Skip to main content

Culinary Creativity: How Chefs are Leveraging Versatile Plant-Based Ingredients in Foodservice


The plant-based upward trend has filtered through to the foodservice sector, resulting in not only more exclusively plant-based restaurants than ever before but also major chains–such as McDonald’s–seeking to embrace the glut of new plant-based eaters. Naturally, nobody wants to lose out on the burgeoning sustainable food spending trend, meaning the hunt for cost-effective and multi-functional ingredients has become a priority. This rings true for catering providers, as well as established restaurants.

Thanks to the soaring interest and positive reception of plant-based menu items, 60% of foodservice operators now identify plant-based meat as a continuing trend, with many revealing that they plan to significantly increase the number of dishes that feature it. However, meat mimics are not the only ingredient to be gaining traction.

Cost-effective and health-conscious plant-based ingredients

While animal protein dupes are popular, some consumers remain concerned about their impact on health. This is frequently attributed to ingredients such as coconut oil being used generously, to create dairy alternatives or ‘juicy’ meat mimics, alongside high levels of sodium for flavor. While arguably still better than animal meat, such products remain highly processed and therefore do not appeal to consumers who are keen to prioritize their health.

For foodservice providers, plant-based meat can also be a costly investment, especially when compared to versatile alternatives such as tofu, jackfruit, falafel mix, and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Due to none of these ingredients seeking to faithfully recreate the look, taste, or feel of meat, their production is significantly cheaper and vastly more sustainable than animal rearing. They also allow chefs to flex their creativity, as most provide a very neutral but protein-packed base for a myriad of different applications.

Plant-based creativity in the kitchen

Plant-based ingredients that aren’t a 1:1 substitution for meat and dairy products have faced skepticism. Tofu is a prime example.

A multi-use and soy-based product, tofu has endured vilification by some Western consumers. Criticism of the protein-rich ingredient often stems from a lack of familiarity with its preparation and while it is a staple in many Asian cuisines, perceptions of blandness prevail in non-Asian countries. However, as awareness grows about tofu’s adaptability and positive environmental impact–when compared to animal protein sources–perceptions are gradually shifting.

Foodservice chefs now have an opportunity to lead the reimagining of tofu and its fellow understated ingredients. Perhaps most excitingly, the increase in demand for plant-based dishes within major educational establishments lays the foundation for a generational shift that will see whole food ingredients no longer being eyed with uncertainty. In years to come, consumers may naturally reach for tofu, jackfruit et al, as they are accustomed to how they taste and what can be done with them.

But just how versatile are they really?

Practical applications of tofu

Soybean curd comes in a variety of firmnesses, allowing it to be used in a range of dishes. From breakfast scrambles to stir-fries, breaded slices and even desserts, tofu can be transformed in almost endless ways. Plus, thanks to its neutral taste, it lends itself to a range of seasoning and cooking styles. For a deeper flavor, pieces can be marinated and for added texture, pressing tofu blocks will result in a ‘meatier’ bite.

Named as one of the 20 cheapest sources of protein, delivering around 17 grams per 100-gram serving of firm product, tofu is an excellent option for foodservice companies looking to reduce their environmental impact without losing profitability.

Jackfruit in place of meat

Jackfruit has found popularity in the foodservice industry as a versatile and sustainable alternative to traditional meat. Its fibrous and meat-like texture makes it a good choice for multiple dishes, including pulled ‘pork’ sandwiches, tacos, curries, and stews. Like tofu, jackfruit’s neutral taste allows it to absorb flavors easily, making it a great option for spicier or more flavor-packed menu items.

Costing around $2 to $3 per pound, jackfruit provides an economical option for businesses looking to increase plant-based options without plumping for processed meat mimics. It does not pack a huge protein punch, bringing around 3 grams per 100-gram serving, but it is a filling ingredient.

Falafel mix as a multi-purpose base

Falafel mix is something of a foodservice staple, particularly for companies seeking to increase their plant-based options. A blend of ground chickpeas, herbs, and spices, the mix offers a versatile foundation for an array of dishes including traditional falafel patties to creative interpretations like falafel bowls, wraps, and salads.

Falafel mix is a low-cost high-protein ingredient commonly containing 12-15 grams of protein per 100-gram serving, making it a satisfying and nutritious choice for those seeking meat alternatives.

TVP as a foodservice MVP

Derived from soybeans, TVP is a dried product that is supplied as chunks or in a minced style. It is traditionally used to replace things such as chicken pieces in stir fry and ground beef in meatballs and chili but has many more applications. Owing to its tasteless profile, it can even be ground into a fine powder and added to things such as oatmeal, to up the protein levels and satiety.

Boasting a long shelf-life and being low cost, TVP is a plant-based powerhouse for the foodservice sector. Most impressively, TVP is 50% protein, meaning that it delivers a huge nutritional benefit to diners for a fraction of the cost of traditional meat.

Freedom to address dietary restrictions

While the cost and sustainability benefits of using versatile whole food plant-based ingredients are clear, there’s another upside that is easy to overlook. Plant-based ingredients, like tofu, offer a thoughtful and inclusive approach for the foodservice industry to accommodate consumers with food allergies.

Heavily processed meat mimics may contain allergens–including gluten– whereas minimally processed plant-based options provide more choice for those with dietary restrictions. Though it should be noted that soy is a common allergen, thereby underscoring the importance of embracing a number of whole-food ingredients, to cater to all consumers.

With interest in plant-based eating increasing every year, chefs within the foodservice sector are taking the lead in developing nutritious meals that don’t rely on meat mimics and can turn a profit. It will be interesting to see if the burgeoning rise of new ingredients that focus on healthy protein delivery without mimicking meat, such as UK-founded Vegbloc, will find popularity in the industry. If they do, it will be indicative of a consumer shift away from substituting animal products to simply replacing them with healthier and more sustainable options.

Amy Buxton