Top Chefs Want to Be Gen Z’s Next Vegan Influencers

Top Chef vegan influence

We dwell in a drastically different global food sphere than the one of even five years ago. The dining barometer—from Saigon’s streetside stalls to Mexico City’s food trucks—has ticked irrevocably toward flexitarianism and sustainability. What’s a bigger motivator, after all, than doing better by the planet while eating deliciously?

If one factor can be pinpointed in the swell of flexitarianism and veganism, it’s our susceptibility to the influence created by apps like TikTok and Instagram—and in particular, to food influencers. Flexitarianism, which practically-minded chefs like Mark Bittman have advocated for years, is suddenly cool with the bad boys and girls. 

While society at large has been slowly shifting to a diet that centers more on plant-based foods, the time for a major societal shift is here. For better or worse, celebrity influence has an impact, shaping our perception of food. For established chefs, that means learning to surf the swell in order to ride this new wave.

Even famous K-town chef Roy Choi took a liking to Field Roast’s plant-based sausages. | Field Roast

The celebrity chef gone meat-free

Celebrity chefs like David Chang and Gordon Ramsay—AKA the chefs least likely to go meat-free—are suddenly flipping to not only cooking plant-based, but also to talking about how essential it is. Guy Fieri’s sister is vegan and his son reps plant-based, low-waste pasta, and Ramsay says his inspiration for vegan cooking is his kids, including his Gen Z daughter Tilly. Wolfgang Puck, owner of Spago and a dozen other eateries, has catered recent pop culture events like the Screen Actors Guild Awards and The Governors Ball as mostly vegan. These majorly public about-faces and newly flexitarian platforms are influencing millions. After all, every time a top chef influencer cooks a vegetable, or flips a piece of tofu—it’s not just a reel—it’s an event that shakes the social media universe.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that food tech has come so far. The field is exploding, with AI and lab-created foods hitting major tech expos like CES. Chefs aren’t the only ones taking a bite—celebrity investors are latching on too, wooed by the “just like the real thing” promises of modern plant-based brands. Everyone wants in on the hip new market, but there’s also cash to be made in this sector—and the plant-based economy is on a rocketship to the moon. Plant-based meats are projected to blast up to $8.3 billion by 2025, which isn’t so far away. More folks are eating at home as we churn through a seemingly endless Age of COVID, and the food tech innovations we’re seeing will only enable more home cooking, with plant-based options grabbing an ever-larger market share of our grocery budgets. As the pandemic proved that the future of how we eat is at home, even more restaurants will close, and chefs will pivot to collaborations with the next generation of plant-based brands.

These brands are hiring, and we’re listening: Impossible Burgers wowed Chang with their bloody, meaty texture, resulting in their 2016 debut at his New York restaurant, Momofuku Nishi. Silk hired Ramsay to help launch its oat milk, since the chef eschews dairy for his marathon training. Field Roast is so tasty, it got famous K-town chef Roy Choi, known for his Kogi (which literally means “meat” in Korean) food truck empire, shilling its sausages. Most recently, plant-based protein brand Meati hired Tom Colicchio, Top Chef judge and owner of a meat-heavy New York restaurant empire, to beef up its image. And it’s working.

“Both the public and food community adore and trust Tom (Colicchio), and his stamp of approval alone has been so helpful introducing this new food to the world,” Christina Ra, Meati’s Vice President of Brand & Communications, said. “The modest start of our partnership with him, a product giveaway, was very successful in driving thousands of new visitors to Meati’s site. There were five original news stories written that were very positive and ultimately generated more than four million impressions.”

Saying ‘bye’ to the old guard

A mutual symbiosis is at play: these brands understand the mass appeal (and unfortunate sexism) of hiring masculine chefs to beef up their reputations, while the chefs shed the old-school carnivore image and extend their lives with a younger, healthier, more sustainably-minded crowd. 

As flexitarianism and plant-based popularity surge, younger generations are demanding the dietary shift as a norm: while only 2.5 percent of Americans over the age of 50 (ahem… Gordon Ramsay) consider themselves vegetarian, 7.5 percent of Millennials and Gen Z (like Tilly Ramsay and her friends) have given up meat. So Gordon Ramsay isn’t just flipping an eggplant steak because he wants to—it’s because, with three daughters and a planet at risk, he knows he has to level up to survive.

Every time a top chef influencer cooks a vegetable, or flips a piece of tofu—it’s not just a reel—it’s an event that shakes the social media universe.

But not everyone loves playing up that bloody image. By influencers, we don’t just mean the celeb chefs. We salute the daily #vegantiktok lifestylers—like Lisa Kitahara (@okonomikitchen), Alexis Nikole (@alexisnikole), Lisa Mai (@thevietvegan), Carleigh Bodrug (@plantyou), Halle Burns (@ballehurns), Joanne Molinaro (@thekoreanvegan), and Tabitha Brown. These influencers built their followings with steady plant-based passion, and have long known what the old guard are finally catching up to: that the audiences, customers, and diners of today aren’t waiting for top-down changes, but are creating this new landscape. Their recipes are easy—because they’re for the people, not the cameras.

These innovative influencers don’t have to stretch to make something plant-based, or adapt a meaty recipe with vegan meat substitutes; the blueprint for their style of cooking is plant-based. Resourceful, beloved forager Alexis Nikole gleans the disregarded weeds of New York’s cement cracks and urban parks and converts them into battered and fried snacks, while Lisa Mai makes scallion pancakes for breakfast and discusses how many Vietnamese dishes are naturally vegan, without substitutions.

Bodrug stands out with her creative TikTok series called Scrappy Cooking—and in her similarly scrappy, sustainability-focused attitude and big love for flexitarians. The cookbook author is not just making pretty vegan dishes, but encouraging viewers to get more sustainable by using all their scraps to make comforting dishes like dill pickle chip soup, crispy potato skins, chocolate berry cake, orange peel candy, and even butternut squash seed milk (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it). She notes that she gets negative comments, but says, “It’s a good thing I’m not making these recipes for internet trolls,” she proclaims on a TikTok video about her version of vegan roast beef. “They’re for absolutely anyone who wants to replace their meat consumption … and of course, for the animals and our planet.”

Pinky Cole
Pinky Cole has amassed a large following on social media. | MorningStar Farms

An end to ‘vegan’ labels–and why’s that’s a good thing

The impact of genuine daily investment, rather than phoning it in for the ads, also beams into our devices from tireless entrepreneur-influencers like Pinky Cole. Founder and owner of Slutty Vegan, a chain of vegan burger spots in the greater Atlanta area, Cole is one to watch—and her followers are glued to her Instagram Live whenever she opens a new shop or debuts a new collaboration. Cole’s brand is consistent, from her devotion to the environment and sustainability, to her proud work in the Black community, from offering scholarships to youth with juvenile offenses, to advocating for health justice and education concerning heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. And while her plant-based menu of sauce-dripping, finger-licking burgers topped with vegan bacon has boosted her number of followers, her fun and inspirational personality is indubitably responsible for the soaring popularity of her restaurants amongst flexitarians and non-vegans.

Cole credits Instagram with her ability to form a community and reach a wider audience beyond the vegan sphere. “We see comments, online and otherwise, coming overwhelmingly from not only vegans, but meat eaters too,” Cole says. “This is so encouraging because those are the people we’re wanting to target. When we’re seeing people that are veggie-curious in our lines and in our DMs, that’s when we know that people are open-minded and willing to give plant-based options a chance.”

Gordon Ramsay isn’t just flipping an eggplant steak because he wants to—it’s because, with three daughters and a planet at risk, he knows he has to level up to survive.

The chef believes Slutty Vegan’s mass appeal to flexitarians and omnivores on Instagram, at nearly half a million followers, owes to connecting with the visual appeal of meaty items like plant-based burgers. “I think a big part of it comes from the fact that our burgers don’t look like they’re made with plants, and that can help to shift their mindset. They think, ‘Oh, I can still enjoy life’s indulgences without animal products,’ instead of, ‘I could never give up burgers.’”

As millennials age out of their twenties and Gen Z takes over trend-making, this “vegan army” generation raised by millennial and Gen X parents will dictate what older chefs and restaurateurs cook, sell and brand. With 79 percent of Gen Z reporting a desire to eat meatless several times a week, and 60 percent wanting to base their diets on more “plant-forward foods,” chefs and food influencers will need to understand that it’s not about begrudgingly accommodating “vegan options,” but about joyously celebrating rich, fulfilling plant-based food that doesn’t even need to be labeled “vegan.” The daily bread of life, from work lunches to wedding receptions to road trip food, will be uncuriously, unnotably vegan—and we’re already seeing that paradigm shift reflected in social media, reality television, and pop culture, where “vegan” will no longer be an insult or an abnormality, a punch line, or an inside joke amongst omnivores.

The power of reclamation is clear in communities of color as well. Reclaiming Indigenous and diasporic food traditions has meant uncovering ancestral veganism that #decolonizeyourdiet ‘grammers are reveling in. This racially diverse, sustainably-focused generation of influencers isn’t asking for change, but making it themselves, without a single thought of asking for permission—and why should they? They’re still solving the environmental chaos created by the old vanguard of Boomers, whose chefs will have to run to catch up—or face extinction.