At La Bartola in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, chef Ivan Castro specializes in moles and salsas inspired by the state of Oaxaca and his hometown of Mexico City.
“My passion was born when I was a kid, watching my mom making tortillas from scratch or watching my grandma make salsas in a volcanic stone mortar. They taught me the passion and the love for Mexican cuisine,” he says.
It’s that cuisine that defines La Bartola – not the fact that the menu is 100 per cent plant-based.
Take, for example, a recent tasting menu inspired by the Mexican state of Yucatán. Castro’s take on aguachile, a ceviche-style dish, features recado negro, a smoky spice mix, alongside charred avocado and grilled maitake mushrooms. Other dishes include banana blossoms, nance, a fruit that looks like a cherry and tastes like a combination of banana, lychee and pear, and hibiscus jelly.
“What I’m trying to do with my food – in order to attract all kinds of people, to make a very inclusive restaurant – is not to try to replicate or to imitate food that already exists,” says Castro. “If you want steak, I wouldn’t make a vegan or plant-based steak because if I offer you that and you love the flavour of steak, you’re expecting that flavour or texture. What I’m trying to do is offer you different tastes that you maybe haven’t tried before – to surprise your palate.”
Defying the expectations of omnivores and flexitarians is a challenge that chefs like Castro and his contemporaries are willing to take on. Sometimes, it’s as simple as offering an abundance of plant-based options on a menu that also includes meat. At Parallel, a Middle Eastern spot located in the unlikely foodie hub that’s sprung up on the formerly industrial Geary Ave., the Ozery brothers offer a small number of meat dishes on a menu that is 80 per cent vegetarian. And SOOS, Lauren Soo’s Ossington Avenue restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept, currently offers a separate vegan menu under the moniker Fat Choi, which serves up modern Malaysian dishes, meat-free.
“I actually think there’s space [for plant-based eating] in a lot of ethnic food,” Soo says. “There are some instances where people will be like, ‘Oh, I have to have meat’ but then they’ll eat some of the things on our menu that are completely plant-based, like our daal and roti or our Prosperity slaw and say, ‘This is my favourite dish!’ and we’ll tell them, yes, that dish is actually vegan. It’s the perspective we’re trying to change.”
Even the much-derided world of vegan ‘cheese’ is changing. Lynda Turner, a former scientist with Health Canada, missed the social aspect of wine and cheese gatherings after going vegan. When she couldn’t find a substitute that satisfied her palate, she decided to make her own. Now her Feast On-certified vegan cheese shop, Fauxmagerie Zengarry, makes plant-based French brie, Boursin-style fromage frais, Swiss-style products and more, often integrating local produce.
“Vegan cheese has a really bad reputation,” says Turner. “There’s an attitude like, ‘I have to sacrifice if I’m going to give up dairy and cheese.’ But I don’t think that’s the case. Vegan cheese can be delicious and enjoyable. I love the new flexitarian attitude where people are not being as strict on themselves and they don’t necessarily buy into those labels. They’re more inclusive and open to plant-based options. It’s a step in the right direction, because our planet can’t sustain all this animal agriculture.”
Labels are on the minds of a lot of plant-based chefs, who see them through a lens of inclusivity rather than restrictions. “Mainly it’s about not limiting yourself,” says Urban Acorn’s Marie Fitrion who, alongside her husband Dan Holloway, fuse their own Scottish and Haitian culinary traditions while also adapting Indian or Peruvian or Italian dishes for their clients. “I always tell clients when you’re ordering a vegetarian item, don’t think of it as something for vegetarians, it’s something everyone can enjoy. The beauty of vegan or vegetarian food is accessibility. When you’re creating a gathering, you want to make sure that all of your guests feel like they belong. The easiest way to do that is to make sure that they literally have a seat at the table with the food that speaks to their personal ethos.”
Ashley Sweetman of Earth and City, a Feast On-Certified spot in Mississauga, which makes burgers, yogurt, breakfast cookies and other vegan options using seasonal ingredients, agrees. “Yes, our food is vegan and plant-based and gluten-free but we try not to buzzword it. We’re not judgemental in a ‘You must be vegan for these reasons’ way. Our ethos grew out of something different. Our customers come from all over the spectrum,” she explains. “We just make delicious food.”
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