• Chef and passionate plant-based food advocate, Alejandro Cancino. (Yasmin Noone)Source: Yasmin Noone
Former executive chef at Urbane, Alejandro Cancino, hates the 'vegan' label that too often boxes people who chose to follow a plant-based diet. The award-winning chef tells SBS how he plans to redefine plant-based eating in Australia.
By
Alejandro Cancino, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

4 Apr 2019 - 9:06 AM  UPDATED 4 Apr 2019 - 9:06 AM

I was always anti-vegan.

All my life, when I used to work as a chef in restaurants, I’d get a docket to cook vegan food and I’d think, ‘why don’t they eat amazing [animal-based] food?'

But one day I met a guy who was vegan when I was going to the gym. He was massive. I thought no way is he vegan. I asked him ‘how come you look like this when you just eat salad?’ He said ‘just look up veganism on the Internet: Google it’. So I started researching [plant-based eating].

Now, I am not that kind of person who says meat tastes disgusting. No: meat is really tasty… I come from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentineans eat a lot of meat, bread and a tiny amount of salad. They also eat lots of cured meats.

But, [after a while of thinking about becoming vegan], there was something there that made me feel very uncomfortable. The reason I became a chef was for pleasure and to bring joy to people. I thought ‘how I could provide pleasure if someone [or something] was suffering?’ I’m not a crazy animal lover, hippy or health freak but eating vegan foods just made sense to me.

Now, I am not that kind of person who says meat tastes disgusting. No: meat is really tasty.

Personally, I hate labels like [‘I'm a vegan’]. People can say ‘you eat honey so you are not vegan’ or ‘you are that guy who we saw eat cake that contained a bit of whipped cream’. I will always try and avoid eating animal products and buy vegan food for myself. But if there’s a birthday and there is a cake, I am not going to go into the ‘vegan label’ and say ‘hang on, the cake may contain milk’.

That’s why some vegans probably have a bad reputation because so many become extreme. We don’t belong to the [extreme vegan group]. We don’t fit in and are not part of that. But at the same time, we have met people who are vegan, who are not extreme, who are basically good at what they do and just happen to choose to be vegan.

When I worked in the kitchen at Urbane, Brisbane, as a chef [from 2012], I had to taste food [made from animal products] that I had cooked. But when I was at home and when I went out, I ate vegan foods. So what I was doing as a chef was technically correct but it was not aligned [with my values].

Last year, I left Urbane and started Lola’s Pantry [a vegan café located at Kuluin on Queensland's Sunshine Coast] and Fenn Foods [a plant-based food manufacturing company] with my wife, Paula. When we first moved here, it was so hard. We almost went under in the first six months. It is still hard but things are improving and it’s moving really quick.

In the beginning, we were producing 20-30 kilograms of vegan beef patties [veef] a week, supplying them to a few restaurants. And then, we started to grow. We moved to a bigger kitchen and started producing 300 kilograms a week.

We get so many people who go there to eat who are not vegans – they just want to eat good, healthy food.

When we moved to this [production site, situated next door to Lola’s Pantry] six months ago, we were doing around 800 kilograms a week. Now, we are producing 2,000 kilograms a week. We already have enquiries [about exporting the product] to Spain, USA and China. So this is about to go big.

I’d like to be the kind of person who shows people that they can eat food that is healthy and tasty at the same time. But for those people who don’t care about health and they just want to eat good food, we opened Grassfed, [a plant-based dining experience which launched in Brisbane around three months ago]. We get so many people who go there to eat who are not vegans – they just want to eat good, healthy food.

Where to from here? 

I am a super busy person at the moment but I am also super happy that I made the move to where I am now.

What’s next? I am working with other companies to develop more plant-based foods. If we do well here, then when we will open another Lola’s Pantry and a fine dining restaurant, where we will try to get three hats and make it one of the top 50 restaurants in Australia.

As a chef, there’s one thing I can do: it’s to make [vegan food taste good]. If I put all of my effort into this, I am doing something that I really believe in. 

The aim of this place and the new places we will open is to do the best we can in terms of the food. It doesn’t matter if we make money or not to start with. But my vision for the whole [company] is to end up working on product development so we can raise the standards of vegan food.

Food, for me, is a joy. As a chef, there’s one thing I can do: it’s to make [vegan food taste good]. If I put all of my efforts into this, I am doing something that I really believe in.

Alejandro Cancino will be one of three chefs to cook in A Hinterland Harvest, an event featuring in The Curated Plate food festival, happening on the Sunshine Coast on Friday 9 August.

 

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