Where's the beef? The chefs creating plant-based meat alternatives

From burgers to sausages, meat-free alternatives are gaining shelf space. Jason Deans meets Derek Sarno, the vegan chef creating them.

Sales of meat-free food in the UK reached £740m in 2018, market research firm Mintel estimates – still just a fraction of the £190bn annual food and grocery retail sector. However, Mintel is forecasting rapid growth, up 44% to £1.1bn by 2023. It also reports that the 16% of new food product launches last year were vegan or had no animal ingredients, doubling from 8% in 2015.

Consumer attitudes also appear to be shifting. One in three, or 34%, of UK meat eaters adopted a flexitarian approach – adding more plant-based dishes to their diet – and reduced their meat consumption in the six months to July 2018, up from 28% in 2017.

It’s a rapidly growing market and – helping as it does to create a more sustainable food supply system – one that makes clear ethical sense.

However, Mintel also found that there remains a perception issue with vegan food, with 39% branding plant-based meals boring and 41% regarding them as overpriced.

It’s an interesting dichotomy, growing demand set against mixed perception, and one that supermarket chain Tesco is trying to tackle. It’s expanding its own-label plant-based ranges Wicked Kitchen and Plant Chef to more than 100 products, offering vegan substitutes to meat-based dishes ranging from cottage pie and southern fried chicken to Cumberland sausage, spaghetti bolognese and meatballs – and putting them in the meat aisle.

The chain hired Derek Sarno to spearhead the shift, joining a dedicated Tesco team as its director of plant-based innovation – their mission to develop innovative (but affordable) vegan alternatives to meat.

Sarno, a Veganuary ambassador, is co-founder with his brother Chad of Wicked Healthy, an online community promoting plant-based cooking. Motto: “We make vegan food for meat eaters.”

Sarno moved from the US to London in 2017. Before he became a vegan, Sarno worked as a chef cooking meat dishes and he has since applied techniques he learned then to plant-based alternatives.

Visiting UK supermarkets two years ago to check out what plant-based ready meals and food-to-go was on the shelves was bit of a culture shock. “When I first came to the UK as a vegan there was nothing for me to eat in the retail market apart from a falafel wrap,” Sarno recalls.

There was a clear opportunity, both from a business and ethical point of view.

“It’s the right thing to be doing,” says Sarno. “The whole thing about plant-based is it gives the customer a choice to actually do something with their money to buy the products that help,” he says.

“There’s an ethical reason behind what I do, personally. But I understand any reason to have people eat more plant is a good reason, so I’m on board with all of it.”

Sarno worked with long-standing Tesco suppliers Bakkavor and Samworth Brothers to launch the Wicked Kitchen own-brand range of vegan ready meals, sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, in January 2018. It has since expanded into desserts. Wicked Kitchen is already a £26m brand, according to Tesco, with 10m units shifted in 20 months.

In September, Tesco launched a second plant-based own-brand range, Plant Chef, including Butternut Cauli Mac and Battered Fish-Free Fillets. Sarno describes Wicked Kitchen as “very innovative and chef-crafted”, comparable to Tesco’s higher-end Finest range; while Plant Chef focuses on more accessible, affordable dishes and classic family favourites.

Both Bakkavor and Samworth Brothers have decades of experience in the food business, but it still proved quite an eye opener sending their chefs out to the US to work with Sarno in his Portland home in 2017, buying vegetables in local farmers’ markets and taking them back to his kitchen to start the development process that led to the Wicked Kitchen and Plant Chef ranges.

David Lewis, Bakkavor director of development, adds: “[The trip to Portland] helped us learn the techniques of cooking in a different way but ultimately replicating that meat texture. So we ended up with amazing pulled king oyster mushroom which just replicates pulled pork, which we were then able to use in something as delicious as a wrap with a hoisin sauce.

“What we learned with Derek’s input was to approach vegetables and almost treat them like meat. The veg butcher effect … How do we cut the vegetable in a different way to make it look different? How do we cook it in a different way, how could we pickle it, or cure it, or smoke it, and think about making it more interesting?”

The challenge for both companies was to adapt Sarno’s techniques to create mass market plant-based products. Rockliff’s team came up with a system of loading marinated oyster mushrooms in large baking trays and then compressing, roasting and shredding them to use in ready meals or food-to-go. The company is also working with natural pea derivatives to give texture, moisture and enhance flavour, to help create meat-like products. It is using seaweed derivatives to provide a replacement for sausage skin.

Tesco is expanding its ranges to offer products such as vegan sausages – and putting them in the meat aisle

Similarly, Bakkavor has developed other meat-free methods including: charring and smoking tofu; creating a plant-based mozzarella for pizzas “that will give a nice stringy effect”; developing cream and milk alternatives with oat milk; and using pickled, marinated vegetables such as celeriac as food-to-go fillings.

“Food trends come and go,” says Rockliff, “but [plant-based] has been the one that I’d say has picked up the most momentum in a short space of time. And there are so many different reasons as to why it’ll stick around, whether that’s sustainability, health, or just great-tasting product, to be honest.”

Lewis agrees: “I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that in the last five years … I think the plant-based sector is just going to grow and grow. It’s the fastest growing category we work on.”

By January, Tesco aims to have increased its plant-based offering to about 300 items, introducing dedicated plant-based and vegetarian zones in stores, and adding vegan products to fresh food, grocery, frozen and meat aisles.

“It’s for everybody,” says Sarno, explaining the thinking behind this expansion. “I really pushed hard to have it in the meat aisles … You want to eat less meat, how do we get [plant-based alternatives] in front of you? We’re attracting the meat eaters and the flexitarians.”

Rockliff adds: “We’re going to allow people, if they want to buy a prepared cottage pie, to have a meat version or a plant version. Same on sausages, same on burgers, etc, etc … From what I’m seeing, customers will have more and more choice between eating meat and choosing very credible meat alternatives that are simply made out of plants.”

Plant power

Whether they’re interested in exploring plant-based “meat” for their health, the environment or simply variety, Tesco is set on giving its customers all the options to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. That’s why, as well as creating innovative meat alternatives, the supermarket is working with suppliers to modernise production and cut food waste. For more on Tesco’s work to improve our food, visit


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