To celebrate #Veganuary, the annual challenge run by the homonymous UK non-profit organisation encouraging people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January, this month we interview Spaces at The Spine’s Head Chef Jim Chatwin on portion size, the rising costs of meat and fish and the importance of using good quality ingredients in dishes.
How long have you been a chef and what drove you to choose this career?
I’ve been a chef for around 22 years. I have always been passionate and excited about food from an early age and I have experience in a lot of different areas of the catering industry from restaurants to mass contract catering. This has given me the drive, determination and standards that I work to today. I believe keeping a high standard of food and hygiene is a cornerstone of any catering organisation and if you can get the basics right the rest will follow.
Menus have become much more refined. As event attendees and people in general started to be more interested in eating healthy meals and good quality produce, we’ve moved away from large dishes full of ‘wet meals’ such as rich curries and chicken sauce dishes.
Today we create menus in a way that guests feel fuelled by default, instead of sluggish, and we must ensure each allergy and dietary requirement is carefully planned for. Ten years ago there weren’t as many options available if you were vegan or vegetarian; today diners are choosing vegan or vegetarian dishes even if they don’t follow those diets exclusively, but simply because they appeal to them.
Our 2022 menus prioritised vegan, vegetarian and plant-based dishes by putting them at the very top, which isn’t something you would have even considered in the last decade.
Local, quality ingredients are always what we strive to use and fresh is ultimately best!
The planet matters to us all at Spaces at The Spine and we take a long-term approach to operate in a sustainable way when it comes to our catering offer. Ultimately we strive to produce delicious food with underlying health benefits, so of course the ingredients we use in these dishes are paramount.
Our plant-based and healthy options were up by 35% in 2022. This is indicative of our clients, many of whom are medically minded and conscious of what their delegates fuel themselves with.
Yet also, I believe 20% of people chose those menus because they offered something different. For example, our vegetarian cobbler which is also gluten-free and contains applewood smoked cheddar is incredibly popular as are our sticky soya and chilli jackfruit buns. I don’t think those that choose those options do so necessarily because they are vegetarian. A big trend we are seeing is people having one vegan day per week or one meal a day that is vegan purely because they don’t fancy eating meat.
I think meat will always be there, but the problem is its rising costs. Each week when I am ordering our ingredients, I can see the prices jumping up 10, 15, 20, 30 pence and sometimes even a pound on certain items. And that’s set to continue, unfortunately. So we need to look at using smaller portions of meat and changing our mindsets about how our dishes are proportioned. Meat always used to form the main part of the dish with a carb and a vegetable on the side.
Perhaps in the future, we will see vegetables being the main part of the dish with some meat and carbs on the side. This will certainly push the cost of the dish down and be a healthier option.
Yes, we are certainly dealing with more allergies now than ever before, but we are also much more prepared than ever before. Most of the time we know which allergies we need to cater for two weeks in advance, which gives us lots of time to prepare.
I always get slightly concerned when there is an event and there are no allergens recorded, yet on the day you find out a delegate is allergic to strawberries or onions, for example. This happened to me recently at an event where the food was curry. Someone said they are allergic to onions, which are in the same family as garlic, so I had to quickly come up with a different recipe. It can be tricky, but if you are prepared and know your allergens, it helps.
Instagram, Pinterest, and cookbooks (the shelf in the living room at my house is full of cookbooks): that’s where I get my inspiration. I love trying new things and playing around with ingredients to come up with new dishes.
I really enjoy cooking fish. Unfortunately, the price of fish has skyrocketed. For example, the cheapest salmon I am able to buy is £31 per kilo which has jumped up to nearly £10 in the space of eight months. Sea bass has also largely increased in price making it really hard for us as a venue to put fish on the menu. However, fish is something I love to cook.
My favourite dish to eat is a British classic: sausage and mash! I could happily eat that every single day for the rest of my life!
We need to look at using smaller portions of meat and changing our mindsets about how our dishes are proportioned. Meat always used to form the main part of the dish with a carb and a vegetable on the side. Perhaps in the future, we will see vegetables being the main part of the dish with some meat and carbs on the side