It’s hard to say when "flexitarian" became the new "vegan" or dare we say "fruitarian", but it seems to have happened at around the same time that leading scientists proposed a revolutionary diet designed to save the Earth: the planetary health diet.
Posited to be able to feed 10 billion people in healthier ways without causing further catastrophic harm to the planet, the diet was celebrated and scorned in almost equal parts, the latter mostly down to the suggestion that there should be only 14g a day of red meat and 29g a day of chicken in your weekly diet.
Michael Healy-Rae, in particular, was shook and has remained shook since.
But it started a conversation about how the diets of Irish people - whose agricultural heritage undoubtedly was built on and continues to be bolstered by a thriving cattle industry - will have to adapt to a warming and thus more fragile world climate. Suddenly, flexitarianism was the strict mammy banging on the bedroom door, telling us to turn down our loud music or get off the computer.
But what is flexitarianism, and what does it look like in action?
Long before the planetary health diet made headlines, a few cafés and eateries across Dublin were playing with offering more sustainable, vegetarian and vegan-friendly menus. One that has made a considerable shift in that direction was Urbanity, of Coke Lane in Smithfield in Dublin, which introduced a flexitarian evening menu late last year after discussing it the previous May.
Since then, a number of other Dublin restaurants have experimented with flexitarian menus, such as BuJo Burger Joint in Sandymount in Dublin, which introduced a Beyond Beef plant-based burger that could be enjoyed as vegan or vegetarian.
According to owner Jason Mac an Tsionnaigh, "Flexitarianism is just really good food that’s plant-based. So what we do, in our evening menu, everything is either vegetarian or vegan but then omnivores - people who are not vegetarian or vegan - have the option to add meat".
If you’re not aware of this option, it’s because a) it’s pretty rare in the Dublin dining scene, and b) Urbanity is actively avoiding broadcasting it. You won’t find a little "v" or leaf beside dishes. There’s no ingrained anti-vegan sentiment here, nothing quite so millennial. Rather, they want to showcase the food without labels.
Head Chef Rachel Lynch, says "We’re trying not to pigeonhole anybody. There is the availability to have meat or fish if people want that, but we’re sort of creating an opportunity to avoid it if that’s what you’re looking for as well".
What does this tell us about dining out in 2019? Many people are still afraid to be the lone vegan or vegetarian guest, lest they be tossed on the rubbish heap for being "difficult". All the Instagram accounts in the world can’t instantly undo generations of meat-and-two-veg thinking, it seems.
When it came to Urbanity’s flexitarian menu, the foundations were already there, of course. Lynch, who was formerly with Brother Hubbard - that great champion for vegetables in all their forms - is a vegetarian herself, and explains that most dishes in Urbanity would start around a vegetable. Be it dehydrated and grated, puréed, crisped or in waffle-form, and in palettes ranging from autumnal hues to painterly pastels, vegetables are used in ways you’re unlikely to see elsewhere in Dublin.
"It’s always about interest or putting a twist on something", she says. "I have a library of books, I’m constantly online. I’ll use a lot of resources to get a bud of an idea and then develop it out from there by talking to the team, seeing what we have in season, seeing what we have available to us."
She concedes that coming up with vegan and vegetarian dishes that look as intricate as they taste can be slightly more challenging, saying "Sometimes it does take a little bit of work to find additions or components that will work better with a vegan or vegetarian dish, but that’s kind of half of the fun."
"One of the main considerations was that we didn’t want to replicate. A lot of the places that are doing vegetarian or vegan food, they’re trying to replicate classic foods with meat or fish and they use meat substitutes. It’s plant-based, there are ways around it and it allows us to be more creative in the kitchen."
"We didn’t want to fool people into eating a dish without them knowing [it was vegan]. It was to highlight the vegetables."
If it’s sustainability we’re talking about here, it would seem that serving caramelised carrots is far more sustainable than contorting said carrot into something resembling bacon. That said, Mac an Tsionnaigh is adamant that those foods "have their place", particularly for meat eaters who are making a change to their diet but crave something close to their creature comforts.
In an industry like the restaurant business, where loyalty is subject to factors as fickle as the weather and Instagram grid aesthetics, you need to soothe and coax your customers to a degree. This is done by ensuring them they will receive the same lovingly crafted dish each time, in the same controlled environment, with the same bantery staff on hand.
With the amount of money needed to stay afloat in the restaurant business, you don’t enter into new strategies lightly - especially ones that end up costing the owners more money. Urbanity use mostly organic vegetables, leading to increased prices, while creating a vegan menu is much more "labour-intensive" than a standard menu, according to Lynch. On top of this, avoiding allergens adds further cost.
Oh, the evening menu is gluten-free, they inform me. "We like to be sneaky", says Lynch.
For meat eaters, however, Urbanity is comparatively more affordable. "Our meat additions are pretty much cost price, so we’re not really making any money on the meat additions", says Mac an Tsionnaigh.
"A very very hungry person would be very satisfied with one of the meat additions. We want people to feel they’re getting value for money. It’s a value proposition."
It’s no coincidence that when menus like this pop-up, it’s rarely in restaurants or established Dublin institutions. Some of the most exciting food developments in Ireland have been taking place in cafés and in-between eateries like Gertrude’s or Urbanity themselves. It helps that Urbanity don’t pigeonhole themselves as just a café or brunch spot, but something closer to doing "refined casual food", vague enough to allow for left-of-centre menu options.
But as any vegetarian or vegan will have asked in recent months, why is it still so hard to find exciting vegetarian and vegan food in Dublin?
"I think it’s down predominantly to training and education", Lynch says. "There isn’t a huge drive within the industry to develop it. A lot of chefs would be more classically trained and still be more meat-and-veg-based because it’s easier, because they know what to do, because there’s a longer history of it, whereas vegan and vegetarian cooking, you have to be able to kind of innovate, to take an idea and turn it into something completely different."
"From a business owner’s perspective I think it could be just fear, fear of something different", says Mac an Tsionnaigh. "We’re a fairly new business and we can afford to take some chances but doing something that isn’t meat or fish-based in the evening time is something that as a business owner, you think ‘ooh, I don’t know about that’. It’s risky. If we’d have been doing it for five or ten years, you become more risk-averse."
"Also if an offering is working for a business, they’re going to be more hesitant to change it, unless there’s a very good reason to do so and the majority of the population is eating meat on a regular basis, so at this point it’s probably not worth their time", Lynch notes.
Enter, the very good reason: the planetary health diet. The diet has been a factor, of course, in devising this menu, and like it or lump it we will start seeing tangible effects of it in the places we eat. "We’ve been talking about certain products that we’re using at the moment or would have been using in the past", Lynch says.
"We’ve actively reduced the amount of avocados on the menu and they will eventually be coming off. Things like quinoa we’re trying to remove, trying to be a little bit more ethical."
"People are eating too much meat, so we’re going to see more restaurants like this appear that are offering a vegetarian diet that you can add some meat to", Mac an Tsionnaigh adds.
You could make the argument that restaurants could lead the charge on the healthy eating front, effectively teaching the public better ways to eat by dangling non-baconified carrots in front of us. Mac an Tsionnaigh does not agree.
"I don’t think that restaurants should be educating customers. I think you learn more from the customers than the customers learn from you. I don’t think it’s about sermonising or pontificating to people."
"We’re not going to lecture about caged chickens or anything like that. We use ethical meats but it’s an industry that exists and we’re apolitical."