A 50% reduction in the world’s overall meat and dairy consumption could really help fight climate change. That’s according to a new study published Sept. 12 in Nature Communications by Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. The researchers found that plant-based alternatives could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture 31% by 2050. The finding joins a long list of reports linking meat and dairy consumption to climate change and is likely to have about as much impact as its predecessors. Which is to say, not much at all. Americans consume the most meat per capita—more than 215 pounds a year—and that figure has barely budged over the past two decades, despite an increasing awareness of the meat and dairy industry’s outsize influence on global warming.
Perhaps it’s time for a different tactic, one that doesn’t make climate action feel like putting on a hair shirt, or, in this case, choking down a tempeh burger. What if forgoing meat, for a night at least, became something aspirational or Instagrammable? When it means dining at one of the growing numbers of vegetarian and vegan restaurants earning accolades from the Michelin Guide and the World’s Top 50 Restaurants, going plant-based isn’t a privation, it’s a luxury.
For far too long fine dining has been stuck in outdated ideas of luxury, with animal products defined by their expense and rarity. But now that anyone willing to shell out a few extra bucks at Whole Foods can throw a Kobe steak on the grill, or pick up a cheap tin of farmed caviar, these one-time-delicacies have become commonplace. Harder to replicate is the time, skill, and knowledge it requires to take a beet to the next level. “It’s time we rethought luxury,” says Chef Daniel Humm of New York’s Eleven Madison Park in an interview with TIME. “It’s not the cost of the ingredients someone is using, it’s the human thought, the work by hand…[the] experiences that you can only have in a few places in the world.” In the two years since his heavily laureled restaurant (three Michelin stars, voted 2017’s World’s Best Restaurant) went vegan, vegetables have never had it better, elevated to cult luxury status normally reserved for the foie gras, Kobe beef, caviar, and butter-poached lobster that he used to serve.
Eleven Madison Park wasn’t the first three-Michelin star restaurant to go meatless—Arpege in Paris dropped meat in 2001 (though poultry and fish have since returned to the menu, it is still vegetable forward), and Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Calif., went pescatarian in 2019. But Humm, famous for his dry-aged, honey lavender roasted duck and suckling pig, was the most high profile, announcing his 2021 post-pandemic menu shift by declaring that our “current food system is simply not sustainable.”
Other restaurateurs seemed to agree. Copenhagen’s once-upon-a-time meat-centric Geranium went plant-based in 2022 and, like Atelier Crenn and Eleven Madison Park, still kept its three stars while snagging World’s Best Restaurant the same year. But the explosion in high-end pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan restaurants doesn’t mean meat-free dining is trickling down to the kitchen counter. Sales of plant-based meat alternatives declined precipitously this year, in part due to high prices and consumer concerns about highly-processed foods. The challenge, says Humm, is that meat alternatives are marketed by what they are not, when luxury is about the real thing. Consumers may aspire to vegetarian delicacies dished up by stellated chefs, but when it comes to home cooking, meat still reigns.
Humm gets it. Cooking plants well is far more difficult than cooking meat poorly. Even Humm struggled at the beginning. Not at the restaurant, though, which benefits from a dedicated farm, a phalanx of chefs and a laboratory’s worth of precision equipment, but at home, where a steak and salad dinner could be on the table in less than 30 minutes. “It’s hard to make a carrot become a transcendent experience,” he says. Making vegetables the centerpiece instead of an afterthought requires work. Preparing vegetables for a $365 tasting menu requires even more—Humm says he added 10 extra kitchen staff when he dropped the restaurant’s meat station.
Coaxing home chefs and lower-end restaurants that can’t afford that kind of technical wizardry to cut down on meat takes more than meat alternatives, says Humm, it means a revolution in how we think about meat in the first place. “A lot of us believe that meat has higher value than vegetables,” he says, when the reality is that in the United States at least, a hyper-efficient and partially subsidized meat industry means that meat can end up costing less than fruits and vegetables. Every restaurant targets an average check size to keep the bills paid, and at the moment, few casual diners are willing to spend the same on a beet and carrot entrée as a steak, even if the vegetable dish costs more in labor and ingredients. Like haute couture trickling down to fast fashion, Humm hopes restaurants like his will pave the way for others to take meat off the menu. “If Eleven Madison Park can change the perception of what a high-quality ingredient is, and people are willing to pay more for beets and carrots and cucumbers, that would allow a lot of [plant-based] restaurants [to be] profitable.”
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In his early days as a chef, Humm, like the competitive cyclist he once was, strove for stars. Now that he’s reached the pinnacle of culinary fame, he’s looking for a bigger reward: social change. Humm went plant-based because of what he saw happening in the world of animal agriculture—disease, waste, and unsustainable environmental impacts. “It was definitely a response to the changing climate because the climate was changing the ingredients that we were working with,” he says. “This is the future. We’re not saying anti meat, but we’re saying pro planet. All we have to do is reduce how much animal protein we consume.”
At Eleven Madison Park, reducing animal protein looks like Carrot Tartare, Avocado Tonburi, and a completely plant-based dessert called Milk & Honey taking center stage on the tasting menu as the restaurant celebrates its 25th year in October. In the overall scheme of things, wealthy patrons forgoing meat for one meal will not make a dent in carbon emissions. But because of restaurants like his, says Humm, vegetables-as-luxury will eventually become mainstream. In October he will release an art-and-recipe-filled meditation on his restaurants’ pivot to plant-based called Eat More Plants, a play on the restaurant’s initials. Meanwhile, he continues to promote the value of vegetables to his high-end clientele. “I feel very much at peace with having a fine dining restaurant that cooks for the 1%, because I know that this voice does affect change,” he says. “In fashion, the things you see on the runway end up at H&M.” In Humm’s new world, success isn’t another star. It’s seeing carrot tartare on the menu at McDonald’s.