White Coat, Black Art

Why Planta chef David Lee takes a 'non-vegan' approach to plant-based eating

Lee talks about what started his path towards plant-based eating and what goes into building his restaurant's bestselling beet and lentil burger.

Chef's restaurant chain uses no animal products in its food preparation

Planta chef David Lee shows White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman how to make his restaurant's lentil and beet burger. (Andrew Nguyen/CBC)

It was a health scare 18 years ago that spurred chef David Lee toward plant-based food.

A medical checkup revealed elevated liver enzymes even though he wasn't much of a drinker.

"Being a chef is A, it's crazy, and B, the lifestyle that we live is challenging — weird hours and we're tasting food constantly," said Lee.

Lee says the results made him reassess and "start eating a little bit more of a balance" and become "mostly vegetarian."

Behind the scenes at Planta restaurant kitchen with chef Lee, Brian Goldman and CBC video producer Andrew Nguyen. (Sujata Berry/CBC)

Fast forward to 2016 when Lee and business partner Steven Salm opened the first Planta location, a restaurant that doesn't use any animal products in its food preparation.

To date, there are three Planta restaurants in Toronto and an outpost in Miami Beach, Fla.

According to Lee, it takes more work to make plant-based foods that satisfy a wide range of palates and appetites compared to foods with animal proteins.

Lee shares his secret recipe with Dr. Brian Goldman. 8:29

Chef Lee talked to White Coat, Black Art's Dr. Brian Goldman about what started his path towards plant-based eating and what goes into building his restaurant's bestselling beet and lentil burger. Here is part of their conversation.

Was eating vegan a health decision for you?

I'm not 100 per cent plant-based. I would say I'm 60 per cent plant-based and how I got into eating plant-based was around 18 years ago.

My liver enzymes were all elevated so I was a little worried ... I did my own research.

[I thought,] maybe it's time to ... refocus, recalibrate and start eating a little bit more of a balance.

Within six months, I cut out all animal proteins. I would just have a plant-based diet and all the enzymes — everything — went away. It all went to normal.

So did you follow a book? Or did you have to write [your own] book?

I think that I wrote the book. I think I wrote that story. And what was sad — because not once did the doctors — not once did they tell me and say, "Listen you really have to eat certain foods for this [elevated liver enzymes] to go away."

But that was 18 years ago. I think now it's great to see the Canadian food guide [shift toward plant-based diets] — it's so important for the youth today.

At the Planta restaurant, the guests that are coming to eat, once a week or twice a week, are so many plant-based people and non plant-based people. And they're loving it.

I chose this path to open plant-based restaurants. I think that the sustainability and the lifestyle for the youth, I think, is very important.

No animal products are used in chef Lee's plant-based burger. (Sujata Berry/CBC)

Why a burger?

Why not? It's the perfect mix. We experimented so many times with this recipe.

We wanted it to be gluten-free. We wanted it to be soy-free.

Is this burger mainly for vegans so that they have something they would enjoy, or for non-vegans like me who want to taste it and say, "Hey, this is a burger"?

It's a non-vegan approach.

Non-vegans love it. They come back for [it] time and time again. And the vegans, the plant-based people, love it too.

So all this is deliberately put together to do what? What are you trying to recreate, or create?

I think not re-create — to create. I'm trying to create basically a patty that's going to stick together [and] feels like a burger, and that's what we want to do.

So this is all about texture right now.

If you think about it in a way that technically you can make a burger out of anything that you desire and there's no rules. And that's the beauty of it. But what's important is that it binds.

Non-dairy cheese tops the burger. (Ruby Buiza/CBC)

How much of this can people do at home on their own?

I think they can do everything, to be honest. It just takes time. It's very time-consuming to make a patty like this. It's not like you're going to go out and you buy a pound of meat, put it like this [pats veggie patty] and you put it on [to cook].

Is it more expensive to buy the ingredients?

I would say that it's about the same ... depending on the quality of the ingredients that you're buying. The lentils — is it organic? Is it certified organic? We buy organic. That's our preference. And that's the results that we get, [and] that we love.

But it does take time, patience, you know, but look at the results.

'It's very time-consuming to make a patty like this,' says chef Lee. (Sujata Berry/CBC)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Written by Ruby Buiza. Produced by Sujata Berry.

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