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Saturday, July 31, 2021

What my chat with Hungry Planet’s Ron DeSantis taught me about the two types of food

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As the chief culinary officer for Hungry Planet and a Certified Master Chef, Ron DeSantis is well versed in vegan-friendly protein alternatives that benefit both people and the planet. He is also a delight to speak with and a phenomenally knowledgeable creative that exudes passion and expertise in equal measure.

I’d never spoken with Ron DeSantis before, but just 10 minutes into our video call, I knew I could invite him to my house, to have fun trying to cook on my Aga. In fact, his eyes lit up at the thought of pitting his prowess against the unpredictable hot and ‘less hot’ plates that comprise my only cooking appliance.

There are only two types of food

The Vegan Review has had a conversation with Jody Boyman, co-founder of Hungry Planet, already, but I was keen to find out what a chef thought, not only about the products themselves but also the message that Jody and her brother and co-founder Todd are trying to convey. 

Right from the start, Ron made it clear that he holds true to one unwavering school of thought: “There are only two types of food: good and bad, as the former president of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Ferdinand Metz used to say. The recipes we feature on the Hungry Planet website and the pictures we take? It’s all just delicious food, plain and simple. It’s not vegan food, it’s just good food, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Taking a step back and seeing ingredients and finished meals through Ron’s critical eyes is refreshing. I’ve become so desensitised to prefixing everything I say with ‘vegan’ that I forget to talk about whether something I eat is actually tasty or not, and you know what? Not all of it is.

As Ron started talking about bringing the Mile High Patty Melt to a friend’s house in Vermont — with leftovers being fought over the next day — I realised I may have been falling into the same trap as so many other plant-based eaters, whereby I have been focussing on the label, not the taste. There is another way though.

Slow and steady can win the race

Unlike some competitors, Hungry Planet hasn’t rushed its meats to market, focussing instead on the development of superior taste, texture and genuine substitution capabilities, in a professional as well as home setting.

Today, Ron much prefers the taste, texture and easily digestible Hungry Planet Beef to conventional beef, lauding how it “eats better” and the superior mouthfeel, both of which made me salivate involuntarily. Ron isn’t vegan himself, so his appraisal comes from a place of objective, professional curiosity and integrity. Somehow, this makes me even more desperate to get my hands on at least a patty melt and lends a unique weight to his recommendations.

“Not being vegan myself, I’m totally flexitarian. I went from teaching traditional French cuisine to healthy cooking at the CIA, and that’s when I realised that I needed to practice what I preach, so I looked to create a balance between protein, vegetables and grains. The meat no longer had to be the main focus; in fact, it could become a supporting actor, especially when embracing global foods,” said Ron, adding: “Not being vegan and talking to people interested in Hungry Planet means I can offer a balanced overview. I talk about things like digestion, flavour, appearance and satisfaction.”

The level of authenticity that Ron brings to claims about Hungry Planet’s meat range is something I really admire, and though many of my fellow vegans might feel uncomfortable taking food recommendations from a self-confessed flexitarian, I find it exciting that I can break bread, or burgers, with a Master Chef and not feel as though I’ve drawn the short straw.

This might be the one reason why I can forgive Jody, Todd and Ron for not yet having a European distribution network in place, because I think it will be worth the wait.

plant based meatThere’s a kinder future on the horizon

One of the driving forces behind Hungry Planet meats is to be easy to swap for conventional meats. Ron is the only person who can really talk about the results.

“The one-to-one substitution? From a professional culinary point of view, we have completely nailed it. It’s important, from a professional point of view, that products can be swapped in seamlessly, to prevent the need for retraining staff and costly time being lost. This substitution is so important because it demystifies plant-based meats and puts them firmly on all menus.”

If I’m being honest, I had never considered the potential time and money implication of using a meat substitute in place of traditional ingredients, but as soon as Ron mentioned it, it came into clear focus. Of course, making the switch had to be thought of in broader terms and retraining an entire kitchen to prep and cook with a new product? That takes more than just a mind open to vegan alternatives.

Ron reiterated that you can always tell which venues invest in training, because the service and food are of a consistently high standard. He continued to explain to me that these are the professional outlets that will see the value in being able to swap out a pound of ground beef for Hungry Planet Beef, with no change to prep or service needed.

I asked if this would eliminate the notion, in client-facing kitchens, at least, that you have to do more to plant-based meats to get them to taste good and offer the same nutritional value as traditional animal products. Ron agreed that the idea of having to do more to impact less seems reductive and, thanks to Hungry Planet, is no longer the only way: “I’m confident that we’ve cracked the code of one-to-one substitution. Plus, when I get emails from colleagues, who are teaching the chefs of the future, saying they are delighted with the product and excited about the potential opportunities for using less meat, I know we are on to something special.”

Knowing that there is a future world where culinary innovators are using plant-based meats as a matter of course offers hope for not only a kinder type of cooking, but also a planet protected by professionals from every sphere. As Ron said: “People aren’t working with blinders on anymore. They are aware of what’s on the horizon and students are asking more questions. I love that. Two things happen when questions get asked: either I learn something new or I teach an alternative perspective. This is exciting!”

Animal-based meats are going to be the exception, not the rule

As Ron revealed that he would soon be visiting a culinary teaching institution in Boulder, it became clear that he is on a mission to educate and support those with a keen interest in plant-based alternatives. As the tables begin to turn, no longer are vegan companies going to be accused of forcing products and belief systems on unsuspecting consumers, because they will be much more of an accepted norm.

Ron agreed and made it clear that he is something of an anomaly: “I’m not vegan myself, but I want to be part of the conversation. Hungry Planet has given me a way to do that and to start switching up the way we talk about veganism. Up until recently, the foodservice industry was so rude to people with diets other than the ‘traditional’. They would be palmed off with whatever the vegetable of the day was, with little or no thought to nutrition and satiety. I always found that mean and unprofessional.”

If this makes you love Ron a little bit, prepare to fall head over heels, because he carried on to tell me about his time as a chef instructor at the CIA. Recognised globally as one of the highest echelons of professional institutions, the CIA wasn’t prepared for Ron and his inclusive approach, which saw him regularly adding a slew of vegetarian options to the menu of the flagship 4-star French cuisine restaurant on site.

Taking pride in preparing intricate casseroles and rich marinara sauces, Ron says he found these forays into the non-meat-eating world fun and sees them as a precursor to the perception shift that is happening right now.hungry planet

The only limit is manufacturers’ imaginations

To be frank, creating beef and chicken substitutes isn’t a new endeavour. Not all are good, but they have existed for a while, but what Hungry Planet is particularly good at is spotting those key ingredients for professional kitchens and bringing them into the plant-based world. With chorizo, crab, Italian sausage, pork and a soon-to-be-released lamb alternative all on offer, Ron acknowledges that variety is key. But he’s also honest about his initial scepticism.

“I met Todd Boyman through a mutual friend at a University of Massachusetts conference. I walked over to a table and was left with Todd, who started telling me about his plant-based meat company and I’m just thinking to myself that I’m not the youngest guy in the room and I’ve heard this song before. But I went with him to try his food and he hands me a slider that takes me by surprise. Then he gave me a crab cake with a little roulade and that was it. I asked for the vegan version, because I couldn’t believe that’s what I’d just eaten. I needed to continue the conversation as soon as I had finished that mouthful.”

The range is so expansive in a bid to be inclusive. Global cuisines require different flavour profiles and textures at their cores and Ron agreed that what Hungry Planet has done is both commercially and ethnically aware, making it something of an industry leader.

Vegans the world over, distribution depending, can substitute a plant-based protein into their traditional dishes, and that’s an important step towards welcoming naysayers into the fold.

Perfection is a never-ending process

With so many boxes ticked, I wanted to know what else Ron wanted to accomplish. This would have been the moment for a thinly veiled sales pitch, but of course, nothing so inelegant was forthcoming.

Instead, Ron’s heart-melting honesty revealed an unending pursuit of perfection: “We carry out constant quality audits. We have a great lineup of products now and there isn’t much more we need to do in terms of flavours, so I’m more invested in our mission of bending the curve on human and planetary health. If we can do that, then we are really leaving a legacy as a group of professionals. If we get more people looking at replacing conventional animal protein with plant-based alternatives, it’s the right thing to do.”

For Ron, the question is: how do we continually shift towards eating less meat and more considerately? He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that we have to eliminate all animal products entirely, but eating less of them and a higher quality of product is a positive step in the right direction, and he sees Hungry Planet as a key player.

Ron is a unique blend of professional expert, compassionate human and open-minded optimist. His experience lends authenticity and objectivity to a product that is part of a very emotive industry. Few vegan-centric companies can claim to have a flexitarian Master Chef as part of the core team, but by bringing Ron on board, Hungry Planet has done the unthinkable: made committed vegans and omnivores alike see a future where they are both fighting over the same final, good mouthful.

To me, that’s a beautiful image and the dream for gastronomic inclusivity.

This is sponsored content for Hungry Planet.

Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.