he says, “have a moral responsibility to adjust and shift our services to the demands of our global customers, pivoting when it comes to food awareness and sustainability.” A case in point is the new plant-based menu offerings he created for the Sheraton Centre Toronto—not just for the restaurants but also for the event and catering menus. We recently caught up with Chef Luu to get the details on his plant-based menus and his thoughts on what changing food expectations mean for groups.
Prevue: What inspired the new plant-based menu offerings? Do they represent a shift in the way people eat?
Chef Luu: The shift to plant-based proteins and vegetable-based choices is something that started many years ago. It’s taken our industry time to adjust our offerings to alternative means of eating protein and to more sustainable options, given the growing global population.
At Sheraton Centre Toronto, we introduced our plant-based menu offerings at the start of 2023 in both the hotel restaurants and in our events and catering offerings. There are alternative dining options for breakfast, coffee break, lunch and dinner. The food industry goes through many phases, but plant-based menu offerings are not a phase and are becoming the expectation. This has changed the way diners eat and how chefs prepare menu offerings.
Prevue: Please describe some of the new food offerings. What sets them apart from veggie dishes of the past such as spaghetti with red sauce or steamed veggies?
Chef Luu: We have a wide variety of offerings that mimic the flavors of traditional items, such as sushi made with konjac flour, a gluten-free, powdered root vegetable from Southeast Asia that has been used for hundreds of years in other recipes. Other menu items include plant-based sausages made with soy, wheat and pea proteins, plant-based eggs, alternative ground beef and even pulled beef that tastes like the real thing but is made from seitan and tofu. These plant-based protein items have a very similar texture and taste to traditional proteins. The flavor and sauces are the same as in regular recipes. Just the protein differs. We adjust the recipes slightly with the seasons. For example, we use more plant-based cream for the cooler months of the year.
These creative foundations allow us chefs to create food for guests seeking alternative options with minimal adjusting of the recipe procedures. And in some cases, it tastes better, too!
Prevue: Are you getting more requests from meeting and incentive planners for plant-based food? What are the challenges of offering plant-based dishes for groups?
Chef Luu: Yes, there has been a big shift in the demand for vegan and plant-based offerings. I think COVID caused everyone to rethink their eating habits and focus more on sustainable foods and healthier options. When we tell planners we have plant-based breakfast offerings that look and taste like traditional bacon, eggs and sausage, they are surprised and excited that these are available. The only challenge is that these dishes do have a higher cost. But, as everyone on a plant-based lifestyle has experienced, you see the same price differential at the grocery store.
Prevue: What is your advice for meeting planners interested in offering more plant-based food at group events?
Chef Luu: Chefs are empowered by opportunities to create WOW experiences. I think we in the hospitality industry, meeting and event planners included, need to keep offering exciting new alternative menu items. We should evaluate these plant-based offerings from the eyes of the attendees and add menu recommendations with their first-hand feedback. We also need to motivate others to assist in creating more alternative offerings in a sustainable way.