France isn’t known for being a particularly vegetarian-friendly country. In an office of 60, I’m the only person who doesn’t eat meat (quite the opposite of my old London office where the vegans, vegetarians and pescatarians probably outnumbered the meat eaters). It would seem that my French workplace is in keeping with national statistics too. Just over 5% of the French population is vegetarian, compared with 10% in the UK, or up to 40% in India.
Given these statistics, it’s surprising that the very first vegan restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star was in France. ONA in Arès, Gironde, earned its star in 2021, but less than two years later, closed its doors for good in November 2022. Was it a reluctance from the French public to embrace something that deviated so dramatically from their national heroes, coq au vin, bœuf bourguignon and the humble croque monsieur? It’s ironic that while in many ways, France is leading Europe in terms of reducing carbon emissions (notably, banning domestic flights of under 2.5 hours in December 2022), plant-based eating doesn’t seem to be among them.
In Lyon, where I live, the local green government caused outrage by implementing vegetarian meals in schools in 2021. Controversial it may have been, but the vegetarian restaurant scene in Lyon is thriving, and even some of the bouchons (traditional restaurants known for serving copious amounts of meat and offal) now feature vegetarian dishes on their menus. There’s even a vegan bakery, which I’d argue sells the best pain au chocolat in the city. Leave the city confines, though, and I’ll often be left with a selection of quiches, sandwiches and pasta dishes spiked with lardons at rural boulangeries, satiating my hunger with a forlorn-looking croissant.
No loans for a female vegetarian chef
When Claire Vallée opened ONA in 2016 no-one could have predicted its success.
“All the banks that I approached refused to give me a loan,” she says. “Opening a vegan restaurant in Arès, and even worse, being a woman who was opening a vegan restaurant in Arès… well that was too much of a risk for them.”
It was certainly a bold move. Arès has a population of just over 6,000, which means far fewer vegans than in Paris’ Le Marais or Belleville. Undeterred, Vallée crowdfunded and collected a team of 80 volunteers who helped her to create her restaurant from scratch. The citizens of Arès went from being suspicious to curious.
After a roaring success during the six years from their opening, in which time ONA was awarded the first Michelin star appointed to any vegan restaurant worldwide, (with a global pandemic to contend with to boot), in November 2022, ONA closed down almost as suddenly as it arrived.
“The housing crisis hit hard and we’ve struggled with a lack of staff,” says Vallée. “I was also worried about our energy consumption. We’d regularly have four ovens on the go at once, and it’s not sustainable. I’m now doing considerable amounts of research into how restaurants can run without using so much energy.”
Among this project, Vallée has brought out her first recipe book, Origine Non Animale. She also gives classes at cooking schools (including the prestigious Institut de Paul Bocuse) and offers consulting to restaurants looking to adopt plant-based cuisine.
Omnivorous diners venturing into vegetarian restaurants
Les Mauvaises Herbes, one of the first vegetarian restaurants to open in Lyon in early 2018, had a similar story of catapulting into the limelight, and is often booked out well in advance. Owners François Allemand and Thibaut Gama have noticed a shift in the type of clientele that they attract in the five years since opening.
“Initially most of our customers were vegetarians and vegans,” Allemand tells me. “Demand outstripped the supply. We were one of the only places serving up vegetarian cuisine so anyone who was looking for that came to us. Now, of course, there are lots of vegetarian restaurants in Lyon.”
As competition grew, Les Mauvaises Herbes lost none of their popularity, but their guests diversified. Omnivorous diners now far outstrip vegetarians, and for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever been to a vegetarian restaurant. Allemand credits this to their ‘non-militant’ approach.
“You won’t see animal rights slogans and vegan propaganda above the door,” he says. “We want our restaurant to be inclusive, not scare people off.”
Along with sourcing all of their fruits and vegetables from the local area, Les Mauvaises Herbes also boasts an impressive collection of 60 different local wines.
While I may lament rural bakeries for infusing every ficelle with lardons, I feel that vegetarian cuisine in France has improved beyond recognition since I first lived here, almost 10 years ago. Gone are the days of Casino’s ‘to go’ section serving nothing but jambon-beurre sandwiches. Carrefour even opened their first vegan butcher counter in early 2022.
It ain’t easy being veggie
Vegan journalist Caroline Harrap has been fully vegan for four years. She lives in Paris, so has many of the country’s best vegan restaurants at her fingertips, but she’s found that it’s become much easier to eat well outside of Paris too.
“If a restaurant doesn’t have a vegan dish on the menu I call in advance and I find that most places are happy to rustle something up,” she says. “Paris has lots of great vegan restaurants, but many of the meat-serving restaurants don’t have vegan dishes yet, meaning it’s often an either/or decision.”
“I feel as though France is still behind other countries (like the UK) in terms of vegan offerings, but it has become easier. I took a meat-eating friend to [plant-based restaurant] Le Potager de Charlotte in Paris the other day and she said it was one of the best meals she’d had in the city.”
While 95% of the French may be unwilling to permanently kiss goodbye to their steak tartare, more and more are reducing their meat consumption dramatically, with almost half the population saying they’d reduced their meat consumption over the last three years.
In the future, will French bistros be prioritising beetroot bourguignon over the beef variety? It seems entirely plausible.
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Lead photo credit : Courgette ceviche as served in vegetarian restaurant Les Mauvaises Herbes in Lyon © François Allemand
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