Diary free trend is having a profound impact on the hospitality industry, with catering establishments and hotels having to accommodate the new demand. But French chefs are rising to the challenge of providing delicious dairy free options as Rebecca Lo discovers.

Gastronomy is widely celebrated as an intangible part of France’s national heritage. Dairy in the form of cream, butter and cheese exquisitely integrated into dishes have become synonymous with traditional French cuisine—think flakey croissants, onion soup topped with gruyere or potatoes au gratin enriched with rich cream. Yet with the rise of lactose intolerances, health issues associated with high caloric intake, and vegan lifestyle choices, French chefs are scratching their heads at how to reinterpret their cuisine with creatively yummy alternatives that contain no dairy. Some are even opting to create entirely vegan menus, with great success. This is particularly evident in 5-star hotels, where resources and budgets are in line with guest expectations. Luxury hotel chefs find that pleasing guests means offering more options—and that includes their own spin on French classics.

Green Gastronomy

Since 2015, Shangri-La Hotel, Paris has offered 100% Vegan Afternoon Tea and 100% Green Dinners options, in response to guests’ demand for entirely plant based indulgences. Conceived by executive chef Christophe Moret and head pastry chef Michaël Bartocetti, the popular menus by the Hong Kong-based operator were followed by B-Green Breakfasts introduced last year to energise guests by kick starting the day with super foods. “Every day, we have guests who are dairy intolerant, and the aim was to stop simply offering fruit salads as dairy free options,” explains Bartocetti. “We wanted something more structured and improved. We worked around creations without integrating butter or milk, and replaced them with coconut oil or margarine. It was up to us to do the research to make pastries without them being saturated or hydrogenated. For instance, milk and cream can be replaced with vegetal milk or cream. Vegan cheese, based on almond milk or cashew nuts, is an alternative to the traditional version.”

“The 100% Vegan Afternoon Tea presents pastries, dry biscuits and mini savoury sandwiches,” notes Moret. “The B-Green Breakfast is a detox option with no gluten or lactose. La 8 Iéna’s Terrace is open for the summer months and proposes an entirely vegan menu. It also offers a cart of vegan ice creams. We always have diary free options on our menus for savoury and sweet dishes at our two Michelin starred restaurant L’Abeille and La Bauhinia. There is not a big difference in demand based on culture, but maybe we get slightly more dairy free requests from American and European guests.”

The 100% Vegan Afternoon Tea presents pastries, dry biscuits and mini savoury sandwiches.

Dietary Aspirations

In Asia, chefs in hotels with French DNA such as the luxury brand Sofitel are also experiencing increasing demand for dairy free options—yet these requests tend to be from western travellers rather than Asians. “They would normally request to have such dietary food options to be available upon their arrival at the hotel,” reveals Mohammad Ali Kunhi, regional executive chef of AccorHotels Greater China and executive chef with Sofitel Kunming. “I would say that food intolerances in Asia are generally on the rise, with lactose intolerance being one of them. Specifically, these guests would request soy milk, nuts—particularly almonds—and green vegetables. As I am based in Kunming, dairy free products are not easily accessible. Most times, I get them from Shanghai or Guangzhou to bulk up the stock here. I find the most successful items with lactose intolerant guests are our soy milk walnut bread and quinoa porridge. As you know, most hard cheeses such as parmesan has low traces of lactose due to the fact that during the process of making the cheese, a lot of the lactose has been drained away. Here at Sofitel Kunming, we have created a pizza with Yunnan Matsutake mushrooms, truffles, eggs, rocket leaves and parmesan shavings.”

Open in spring 2017, Sofitel Foshan brings French flare to southern China. Its executive chef Mikael Robin has noticed that guests seek guidance rather than have specific alternatives when it comes to dairy free dishes. “It appears that local dairy free diets are most likely due to health reasons,” Robin observes. “Rarely do I hear a guest voicing a lifestyle motivation for their dairy free diet. But I forecast that as China has been growing economically for the past decades, more and more customers will be able to choose a plant based diet. Not just with dairy free products, but also with gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, sustainable or even organic choices.”

Culinary Challenges

For veterans such as Robin, Kunhi, Moret and Bartocetti, creating dairy free dishes is a welcome challenge to get their culinary juices flowing. Moret explains that vegan cheese can be used for pizza, and olive oil can enrich soups instead of cream. “We serve a risotto which does not have any butter or cream, but is thickened with vegetable puree,” he notes. Robin adds: “The increase of dietary requirements has certainly impacted the creativity of our industry. Molecular, modernist, spherification and gelification techniques, which a decade ago were most likely of an industrial use but are now practices in our daily kitchens worldwide. Special creations seem to stand out among our dishes: lamp chops, seared tofu, vegetal pea puree and mint tea gel. The dairy free, low calorie, western/Asian dishes are really successful not only with local but also international palates.”

Sofitel Foshan risotto with saffron, asparagus, scallops and almond flakes.

“The difficulty lies in the fact that you cannot simply replace a product with another in an existing recipe,” begs Bartocetti. “For instance, an egg cannot be replaced by another basic ingredient, as many steps come into account, particularly the actual cooking. So we had to create recipes where all the elements worked together. For example, vegetal yoghurt uses fermented vegetal milk, which is thick and can be used as a replacement for other fats. We also use starch, gum, pectin, vegetal milk or cream, to bring the necessary consistency to desserts. We sometimes use cereals like linseed, which naturally gels.”

“When I need to replace cream for creamy French soups,” says Robin, “I actually use a simple technique of nouvelle cuisine by French chef Bernard Loiseau. It emphasises freshness and lightness with vegetal and vegetable purees as the binding element. For example, I am replacing the cream with almond puree in our best selling mushroom soup. The nutty aspect of the almond matches perfectly with the mushrooms.”