Interview: Richard Buckley, owner & head chef of Acorn in Bath
PUBLISHED: 14:39 17 June 2019 | UPDATED: 14:39 17 June 2019
The chef behind the most acclaimed vegan restaurant in the country, is gently sowing the seeds of a culinary revolution, discovers Catherine Courtenay
Richard Buckley is on a mission, albeit 'a quiet mission'.
His Bath restaurant, Acorn, is the first vegan restaurant in the country to be recognised by Michelin. But for several months last year, no-one was aware that the well-known vegetarian restaurant had even gone vegan.
"We'd got to a point of 95% vegan without meaning to, so thought we'd push it over the line. We decided not to tell anyone and no-one noticed."
Acorn is about fine dining; dishes of beautiful and brilliant plant-based food created by Richard and his chefs.
Richard, now 38, says it took him 12 years to learn how to properly cook with plants, a skill he says is "technically more interesting and more of a challenge". It's about "exploration and discovery", and he loves it.
"Both my parents were vegetarian but they weren't militant, they didn't push it on us. Once you've grown up not eating meat, you don't see it as food," he says.
He'd always enjoyed cooking, working in kitchens as a teenager. Doing a degree in English, "taught me how to think", he says, and he went on to start an MA in European philosophy. But after a while: "I didn't want to be trapped in a library. It wasn't practical enough, I wanted to do something real, to have an impact on people's lives. I had a job in a veggie restaurant and thought, 'let's make a go of it, let's do it properly'.
"No-one was cooking vegetarian food at that level; I was completely stuck so had to teach myself. I bought every book and went on every course and learnt all the skills I could learn."
He explains that it's not about trying to make things vegan, it's about exploring the wealth of possibility of cooking with plants to create the most interesting food.
Richard is delighted at the rising popularity of veganism, but he's certainly not in favour of the fashion for making pseudo meat products.
"The other day I was offered salmon made out of carrot. Why not call it something made out of carrots? By saying its salmon it's saying that salmon is a real food and the only way vegetables can be real food is by apeing and being like meat."
And he fears that in the long term this trend could crush the vegan wave.
Part of the problem is a lack of words to describe new foods.
"Cashew cheese is delicious, but it's not cheese, it is entirely new. There's not really anything at all that's like it, but there's not a vocabulary in place to communicate what you've got - so you have to find an equivalent."
In his "very small" home kitchen he's experimenting with making a 'white chocolate' from barley and coconut - although it's really an emulsion.
"I will make it and package it, but how do I sell it? By naming it something that people can latch on to."
In our culture, he says, we're so used to meat and dairy that we assume their culinary importance. This is backed up by a legacy of chefs' meat-based recipes. So there is a need to rewrite the story. "There are no given truths," says Richard.
"If I can achieve anything at Acorn it's to start that conversation."
He's hopeful, perhaps cautiously, that, "if we apply human ingenuity, within two generations we'll have an entirely different cuisine".
"Acorn is great, but in 20 years I want there to be 30 fine dining restaurants across the country all making amazing vegan food.
"I'm not going to achieve everything...but I'm hoping future generations will take it and run with it."
Richard's 10 top tips for being a vegan:
1. Don't try to recreate meat or dairy.
By making a dish that imitates animal products you are tacitly saying that meat is real food and plants can only be proper food if they resemble a meat equivalent. It's not aubergine bacon, it's delicious smoky aubergine; let the plants speak for themselves.
2. Don't judge others.
Lead by example and don't judge those that don't share your world view. If someone chooses to eat meat, respect them as an intelligent, thoughtful human being who is kind to their children and probably does a lot of good in ways you do not. Nobody sells perfume by telling people that they smell, if you want people to eat as you do you need to show them how attractive it is.
3. It is possible to eat really well and really badly as a vegan.
If you eat well you will be healthy in ways you never imagined; if you eat badly you are likely to end up just eating chips. Before long you are going to have some serious health issues. Keep your diet within your reach and focus on eating a decent variety of nuts, fruits, veg, grains and seeds.
4. Buy decent ingredients but don't get carried away.
If great ingredients are affordable and available then buy those, if not, get what you can. You don't need to beat yourself up about buying local this and organic that if it's not practical. It is better to buy an out of season courgette from a local supermarket and make a tasty, healthy pasta dish, than not buy anything at all because the farmers' market has shut and you get so hungry you end up having Monster Munch from a petrol station for dinner.
5. Keep it simple.
You don't need to create a gourmet feast for every meal - just chop up some veg and roast it in a little oil and have it with some grains and hummus. We all lead busy lives and simple food is always best. Even in the restaurant, although the plates are complex, the cooking is simple; if it's a cauliflower soup it is just going to have onions and cauliflower in it, if you've got decent ingredients you don't need to mess with them too much.
6. Eat food you like.
I had someone tell me that they didn't like the beetroot pâté from my cook book, but then admit that they didn't like beetroot to begin with. I did have to ask them why they chose to make that dish instead of something they like. If it doesn't make your mouth water, don't bother with it. Life is too short to eat things we don't like.
7. Don't worry about protein, iron or calcium.
If you are eating a decent range of plants this will take care of itself. Do worry about eating enough calories, you may need to eat more than you are used to and make sure you have foods containing B12 or take a supplement.
8. Look East.
If you want food that is super tasty and you don't want to think about it too much then look at Indian, Thai, Japanese and Korean food. They have long traditions of cooking without animal products and know how to pack a flavour punch.
9. Fancy gadgets won't make you a better cook, being a better cook will.
Learn how to season properly, cook simple and sharpen your knife and you can create masterpieces from anything.
10. The best 'milk' alternatives are made by Oatly; it's the most sustainable and it doesn't try too hard to recreate dairy.
Most vegan milks are full of additives to emulate the flavour and texture of milk. Oatly uses an enzyme process instead to make the oats more digestible and delicious.
To find out more, and to book your table, visit acornrestaurant.co.uk.