By Tim Bouget of ODE-truefood

So let’s be clear. Being vegetarian does not necessarily make you healthy, just as sticking to a raw or other specific diet may or may not.

From my time in California and spending almost two years avoiding meat, I know only too well the health benefits and pitfalls of many of the so called fad diets.

Time away from eating meat is a very good thing and something I would encourage every chef to experience! My brief in Los Angeles was to develop food for a restaurant and destination spa that appealed and was inclusive to all. We called it “intelligent nutrition”. You might say not very exciting; but that was the point of challenge – to create a menu and a range of dishes that would be innovative, creative, wholesome and above all tasty and appealing to carnivores.

Many chefs would laugh at the challenge; the very same ones who would create a risotto or goats cheese tart for the “special” veggie menu. No wonder vegetarian customers feel hard done by on most restaurant visits.

Look at alternative produce

As a nation we all eat too much meat. Probably dairy and sweets too! I’m not blaming chefs for this but how many restaurants do you visit and find beef on the menu? Most I would suggest. Chefs need to look at different produce, such as deer, a wider variety of sustainable fish, and more great vegetarian dishes. I rarely have beef on the menu at my restaurant and have never served chicken.

Notice I use the word “customers” (they know what they want whereas consumers generally don’t) and they are more discerning than ever before. If you are a chef and your menu features beef in some form then you better ask your supplier some important questions to make sure you know the breed, the farm’s provenance, its feed, whether it’s been ethically slaughtered and how long it’s been hung before it makes into to the kitchen

Over recent months to reduce consumption and reduce global warming the idea of a “meat tax” has been discussed.

Taxing low grade meat

At the risk of sounding elitist, I have no problem with taxing low grade ready meals made from beef or any other meat brought in from overseas from mass produced factory farms. We could all do with eating less meat. Many of these meat factories damage our environment and use GM modified grains to feed their cattle. Chemical fertilisers, water consumption and run-off all have an environmental impact, not to mention the destruction of rainforests caused by increased demand for cattle feed.

Our region, the South West has amazing beef and dairy, a lot of which is organic pasture-fed. The question of damage caused to the environment by animal agricultures is rarely if ever raised here as our farmers understand it’s about being sustainable.

Whether beef, dairy or arable farmers, they all have difficulty enough coping with the competition from cheap imported produce. Increased or targeted tax hikes on their produce could put an end to our traditional breeds and herds and jeopardise and devastate the farming communities not just in the South West, but the whole UK.

There’s no question that we eat too much meat. In many developing countries such as Bali, where I’ve lived and worked, the diet is based around vegetables with a once weekly chicken perhaps as a treat for the family gathering. Many of these countries don’t suffer from heart disease, obesity and other ailments that affect us in the developed world.

Securing the future

It begs the question about our culture and what we are teaching our future generations about food and diet. Even at school meal times, there is a myth that we should eat meat every day to give us the essential minerals, proteins and vitamins to learn and grow.

There was a day when you bought meat from a butcher, a specialist who could tell you about the cut and provenance. Now you can buy a steak from a garage supermarket.

But we really do need to stop for a moment and consider what price do we all put on our health and what we put into our bodies? And what is the wider environmental impact?

Chefs’ responsibility

For me it comes down to education and awareness. It is our responsibility as chefs and restaurateurs, to teach the next generation of children, and indeed chefs, the importance of eating a balanced diet. Chefs must carry some of the blame. We just don’t make the non-meat dishes good enough.

Is taxing meat the answer?

Please go ahead if it’s from a factory farm overseas and do us all a favour by making it so expensive no one can afford to buy it. Perhaps then consumers will eat more of our traditional diet of vegetables, grains, pulses and for that special treat once a week, a joint of meat which can then be used throughout the week. We all have to work within our budgets. By making dishes without meat more varied and delicious, then people will choose them more often.

Finally, of course it’s the customers’ choice to eat meat when they eat out. But they mustn’t be afraid to ask where the meat is from and how it’s been produced. If they can’t tell you, then go for the vegetarian option and hope it’s not a risotto or goats cheese tart! You will be helping your health and the environment and keeping the chef on his toes.