There’s something about seeing the sheer drive and passion in someone’s eyes that can really bring you into submission. This is exactly what happened when I met plant-based pioneer Peggy Chan, the chef-founder of Grassroots Pantry which recently transformed into Nectar. Meeting her didn’t quite convert me into a vegetarian, but it certainly compelled me to reconsider my meaty lunch options. So read on to find out more about her mission, if meat really is that bad for your health, and what her new restaurant is all about.
Tell us about Nectar, your new restaurant.
Some people may call it fine dining, but we want to call it ‘elevated experiential dining’. It’s an extension of Grassroots [Pantry] and a reflection of how much we have grown in our craft of cooking plant-based and nutrient-dense foods.
We want to use this opportunity to connect with our diners too. Slow down and deliver a real experience, as well as educate. So that’s why we’re switching to a tasting menu with interactive elements and eye-opening ingredients. It’s linking the health benefits of ingredients that don’t get used that much, or ones that are more biodiverse, and showcasing them through our menu.
Why do you think a plant-based diet is important?
The number one reason is for environmental purposes. The meat industry, together with dairy, contributes to almost 15% of carbon emissions in the world — that’s more than any other transportation combined. So we need to be mindful and accountable for our decisions. Secondly for health reasons, it’s already well-known that any form of highly processed foods are the number one causes for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or what we call ‘first-world illnesses’. Hence we really have to, or should at least consider, consuming less meat.
Also, we aren’t just a plant-based restaurant, we’re using techniques from raw food methods such as soaking, sprouting, activating. We’re using TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] to make tonic broths with healing properties such as our Bak Kut Teh, served with a wonton and summer truffles. We will also incorporate Ayurvedic cuisine elements to heal different body types.
So eating meat is bad for health?
We’re not saying meat is bad. How meat is produced now, has made it unhealthy. The growth hormones and antibiotics, how animals suffer before they’re slaughtered, how meat is stored in unhygienic situations, this is all public information. It’s not about a piecemeal solution to eat less meat, it’s more about why we should eliminate the consumption of processed foods, additives, preservatives and chemicals. And if we do eat meat, then we want the most sustainable and without all that crap in it.
What else will be on your produce-driven and locally-sourced menu?
We’re using local eggplants in a dish called Shimeji mushroom bisque, with eggplant en papillote [or baked in a paper pouch or parcel]. The eggplants came from Zen Organic [a certified organic farm in Fanling in the New Territories]. Another is a cheese course. Over the years we’ve learnt more about culturing and fermentation, so we created a line of homemade ‘cheeses’ made with nuts, seeds, beans or tofu. There’s a ricotta-style, slightly firmer goat’s cheese texture, a hard cheese that we age for 7 days and then dehydrate for 2–3 weeks to get the texture and saltiness. It’s not just about the origins of the cheese, it’s about the alternative ingredients that are dairy free and propose a way to consume cheese without losing that ‘cheesy’ experience.
Do you have any favourite ingredients to use in your cooking?
I love using mushrooms. We source directly from Yunnan [where there are over 800 types of edible mushrooms] . Everything from chanterelles, to matsutakes, to trumpet and termite mushrooms. I love using termite mushrooms! There’s so much variety and each one has different volumes of water content which dictate the cooking process and therefore flavours. It’s as if you’re cooking meat.
Any other superfoods or trends that we should take note of?
I’m always on the search for new ingredients that are rarely used or known. I mean, over 90% of what the world consumes is derived from four main crops: palm oil, corn, wheat and soy, with the fifth being rice. But there are over 30,000 species of plants in the world. Still, the world continues to capitalise on those crops to the detriment of biodiversity, the ecosystem and our planet.
That’s why we try to source lesser-known or rarely used ingredients as much as possible. For example, we use teff [a fine grain]. We were one of the first people in Hong Kong to bring it over and use it in multiple ways — in our pizza bases, brownies, breads, porridge and replaced whole wheat or wheat.
The trend now is alternative meats. We don’t use it ourselves, as it’s a different stream of food. Kudos to them as their goal is to disrupt the meat industry. But vegans have to understand that eating more alternative meats doesn’t necessary mean you are eating healthier. And it also doesn’t make the planet healthier either — because of packaging and logistics etc. So we need to look at everything in a much bigger picture.
What sparked this plant-based mission of yours?
I stopped eating red meat in 2000, before I turned 16. I was on a school trip to Foshan and when we were on the school bus driving past these farms, I remember looking at the cows, and they looked right back at me. Then it dawned on me. Why do we eat animals? I decided overnight that I would cut out red meat. After a couple more years, I cut out poultry, and then I cut out fish and seafood. But I didn’t do it cold turkey, I did it within a 6–7 year period.
What keeps you going?
I feel like it’s my duty. What drives me is this duty to create change. I get emotional about it [her eyes water]. I want to show people the positive side to all of this. I prefer to be a solutionist. We face negative things everyday, but over and above all of that, I want to move us towards the solutions.
I hear that you’ve converted people into vegetarians — is that true?
I didn’t do it on purpose! My stepfather and my mom were the first people but I didn’t tell them to eat less meat. It just happened naturally. I was just eating it at home and they were curious. They would ask “what is this quinoa?” and soon they realised that their own solution was to not eat meat. One of our chefs has become vegetarian too. I guess like attracts like. We’re not preachers, we’re not like “do this!” That would just backlash. Cutting out meat helped her with her eczema and it was the answer for her. No one can tell you, you have to experience it yourself.
Have you felt the benefits yourself?
I haven’t been to a doctor — touch wood! — for check ups or any form of illness for 16 years. If it’s a minor flu, I can quickly fix it with some turmeric and lemon; if it’s a cough, I can fix it with some honey and ginger, or blanched almonds to help stop the cough. There are certain things I can fix using food to heal.
The spotlight is also on the staggering amount of plastic waste the world produces. How will Nectar be tackling this?
Even when it comes to sourcing, our suppliers sometimes use plastics or styrofoam. So that’s where we begin to tackle it. We tell them we don’t need the plastic, so that’s the first step — refuse. The next is to reduce what we use. Then we go into recycling — we partner with Hong Kong Recycles who is extremely helpful and transparent with where they bring the recyclables, as well as how much we recycle each month. The goal is to reduce that every month.
What about your other initiatives Pollen Lab and The Collective’s Table? Can you tell us more?
Pollen Lab will be our hub for everything about holistic nutrition, environmental sustainability, plant-based and raw foods. It will help accelerate the changes that we know can happen through education. We will bring people together to do this, so they can take it away and as a result, create change.
The Collective Table table is an initiative we started about three years ago. The idea is to engage chefs to start thinking about ways to reduce meat and dairy in the kitchen and create tasting menus together that are completely plant-based. One of the first challenges we did was with Chef Richard Ekkebus [from Amber], as well as Chef Margarita Forés [voted Asia’s 50 Best Female Chef in 2016]. It’s really exciting to collaborate as not only are we igniting the conversation, we are exchanging skills and possibilities.