Eats Without Meats

How NOLA dining is attracting vegan and vegetarian visitors
Jennifer

Illustration by Paddy Mills

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home.


 

The lure and lore of the New Orleans food scene draws millions of visitors annually. Our iconic seafood dishes, roast beef poor-boys and delicate beignets rival our music festivals for fame — they’ve become food festivals of their own accord. But what about attracting tourists with a different perspective on food? Can vegans satiate their appetites in the Big Easy?

A 2018 Gallup poll reported 5% of Americans are vegetarian and 3% are vegan, or do not eat any animal products including meat, dairy and eggs. More recently, Gallup found nearly 25% of Americans reduced the amount of meat they had eaten in the previous year, the majority of whom cited health and environmental concerns as reasons they cut back.

As the lifestyles of both locals and tourists change, our old-guard restaurants and young upstarts, lauded for tradition and ingenuity, are creating new menus and hiring chefs with sensitivity to plant-based lifestyles. At the forefront of preparing the chefs of the future is the New Orleans Culinary & Hospitality Institute (NOCHI). The nonprofit culinary school implements the latest curriculum to sustain an ever-evolving hospitality industry. I asked Leah Sarris, NOCHI’s executive director, for her thoughts on vegan and vegetarian dining in New Orleans.

Why is it important for NOCHI to include plant-forward cuisine in its curriculum?
We established NOCHI with a vision of creating innovative, world-class training for the next generation of culinary leaders. That means keeping a finger to the pulse of evolving trends, consumer demands, nutritional and environmental issues, cultural identity… Food is at the intersection of so many things. In the same way that we devote a large portion of our curriculum to the cuisines of the world, we feature a heavy plant focus to meet the needs of both diners and chefs. Increasingly, guests want to know where their meals are coming from, and chefs are equally focused on their ingredients. As a modern culinary school, we’ve designed our curriculum to reflect that.

What role do you see vegetarian/vegan menus playing in the New Orleans dining scene?
New Orleans is a city founded on hospitality, and the first part of hospitality is making everyone feel welcome — taking care of everyone. Our city’s growing offerings of (and demand for!) vegetarian and vegan cuisine reflect a shifting focus to how we care for each other. It’s not just about nutrition; it’s about cultivating a more dynamic, modern and worldly culinary scene where all diners can have an incredible experience. And just as important, it’s about nurturing relationships with local farmers and growers.

How have you seen vegetarian/vegan restaurants and menu options grow in New Orleans?
It’s exciting to see the paradigm shift from the “old guard” (delicious and classic for a reason!) to make space for so much more. We’ve seen a proliferation of international cuisines – Ethiopian, Japanese, Vietnamese, Peruvian, Israeli, Mexican… plus vegan soul food, menus centering on seafood and local produce, all making it so much more exciting to eat vegetarian or vegan whether or not you’ve made that a lifestyle choice.

Do you think vegetarian/vegan tourism can thrive in New Orleans?
Vegetarian/vegan tourism can absolutely thrive in New Orleans. Some refer to New Orleans as the northernmost city of the Caribbean, so it’s no coincidence that our tropical climate lends itself to amazing produce 12 months of the year. How many other cities get fresh local strawberries in January? The African, Vietnamese and indigenous foodways that have had such a strong influence on New Orleans cuisine all offer incredibly flavorful, colorful and unique contributions that put plants at the center of the table.

Final thoughts?
I just think it’s really exciting to see the culinary scene evolve in New Orleans, and to see us embrace fresh, nutritious and delicious plant-forward options across the city. I don’t think this is a trend that is going away; sustainability, health and supporting our local agriculture is at the forefront of a lot of peoples’ minds, and rightfully so.
To support vegan and vegetarian visitors, New Orleans & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization, offers an online restaurant guide that identifies nearly 100 restaurants that are either entirely vegan or offer vegan options. Eater New Orleans frequently curates a map-based list of vegan restaurants; the most recent was compiled in January and features 16 incredible options. Whether locals or visitors are going meatless for Mondays, meatless for Lent or adopting a meatless lifestyle, dining options are delicious and growing. Learn more at the following websites: nochi.org, neworleans.com/things-to-do/recreation/healthy-living/vegan/, and nola.eater.com/maps/best-vegan-food-restaurants-new-orleans-nola.