November is officially National Vegan Month and to mark it Eileen Leahy talks to Geff Stone of The Plant Base in Camden Road which serves a meat and dairy free menu . . .
According to the National Vegan Society, ‘veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose’.
In other words there’s no meat, dairy or indeed any other animal byproducts such as honey included in a vegan diet and items originally sourced from animals – think leather, fur or wool – or that have been tested on them like certain health and beauty products are also excluded.
Yet although some might not be able to imagine how they could go through life without another roast dinner or wearing a wooly jumper, converting to veganism is actually now more popular than ever.
Over the past decade The Vegan Society notes that there has been a huge 260% increase in the number of vegans in Britain, equating to more than half a million.
The desire to follow a plant based diet was what led Geff Stone, 35, owner of the recently opened The Plant Base café located on the Camden Road, to become a vegan three years ago.
When we chat, which co-incidentally happens to be on World Vegan Day [November 1], he reveals that the idea for The Plant Base café, which opened in February this year, came about rather organically.
“I always knew I wanted to do something that was mine rather than work for someone else, and was waiting for the right idea to come along. I’ve been self-employed pretty much all my working life but the stars aligned in certain ways and this is what ended up being important to me.”
After graduating from university, with a degree in video and drama production, Geff worked for the family decorating business and then as a freelance chef. Doing this job made him realise that food was a natural passion for him.
“I really enjoyed my time working as a chef and during this period I went vegan. Because I knew I wanted to ultimately work for myself I had the plan of getting a food truck to serve vegan food at festivals but it so happened that around the same time I saw a few little units coming up on Camden Road.
“I started looking into it and thought that actually the ease of taking on a bricks and mortar business was preferable to that of being based in a truck. There wasn’t much difference in price and there was a lot less hassle involved in terms of having to get planning permission for visiting different sites.”
Geff says that his idea ‘kept getting bigger and bigger’ and he ended up taking on a larger premises than he’d originally hoped to but now he’s happy he did so. “Although the café space is bigger than I wanted I’m glad I have got this space now as I have a policy of saying ‘there’s no point in doing something half-heartedly’. You’ve got to commit.”
In order to get up and running Geff enlisted the help of his wife and his mother but he now has a chef in place and another full-time member of staff helping him out.
The ambience and décor of the café, which has a very appealing and natural feel, was just as important to get right as curating his menu, which offers everything from bananas and pecans on toast to nutritious and delicious quinoa and rice based bowls and fruit smoothies.
“I had to do it in a way that was important to me,” Geff explains. “A massive part of why I went was vegan was down to the environment and so everything we use here is recycled and our packaging is compostable. There’s no plastic anywhere and all of the juices we make here are bottled in glass and if you bring them back then you get money back on them.” He adds that even the café’s takeaway coffee cups are biodegradable as they are made from corn starch.
So far, so ethically spot on then but is Geff’s range of plant based foods proving popular with the townfolk of Tunbridge Wells? “It’s certainly got a long way to go yet but yes it’s sustaining itself.”
He goes onto say that his regular customers are 80% women, aged 25-45 who are into their fitness or coming from a yoga class or have dietary requirements that are difficult to cater for.
“That’s another big part of what we do as we make everything from scratch on the premises so almost everything is gluten free – apart from one type of bread.”
Geff is keen to stress that you don’t have to be vegan to eat here, just into healthy, freshly prepared food which is changed seasonally so Geff and his team can make the most of the products that are at their best during a certain time of year.
So what are his most popular dishes on the menu? “Well we do have the prettiest avocado in Tunbridge Wells as unlike most places we don’t smash it. I understand why some chefs do as avocadoes can be an unforgiving little beast but we slice ours and serve it on a special wholemeal spelt bread that the Bicycle Bakery up the road make especially for us. It comes with a herby pesto and dehydrated kale.”
Incidentally all The Plant Base’s fruit and veg is sourced from Oliver Greens in Rusthall.
Other best-selling plates include the café’s pan fried broccoli bowls which are served with sesame, ginger, tamari, chili, cashew nuts and edamame beans. With food sounding this good it’s no wonder Geff found it easy to renounce meat and dairy I say.
“Well I noted I was eating a lot less of both anyway. As I’ve always been into eating healthy food I knew a certain amount about supplementing things like Omega 3 which is usually found in fish but also in flax seeds and that you can obtain good amounts of protein from chickpeas, nuts, broccoli and soya.
“And then of course there are loads of dairy alternatives filling up the aisles these days so it’s no longer that hard.”
Geff made the leap to being a vegan without going vegetarian first and when I ask him if he ever misses a good chargrilled steak for example he is swift to respond: “Well I thought I would but I don’t. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s because in the end I was always going for the vegetarian option on a menu anyway.
“It’s so much easier now to be a vegan and the movement has skyrocketed over the past few years. I think this because the younger generation are more in tune and switched on to nutrition and the environment. Everything is right there on your phone and can help educate. I always say that education leads to social change.”
Geff admits that taking on his own café was ‘a massive risk’ and that he ‘probably didn’t do enough research’ but he does have one huge advantage on the restaurant scene and that’s the fact that not only is he the town’s first vegan eaterie he’s also the first official vegetarian one, too.
“I don’t really want to be labelled as either though,” he concludes. “I want to appeal to people who are interested in healthy eating and to stay as true to my original ethos of using what the good earth provides and in turn helping to protect it.”
See this week’s Times of Tunbridge Wells / Tonbridge for an exclusive recipe.