Searcys embraces plant-based eating opportunity for fine dining occasions

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Photos courtesy of Searcys

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It seems fruit and vegetables have never been so popular. Just this month, the EAT-Lancet commission announced its Planetary Health Diet, which – to feed 10 billion people without a global environmental catastrophe – recommends that fruit and veg make up half of every plate of food we eat, alongside a reduced portion of meat. With plant-based eating set to stay, PBUK speaks with UK luxury dining caterer Searcys, one of the exhibitors at the 13 March Fresh Careers Fair in London, about how the power of produce will unfold across this and other food trends in 2019. 

Plant-based eating 

“Last year was all about veganism and vegetarianism, and that’s not going away; it’s going to get stronger and stronger,” explains Darren Deadman, Culinary Chef Director at Searcys which operates around 20 fine food restaurants, bars and cafés at iconic venues such as The Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and The Design Museum in London. 

“I think people understand it’s time to embrace it and time to live it because it’s healthier, it’s better for us, it’s better for the environment and it’s better for the world.”

Although many UK-based chefs have dabbled with vegetarian food In the past, Deadman claims they’ve never really understood the potential for impact on businesses, clients and their demographics, until now. 

“Years ago, a cheese or mushroom dish was as far as it went,” he points out. “At Searcys, we’re lucky as a business; all of our clients and businesses understand there is a need and a want to increase the amount of plant-based elements across all of our menus. 

“We never wanted to be one of those fad companies that just ‘goes vegetarian.’ We want to do it because there’s a message behind it and because we believe in it.” 

Importantly, health benefits aside, fruit and vegetables naturally add dimension, colour, texture and interest to any dish, whether meat-based or not, says Deadman, who joined Searcys 18 months ago.

“Vegetables have a lot more derivative flavours; you can do a lot more with them,” says Deadman (pictured bottom left). “A meat dish pretty much follows a standard format.” 

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As such, Searcys has just introduced a new cauliflower main course at its Helix restaurant in The Gherkin. 

“It was about adding layers of flavour,” reveals Deadman. “Cauliflower is great in its own right, but we confit it to add more flavour, and we char-grill it over coals to give it a nice charred taste.

“Also, we’re using the cauliflower’s leaves to make a purée, which introduces a silkiness and creaminess to the palate.” 

Recently, Searcys hosted a vegan event at one of its venues, 30 Euston Square, where 100 guests enjoyed a five-course vegan dinner. 

“It was something the client wanted to do, and something we wanted to do,” Deadman explains. “We wanted to challenge people’s perception of fruit and veg and how you work with them.”

Next in the pipeline is a twist on Brussels sprouts using a pickling method, which, like puréeing, will be another trend for 2019.

“One of our chefs was talking about vegetarian dishes at our company conference in terms of what we can do to convince people who don’t love Brussels sprouts to try them,” explains Deadman.

This, he says, is an example of when a group of chefs within Searcys will trial different cooking approaches to encourage customers to ‘buy into’ a certain product. 

“We don’t want customers to be put off from eating Brussels sprouts because your mum used to hide them in your roast dinner,” Deadman reflects. “We think about how we can put them at the front of the plate, and do something people will be intrigued by.” 

Ultimately, with produce the key is simply to enhance what is already a fresh, natural product.

“That’s more challenging for chefs, but consumers expect that,” Deadman notes. “At Searcys we want to be known as a brand where people can come to try different things that are innovative and interesting but not too quirky.”

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Balanced eating 

Alongside plant-based eating, Deadman predicts balanced eating will emerge as another food trend this year. 

“It’s about how eating in moderation will help you feel sustained for longer, give you energy and make you operate and work better,” Deadman explains.

“I think as a culture, we are a lot more ‘au fait’ with health; and not just being image conscious but also how we feel inside.”

As such, chefs at Searcys are following a process called Food EQ, which is about the equilibrium of food in terms of balancing the meat and plant-based ingredients in a dish.

“We’re just rolling out a main course portion size that’s around 350g in total weight,” Deadman reveals. “What we’re saying is no more than 100g of that plate should be meat or fish-based protein, and that 250g should be plant and grain based.” 

Root to tip eating 

SEARCYS6Eating ‘root to tip’ – using the entire piece of fruit or vegetable – will also intensify in 2019, according to Deadman.

This forms part of the ongoing food waste and sustainability trend. Importantly, Deadman believes it will bring added flavour and nutrition to dishes too. 

“Let’s take eating plant-based one step further; let’s use the leaves too because that’s where the flavours are, and where there’s a lot of colour,” he explains. 

“It’s about utilising more of a product in a way that enhances food. Already, we pick, chop and use herbs for flavour. You can put them in sauces or stocks, and you can purée them.”

Instead of reaching for the bin, Deadman suggests carrot tops, sprout leaves and turnip tops can all be used in cooking. Searcys is also making use of foraged flowers like garlic flowers, apple blossom and cherry blossom. 

“Every ingredient marries together and has a message behind it,” he adds. “Everything has to go on the plate for a reason. It’s nice to be stylistic but we don’t want style over substance.” 

New techniques

When it comes to techniques, Deadman predicts that 2019 will be the year of fermenting, pickling and preserving, which links into the drive to use all parts of produce. 

“We had the year of barbecuing and char-grilling last year,” he recalls. “This year will be about fermenting, preserving and pickling, which Searcys started with in 2018.

“This is not so much to extend the life of the product but to add levels of flavour, and a new dimension.”

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Getting more produce on plates

For some time, Searcys has maximised the availability of a variety of seasonal and, where possible, locally grown fresh produce, including fruits, veg, herbs and both edible and foraged flowers. 

Nonetheless, Searcys is actively testing ideas to devise new recipes that feature more fresh produce, with a view to rolling out new dishes across the business. 

“We do pop-ups and demo days in a lot of our venues,” adds Deadman. “It’s about trying to change [chef and customer] habits.”

This year, Searcys is rolling out a timetable of masterclasses with the grower or supplier of products like root veg or tomatoes. The idea is to unite chefs together and get hands-on in the kitchen with those who are passionate about their product to explore different uses and techniques.

And while it has been challenging for chefs in the industry to come up with innovative ways to cook with produce, Deadman claims it makes for a more exciting journey. 

“Our chefs love to be challenged,” he states. “They love to take something out of the norm, break it down and add value. 

“For me, I like to take those products that people are cautious about [like Brussels sprouts] and do something different to change perceptions. As a brand, that is where Searcys stands out from others.”

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Finding inspiration

When it comes to gaining the inspiration to adapt, evolve and introduce more fruit and veg into recipes, Deadman says he’s a big believer in watching his peers, and sharing best practices, rather than following a marketing trend. 

“For me, it’s about finding little places that are trying something different, whether that’s a street food venue on the Southbank or somewhere outside of London.”

It’s also about chefs sharing best practices among themselves via their personal network, social media and cookery books. 

“You would not believe the amount of cookery books I buy every month,” he jokes, singling out the likes of Tommy Banks, a British Michelin Star-winning head chef, whose restaurant, The Black Swan at Oldstead, was rated the best in the world in 2017, according to TripAdvisor.

“His ethos is about home-grown,” Deadman explains. “Tommy’s book is one of the best. He tells you about eating fresh fruit and veg, and if you can’t eat fresh what else you can do throughout the year.”

Deadman says new ideas are also sparked by the growers of produce themselves.

“We have supplier away days, market days, and we organise dinners where we showcase produce with their suppliers,” he comments. “That changes our chefs’ understanding of the ingredients they use.” 

Sourcing responsibly 

As one of the oldest catering companies in the UK – Searcys was established in 1847 – Deadman says the group is passionate about ethical sourcing and sustainability.

SEARCYS3In terms of produce, Searcys pledges to buy “the best ingredients available”, working with British growers to ensure that up to 90 per cent of all of its seasonal fruit and vegetables is grown in the UK.

Last year the group joined The Sustainable Restaurant Association too. 

“Everyone within the business has realised that we’re not just talking about it; we are trying to be what we say we are,” Deadman states. “More of our chefs are behind it now.”

This year, Searcys' supply chain will be run predominantly by its chefs, who in addition to working with contracted suppliers, go to wholesale markets, farmers’ markets, growers and even other restaurants to source and learn about new and interesting products. 

“Most of our chefs are down the market every day,” Deadman explains. “We’re always looking for more suppliers.”

Indeed, Deadman claims Searcys is “quite flexible” on sourcing, which makes it easier to launch niche food.

“We say to our chefs you’ve got a 20-mile radius in which to find suppliers,” he explains. “Over time we make relationships with people, so we’ve even got the stage where they grow things for us.

“From the company side, we like all suppliers to be BRC accredited. The only other criteria is that you are passionate and you’re doing the right thing.”

  • Searcys will be exhibiting at The Fresh Careers Fair 2019, on 13 March at the Business Design Centre in North London.
  • The Fresh Careers Fair is the annual recruitment event for the fresh produce, retail, foodservice and hospitality sectors. 
  • For more information, email: [email protected]
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