What happens when a Michelin-starred traditional French restaurant goes vegan? While supermarkets, cafes and high street chains have largely accepted plant-based eating, fine dining has been slower to adapt to the trend. Gauthier Soho in London is one of a very small number of a high-end restaurants committed to serving only 100% plant-based cuisine. Removing animal products from the menu was challenging but has reaped some welcome rewards.
Founder Alexis Gauthier is a classically trained chef who served meat, seafood, and cheese in his successful Michelin-starred French restaurant for 25 years. It was the sight of animal activists protesting the use of foie gras that got him thinking about the ethics of what he was serving. Foie gras was promptly taken off the menu, and within six months Gauthier had himself gone vegan. A plant-based menu was introduced, alongside the regular menu, which became so popular, to the point where 80% of customers were choosing it.
In 2018, at the Restaurant Magazine Restaurant Congress in London, Gauthier announced that the future of gastronomy was plant-based, and that within two years his restaurant would be 100% vegan, drawing gasps of incredulity from the audience.
Gauthier’s Marketing Director James Lewis says that the company did not take the decision lightly. “We had our Soho rent, business rates and the salaries of 25 staff to pay. Our friends and industry colleagues said we were completely mad. It was a huge jump, but we knew that if we were going to do it, it had to be 100% plant-based. Because if you mix the message, you’re going to confuse people. The message had to be very clear.”
He explains that another turning point was the pandemic: “It got us thinking that humans shouldn’t be meddling with animals. It was too big a signal for us to ignore. It seemed like the right time to stop using animals in our business. So when we reopened in 2021 there was just one menu and it was the vegan menu.”
The company knew they were taking a big risk, but the team was surprised at how difficult the transition was.
James Lewis explains: “I was taken aback by the level of anger. Some customers felt cheated. We had diners who’d been coming for 25 years asking where their beef was. We were accused of discriminating against meat-eaters, pandering to the ‘woke media’ and turning into a cult. We had some diners arrive, look at the menu and walk straight out. We had to explain that we are still the same restaurant, with the same atmosphere, service, and décor. The spacious dining room, tablecloths, silver cutlery, bow tied waiters and soft lighting are all still here. The only difference is that one or two ingredients are no longer used.”
The change required a different marketing approach, reaching out to a different crowd. Gauthier Soho took to Instagram and social media to show what they were doing and gained a significant following that way. Luckily the bold move paid off and the establishment is now well-booked. It may have lost some of its old customers, but it has gained many new ones.
“The average age of our customers dropped by about 20 years. Before, we were just like any other French restaurant. Now we find people are seeking us out. Pro-vegan celebrities like Billie Eilish and Kourtney Kardashian have dined with us. When plant-based diners come to our restaurant and realise they can eat everything, we get a huge reaction because they feel really loved!”
The business has also gained an entire new sector of the market, too – the corporate sector. Investment banks and city finance companies now book Gauthier Soho because they want to send a message to their directors and customers that they are an ethical company.
In terms of food, the kitchen was under intense pressure to make the food just as delicious as before. Creativity was key. As James Lewis explains: “People worry they’re going to lose the richness, the protein hit and the deep satisfying umami they got from meat. So we’ve created a tasting menu with seven or eight courses, making sure they creaminess and deep flavours are there. We make sure we’re serving the best seasonal vegetables you can buy: the best asparagus, black truffles, white truffles. We’re 100% open to trying new plant-based ingredients: meat substitutes and 3d printed meats. People send us samples and we try everything.”
Alexis Gauthier and James Lewis now run a second plant-based restaurant called 123V at London’s Bond Street. It is a casual dining eatery that makes far more use of meat alternatives. For example, they make sushi using marinated Zeastar to imitate salmon and tuna.
Lewis is enthusiastic about the new products coming on to the market. “We’ve just got back from the Kind Earth Tech in Amsterdam where we saw some amazing cell-based meats including a fantastic mortadella. The new generation of cheeses are getting better and better. We’re happy to try anything that anyone sends us. I think food innovators should talk to chefs more, ask what is missing from the taste repertoire, rather than just making plant-based versions of things we already know. I think if there’s a gap in the market it’s for a company to redefine what we eat, something that no-one has eaten or even imagined yet.”
In the immediate future Gauthier and Lewis are partnering with some big hotel groups to help them to develop their vegan menus. “A lot of companies have realised they’ve got to improve their vegan offering. It’s becoming the case that for every six diners one is a vegan, and often the vegan is choosing where the group eats. I believe if there were more vegan chefs and restaurants there would be better plant-based food, as they will drive the improvements, and we’re one of the places doing it.”