Food is emotional. It’s grandma’s fresh-baked shortbread, a piping hot bowl of juk when you have a cold; it’s buttered popcorn at the movies, ice-cold sashimi on your first date, and pork crackling at the Sunday family dinner.
Food is memory and culture. So, it’s no wonder that changing how people eat is an enormous challenge.
For Alejandro Cancino, change was painful and conflicted, but ultimately inescapable. And it inspired him to try to create change in a way that would nurture that human connection to food.
“I’m a very practical person,” Mr Cancino reflects. “About ten years ago, I met a guy who was a vegan. My initial reaction was: ‘Why would you do that?’ But the more I researched, knowing that my whole profession and my whole career is based on using animal products I was like: ‘Oh no!’
“Now I had to convince myself why I should keep doing what I was doing. I was looking for a reason not to go vegan, to justify myself to keep working with meat and eating meat. After three months of researching every possible argument, I got to the point where I couldn’t justify it.”
For a Michelin-star chef who works with animal proteins every day, moreover an Argentinian from a heavily meat-based food culture, the switch to veganism was analogous to a religious conversion.
“There was always a bit of conflict of interest in my head,” he explains. “I had the idea to do it slowly, make small changes in the menu, and kind of veganise the restaurant slowly.”
Mr Cancino gradually began to phase out “unnecessary” animal products from his menu at the 3-hat restaurant Urbane in Brisbane, where he was head chef.
“We got to the point where all the desserts and all the entrées were actually vegan, but no one really noticed,” he says. “Clients were eating healthier, we had reduced our meat purchasing, so there was an economic benefit for the business – it was a win-win for everyone.”
When his daughter was born, in search of a better work-life balance, Mr Cancino stepped away from the late nights of the restaurant kitchen. He started FennFoods with his wife and business partner Paola Moro five years ago.
At the time they were making mainly vegan sauces and cheeses on a relatively small scale, but a chance conversation with Antoinette Pollock from Brewskie Bar brought the concept of a plant-based meat replacement product squarely into their sights.
“At the time there was nothing made in Australia, all [plant-based meat products] were imported,” he says. “I travelled to America and did a bit of market research of all the brands available at the time.”
The industry was nothing like it is now, with a section in the supermarket dedicated to plant-based alternatives. Even two years ago plant-based meat was a novelty item.
You have probably seen a FennFoods product in your local supermarket meat aisle. vEEF retails at both Coles and Woolworths and has also been distributed as part of the HelloFresh meat-kit service.
The vegan meat market has matured rapidly over the last three or so years with multiple competitors entering the market and a lot more acceptance amongst the meat-loving Australian public.
Mr Cancino’s products have found a ready fan-base in the rising flexitarian market: people who are interested in reducing their animal product intake for health and/or environmental reasons but aren’t ready to commit to eliminating meat from their diets altogether.
“It is so hard to change culture,” he says. “It’s impossible. So, we don’t start from the [plant alternative] ingredients, we start by asking the question: what do we want to replace?
“The ingredients we use depends on what product we want to replace. We just want to make it easier for the consumer to choose to make the swap.”
Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.