WEST WINDSOR, NJ  – A plant-based diet has become a popular food trend in restaurant and home kitchens as well as a classroom growing the skills of Mercer County Community College (MCCC) Culinary Arts students. Advocates of plant-based diets also say it's good for those concerned with animal welfare, the environment, and personal health.  For MCCC students, they recently learned it's also good for business.

 Sales of plant-based foods grew by 11 percent over the past year.

“I personally feel this is more than a trend,” said Chef Frank Benowitz, MCCC culinary instructor, regarding plant-based foods. “This is the wave of the future.”

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To keep students abreast of the latest dining trend, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) brought in two plant-based nutrition experts to demonstrate philosophy and technique as it pertains to offering great tasting meatless dishes.

Kate Watts, Food and Nutrition Manager for HSUS, said Americans are opting for plant-based nutrition for a variety of reasons: animal welfare, health, and sustainability amid growing global environmental concerns.  This trend, she said, means that those working in the restaurant and hospitality industry would be well served to add vegetarian and vegan dishes to their repertoire, and to do so in a way that appeals to even the most discerning gourmand.

“You can learn to make delicious plant-based food,” Watts said. “But the goal is not to call it plant-based food – just good, delicious food. If it looks good and is tasty, people will eat it and demand will grow.”

Chef Amy Webster, culinary specialist for the HSUS, led the MCCC Applied Kitchen Skills class with the finer points of plant-based food preparation, working from a menu that included multiple entrees, side dishes, and desserts. Students prepared dishes such as cauliflower buffalo wings, crabless crab cakes, sriracha lime tacos, risotto croquettes, and vegan versions of chocolate chip cookies, zucchini bread, and chocolate mousse, among many others. And all were prepared with an attention to flavor and appearance to please any palate.

Since 2015 HSUS has trained nearly 11,000 chefs, cooks, and other food service professionals in the art of plant-based cooking, but the training at MCCC marks the first training session with culinary students.

Webster said plant-based cooking is one of the hottest culinary trends of 2020, one that shows no signs of slowing down.

“This is really a great time to learning about this,” Webster said. “It’s very important to give the same attention to flavor that you would any other food. We want to make sure this is going to be tasty to everyone you serve it to. The flavor is still there. It’s just a different base.”

Benowitz said his first introduction to plant-based cooking was during this past fall, when he and Chef Doug Fee, HRIM Program Coordinator, attended a workshop at Rutgers University.  He was skeptical at first but quickly became convinced of the merits of vegetarian and vegan cooking, particularly after sampling the rich flavor that was possible when using the right techniques.

“Having these recipes on your menu will attract more guests, and create a more enjoyable dining experience,” Benowitz told his students. “This is more than a trend. This is the future.”

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