Most people who go vegan have a deeply personal reason for making the switch, and no one relates more than chef Giorgio Locatelli, who’s just newly launched vegan menu — in this instance — promises to be Dubai’s biggest and most varied, with 40 dishes on offer at his restaurant Ronda Locatelli at Atlantis The Palm.
The enabler of chef Locatelli’s new age menu of sustainable bent is his newly-turned vegan 21-year-old daughter, who suffered severe food allergies as a child. Shaken by the allergen-triggered anaphylactic shocks that nearly killed her a couple of times, and then pushed by his largely vegetarian wife’s eating habits, Locatelli learnt how to replicate nearly every dish using safer, alternative ingredients that they could eat without fear. “You’ll be surprised, but simplicity is the key to it,” says the Italian chef, sunning himself in Ronda Locatelli’s outdoor area.
At a glance, the new menu hardly looks simple, but is a clever amalgam of dishes centred around the Italian staples: salads, pasta, pizza, with vegetables — special mention to locally sourced baby spinach — and vegan mozzarella, which took Locatelli and his team months and shuttling between continents, to perfect. “It took a lot of trial and error. I remember one of the first attempts, when we put it on the pizza, tasted it and nearly spat it out! It was that disgusting. The one that finally made it to the menu is made of soya and fermented coconut milk, and no, it doesn’t taste exactly like actual mozzarella, but it has the mouthfeel, you know…” he says.
So, Locatelli’s put the creation on the menu at his London restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, as well, encouraged by the demand, especially from increasingly ethically conscious youngsters.
The 55-year-old chef believes there’s no other way forward. “If we just keep eating meat and steak the way we currently do, the world is go to [expletive]. It’s just not sustainable. I was convinced about going vegetarian — if not vegan — a long time, when most chefs blanched at the idea,” he says.
He tells us about this one time he was in New York, and met a farmer with seven bags with 100 kilograms of soya each, and on the other side of the table, 1kg of meat. The man was illustrating the cost to the environment — that it took those 700kg of feed to produce that 1kg of meat we eat. “And he was like, you chefs should do something with all this soya instead.”
Coming back to Ronda Locatelli, the chef says it’s the largest vegan menu from a non-vegan restaurant in Dubai. “But honestly, if you look at Italian cuisine, it’s very natural to cook around and tailor dishes around vegetarian ingredients. Up until the end of the Second World War, Italy was a region where less meat was eaten. Each region has a selection vegetables that you traditionally don’t find in the others: puntarelle [a chicory variety] from around Rome, Parmigiana (eggplant) from Sicily or Parma, that have been transformed into world-famous dishes. So there is a tradition of doing that,” Giorgio says.
“When you do vegan food, consistency becomes more important than the flavour.
Once upon a time, you would take the meat, chicken or fish out of the dish and serve the ‘leftovers’ as vegetarian or vegan food. Now, we’re building dishes from scratch.
“For instance, we tried marinating celeriac for 24 hours, slow cooked it for four hours, pan-fried it and then got someone to taste it. They were like ‘wow, what is this?’ So vegan food can be that amazing,” the chef points out.
So RL’s menu features a selection of plant based starters including insalata estiva, a summer mixed vegetable salad and insalata di spinaci; baby spinach, pomegranate dressing and vegan cheese with walnuts. As well as the ever popular tomato focaccia, zucchini fritte and focaccia all’aglio which is garlic focaccia with creamy vegan cheese.
If you’re a pizza fan, there’s eight different varieties of vegan, crispy pizzas prepared fresh with homemade dough which is fermented for a minimum of 48 hours for both taste and texture. There’s the classic margherita, and for those looking for something extra, the quattro stragioni is ideal with tomato sauce, vegan mozzarella, black olives, mushrooms, artichoke and aubergine.
Besides pasta choices, diners can also choose from sides of potatoes, chilli and garlic broccoli, steamed spinach and asparagus.
“Once upon a time, we would’ve hidden many of these dishes among the starters or the pastas on the regular menu, but thanks to the demand for vegan food in Dubai, we could breathe new life into them,” the chef says.
Some of the menu was developed in his London restaurant and brought here, but finding the mozzarella was the crucial link, he laughs.
Locatelli’s favourite on the menu is the baby spinach, pomegranate and vegan cheese salad, of course. “It’s got incredible texture, and the UAE-grown spinach is very fresh, as you can expect.”
He’s super keen on having more locally sourced ingredients over time. “If you freight meat around the world, the people on the other side might get a better product because it’s been aged and cured. But not so with vegetables: if you refrigerate it and fly it around the world, then make a salad out of it, it’s just not the same flavour.”
The restaurant has been working with a lot of local produce, but the quality varies all the time, he says. “It’s the same with the fish. But two days ago we went to the new Deira Waterfront Market, and the selection is unbelievable. We’ve made some supply arrangements directly with the fishermen. This is what Dubai restaurants need to look into more and more: sustainable sourcing and operations.”
All said, Locatelli doesn’t believe in forcing down anything — including veganism — down anyone’s throats. Instead, he says something that — maybe unbeknown to him — is also a line from the culinary-themed movie, ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’: “A chef must lead”.
“If veganism has to be taken to the people, the chef has to transform it into great flavours. People don’t like being told what to eat. Picking what you eat is one of the few choices you have in your day, if you think about it.”
HOW TO VEGANISE YOUR DIET:
• Replace cow’s milk with soy, coconut, almond, oat or rice milk.
• Not all vegan food is salad! For a wrap, replace the meat with felafel or beans and add hummus. Stir-fries just need a good mix of vegetables and/or tofu: add to your rice or noodles. Nuts can be added for protein.
• Switch up meat, fish and paneer in your food with chickpeas and lentils.
• Dairy-free spreads are available at most supermarkets, to make cream or add to soup and curries.
• Roast dinners can be replaced with baked vegetables with herbs, spiced and marinated fillings.
• Pancakes can be made with buckwheat flour, added to plant milk.
• Any nut butter or avocado on wholegrain toast or rye bread is great breakfast. Ditto for oats in plant milk.
• If you miss the ‘full’ feeling from animal protein, Brussels sprouts and Portobello mushrooms are great alternatives.
• What about eggs used in baking? Mix1 tablespoon of ground flax seeds or whole chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water to replace one ‘egg’ used for your cakes, cookies and muffins.
• Hunt for vegan ingredients and snack options at the supermarket!